Critical thinking and reasoning aren’t something that just arrives and grows like magic.
You need to develop these abilities and hone them.
1) Look behind your beliefs
Critical thinking is the ability to look at something with logic and rationality.
It involves critiquing and remaining open to questioning assumptions, beliefs, and strongly-held absolutes.
Certain subjects like empirical evidence for the existence of a creator or what exactly defines life may always have aspects that remain outside the realm of “facts.”
But critical thinking is the ability to look behind your beliefs and see what shaped them and why you care about them.
It’s also the ability to do this with others and to hear points of view, intellectual arguments and political or cultural spin without immediately being drawn into it.
In other words, you can see a large group of people become activated about an issue on one or both sides and still hold yourself back from becoming fully personally identified with a “side.”
2) Escape from your echo chamber
One of the big reasons that many people fall into sides and even dehumanize each other is that they inhabit echo chambers.
This is easier than ever to do in today’s digital world.
Just click like, retweet, and share on what you agree with and with the “good guys” and “chill influencers” while ignoring, reporting and trash-talking the “stupid” people you feel sure are bad, malicious and wrong.
It’s a vicious cycle, especially when thousands of digital foot soldiers are amplifying what you say and you’re doing the same in turn:
How to change it?
Dip out of your echo chamber for a while, whether that means online, offline, or both. Try talking to the “type” of person you never would…
Maybe an LGBT activist if you’re a social conservative…
Maybe an evangelical pastor who supports Trump and is devoutly pro-life if you’re a social progressive…
Try going outside your comfort zone. You don’t have to agree. Just try to slow down your instinctive desire to shout “you’re wrong!” and block them.
Your ability to see what shapes intellectual positions and the sometimes shared values behind strongly clashing views will be enhanced.
3) Read and watch the news with a critical eye
Who actually believes the mainstream news without questioning it in 2022?
Actually a ton of people.
Based on my personal experience, mainstream news sites and networks have a vast following of people who more or less believe they’re being given the straight good.
They mindlessly adopt talking points, buzzwords, and narratives that are fed directly off the TV, smartphone and page into their brain and heart.
The solution to this and one of the best ways to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills is to watch and read the news with a critical eye.
Why is this story being reported and not another one?
What is the underlying perspective being pushed in a news item even if it’s claiming to be unbiased?
Can you think of a potential argument or perspective that would be the opposite of what this news network is presenting?
Agree or not, can you step back to see how one segment of the world might, for example, consider the US government more or less the good guy while other large segments consider it to be a villain?
Try thinking critically about the issues that are being repackaged for you.
Why are you told democratic socialism is good or being told it is bad?
Why is capitalism so praised and hated by different public figures and intellectuals? How much of the noise around this is rhetoric versus action?
4) Stay skeptical about social media
I mentioned echo chambers earlier and how social media can worsen them.
This is absolutely true, unfortunately.
Scroll through Twitter for a couple of hours and tell me I’m wrong.
Check a few dozen Instagram influencers and see how many times #PositiveVibesOnly and similar hashtags pop up.
Social media is full of imitation, group conformity, and us vs. them style rhetoric.
It’s the good moral people vs. the bad degenerate people…
It’s the positive vibe tribe versus the negative loser group.
It’s the winners vs. the losers, the handsome vs. the ugly.
Go ahead and use social media: it’s a great tool and can be really enjoyable and beneficial.
But always take it with a grain of salt and realize that it does have real psychosocial dangers that sabotage critical thought.
5) Beware of bite-sized chunks
The previous point brings me to point five, something that Justin talks about in his video as well.
These are slogans, short phrases, and emotion-packed statements that we cling to and that define us or what we care about in a few words.
“Dangerous traitors are threatening our way of life.”
“Many people say…”
“Only crazy idiots believe…”
“My body, my choice!”
“Love it or leave it!”
“Death to America!”
You get the idea…
These strong, emotional slogans have the ability to tie crowds together and speak to us on a deep emotional level.
There can be value in group bonding and passionate positions, but there’s also immense danger and immense ability of politicians and other interests to manipulate strong emotional slogans and positions.
Beware of bite-sized chunks, because behind their gooey chocolate exterior they can be full of toxic stupidity.
6) Become an astute observer of what people say
I’ve always been good at arguing, in the sense that it became almost like an instinct to me and a way to vent negativity and frustration.
But that didn’t really get me anywhere, if I’m being honest. In fact I lost a lot of friends over it.
I’ve always had challenges in listening.
But if we want to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills as individuals and as a society, we need to begin to master the art of listening to somebody without having to respond immediately.
Just absorb the words.
They may be absolutely untrue in your eyes or absolutely true. They may make you angry, happy, sexually excited or indifferent.
But just listen. At least for a few moments.
You’ll realize many things about why that person might have said what they did and can ask them questions about what’s led them to the life they’re living and the values they hold.
You may walk away still thinking they’re wrong, but you’ll learn a lot more about why you think they’re wrong or at least how they got to that position.
7) Explore all sides of an issue
This brings me to point six about exploring all sides of an issue.
In his video, Justin gets at the controversial topics of immigration and abortion and suggests that even though we may strongly clash over these topics we can learn that those we strongly disagree with aren’t poorly intentioned or evil.
As Justin talks about, spending time recently with old friends in LA led to him hearing their frustrations over people who strongly cling to various perspectives without ever really being clear why.
They are just certain they’re right or that complex issues can be broken down into moral absolutes.
What if they can’t? What if the queasy feeling some of us might get from admitting that we don’t understand or have the facts on everything…
…Is exactly the queasy feeling that represents the start of really becoming an adult who can use reasoning to tolerate and examine different perspectives.
8) Become a bit humbler
This brings me to point 8: humility.
Another one I’ve had big challenges with!
I may be losing weight, but sanding off the rough edges of my massive ego is a little tougher.
Still, I do have to say that the small steps I