Dealing with obstacles and challenges is a regular part of life, especially, in solving complex problems. When you need to find innovative solutions that work, thinking for yourself is one of the most critical skill you can possess. Just gaining expertise in a subject doesn’t always result in coming up with right decisions. It is also very important to strengthen your critical thinking to challenge what you know to come up with potential solutions.
Since problem solving requires you to understand the nature of the problem, evaluate information, and logically connect ideas, critical thinking becomes an important skill to apply at each stage of the problem solving. To think critically is to use reasoning and logical thinking to review the knowledge and information in order to come up with fresh perspectives.
The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks.Christopher Hitchens
Benefits of critical thinking
Some of us are of the misconception that to think critically is to question status quo, or question the work of experts. Critical thinking however, does not mean that you are challenging someone’s work or telling someone that s/he is wrong, but instead involves a deeper understanding of the problem at hand through consideration of alternative views. This helps in engaging yourself in an independent thought process.
It helps you to clarify points, encourages deeper thought, and allows you to determine the best approaches to find a solution. Critical thinking saves time and resources as it increases your awareness that not all information gathered is relevant in leading up to a solution. It also improves your ability to comprehend and understand wide array of information to innovate and discover new solutions.
On the contrary, by not trained, you miss out on reasoned judgment, and this impacts your productive thinking. Might lack different perspectives required to consider factors that enable you to make well-informed decisions. This may not result in taking a constructive approach to a potential solution.
What makes critical thinking difficult
Being objective is an intrinsic part of critical thinking. But much of our thinking is distorted, biased, uninformed and unproductive unless trained. This means personal bias, emotions or assumptions influence how we think. Most of us can find it difficult to think critically, irrespective of our knowledge and intellectual ability. Even those of us with high intelligence quotient are prone to complacency, overconfidence, and stereotyping.
To learn how to think critically, you’ll need to become aware your potential pitfalls. Here are some of them.
- Close-mindedness: Being egocentric, self-centred and considering only your interests is a common barrier to critical thinking. Viewing everything in relation to yourself makes keeps you stuck in unhelpful beliefs, biases where you tend to ignore perspectives that differ from your own judgment. Egocentrism is an inherent trait that keeps you within your own lens of understanding.
- Giving into dogmas and peer-pressure: Cultural centred thinking effects how we view the world and the people we interact with. When we are conforming to biased conditioning without detailed knowledge or not having read deeply enough around the problem, it is easier to give into assumptions. Misunderstanding can arise due to language or cultural differences, or approach problems with lack of relevant information, or lack of the processes involved.
- Personal biases and preferences: Although most of us learn from our experiences, if it is filtered through a distorted view, we end up drawing wrong conclusions. Internalising limiting beliefs, biased opinions,and attitudes can distort your thinking patterns that further manifest into personal biases such as confirmation bias, anchoring bias, or status-quo bias. Such biases affect your ability to question logically.
- Cognitive fatigue: Cognitive overload, overwhelm, stress, and fatigue obstruct your ability to think objectively. Stress affects your attention span, memory and ability to process necessary information. As a result, one is prone to cutting corners. Since problem-solving requires reasoning, interpreting, observing, to analytically evaluate information, it becomes difficult if one is subjected to prolonged stress.
- Groupthink: Critical thinking needs you to question ideas, opinions, and thoughts of yourself and others. Whereas groupthink results in considering group opinions as facts. You tend to prioritise consensus over independent thinking. Groupthink often results in not considering divergent views or competing alternatives.
- The Drone mentality: This is a pattern of not paying attention to the world, people and surroundings. Working through complex problems without thinking or shying away from new challenges or problems are certain symptoms of drone mentality. You might miss out on important information and go into autopilot.
- Lack of reasoning: Without logical reasoning, you cannot think critically to establish relationship between given facts and chains of reasoning that are sensible. Because you have to study a problem objectively, lacking reasoning skills becomes a barrier to discern facts, and to analyse important factors.
Ways to strengthen your critical thinking in problem-solving
Critical thinking encompasses much of our beliefs, reasoning, interpreting, observing, reflective thought and informed opinions. Hence, when you ground yourself in logic and reason instead of emotion, or instinct, you would be able to solve problems more effectively. Because there are so many different situations in which you use critical thinking, this isn’t something you can train specifically. However, by being aware of different types of logical reasoning and thinking types, you gain awareness as to when to use one over the other.
With inductive reasoning, you start with a specific instance and move towards a generalised conclusion. This is a ‘bottom-up’ approach and also referred as ‘cause and effect’ reasoning. And involves an element of probability to find a pattern and form a generalisation based on what is known or observed. Since this relies on patterns and trends, you might apply this when attempting to understand how problem occurs by observing patterns.
However, it requires data or information to back up your claim or judgment. Such conclusions are limited as they are based on evidence or knowledge you have.
When you use deductive reasoning, you go from a generalised perspective that is known to be true to a specific conclusion that is true. This uses ‘top-down, approach where factual statements are used to come up with a logical conclusion. Deductive reasoning generally starts with a hypothesis. For the sake of it, you accept this hypothesis as truth. Then you may attribute specific solutions to prove the hypothesis. This is more applicable when defining and establishing relationships between two or more things. It uses theories and beliefs to rationalise and prove a specific fact.
With abductive reasoning, you make a most probable conclusion from what you know. You begin with an observation, followed by finding the most likely explanation. This involves analysing information or observations. It is used to develop a logical solution to symptoms of a problem. While it allows for more freedom than former two types, it can also result in incorrect solutions.
Logical reasoning helps you to form most probable solution to resolve a problem based on known facts. It thereby enhances your critical thinking. Since each has certain limitations, it is important to use them along with other types of reasoning.
Convergent and divergent thinking
Convergent thinking involves bringing together all facts and data from different areas with the aim to solve problems. It includes evaluating those options and choosing the most effective solution in order to make well-informed decisions.
Divergent thinking on the other hand is the process of generating many potential solutions and possibilities. It is more about thinking outward as or to generate ideas creatively through brainstorming and mind mapping.
Solutions are mostly developed through imagined scenarios that will allow you to understand how things would work. Often both thinking types are used in combination. For instance, you may use convergent thinking to detail the most random and obvious ideas and then use divergent thinking to filter the best possible solution. However, using them simultaneously can sometimes result in biased decision. The key is to balance both.
How to apply above in problem-solving:
Identify the problem
Determine what the problem is and come up with reasons as to why the problem exists, and what premises apply. It is easier to assume that you know what the problem is. However, there are always chances of missing out on certain things or failed to see the problem from different perspective. To avoid this, state the problem as an open-ended question with multiple possibilities. This way you can elicit options that you confirm to or those you disagree.
Organise your information in a way that is most logical.
Collect unbiased facts that are relevant to your problem or the ones that support your claims. What is going on? What challenges do you have? What’s out of balance or what is to be improved? Whom is the problem impacting and how? Gather information on the issue through impartial research, like for instance, who and what is involved. Observe the patterns to generate a list of probabilities applying inductive reasoning. Establish a generalised relationship between facts.
Develop possible strategies to solve.
Think about the obstacles you might face. Though it is tempting to consider solutions that you have tried before, brainstorm different ideas. Don’t judge solutions early on in convergentstage as this prevents expanding your thought process. Instead, evaluate things as to what you know and what you don’t know. Include, ‘yes’, ‘but’, and ‘what if’ when you are generating ideas which is necessary in convergent stage. Rather than following what is common, spend time thinking about possible ways.
Analyse which solutions work or which ones don’t.
Brainstorming and mind mapping are great ways to explore ideas during divergent stage of problem-solving. Apply logical reasoning to analyse whether potential solutions meet your needs and criteria. The aim is to think critically of your ideas. Look at all the information, then use the process of creative questioning. Who does the problem affect directly or indirectly? Why is this important and what difference would it make when you solve it?
It is essential to question the available information and look at it from different perspectives. Ask yourself more open ended questions to think more deeply about all possible things. Research whether or not the the idea is based on facts rather than emotions or personal bias. Chunk things down if the problem is big or difficult and analyse each part separately.
Narrow down to the best possible solution.
Developing and formulating solutions is a convergent stage, where you begin to focus on evaluating all of your possible ideas. Assess potential risks and identify opportunities. What can you conclude from this information? Whether or not the information supports the conclusion you are making. Is this solution correct for your problem ? Develop you best ideas into fully formed solution. Pick the one that fits most and identify the people and resources needed to implement them.
Space for self-reflection
How likely are you to think critically when solving a problem?
Do you look for alternative explanations when you have to analyse a complex problem?
What are some of your strategies when you have to weigh multiple options to arrive at a solution?
How have you approached and tackled a difficult problem that required critical thinking in the past?
Are your solutions specific and detailed and free from personal bias?
Do you consider all the perspectives, variables, alternatives and contexts while arriving at a solution?
Problem-solving is not about only gathering facts and knowledge, but also involves questioning yourself about things you don’t know, to discern things you already know, and to consider other relevant information about the problem that differs from what you know. And the key to improve your problem-solving is to not only being aware of what is preventing you to think critically, but also to strengthen it through logical reasoning and thinking. Developing an aptitude for critical thinking leads you to most effective solutions.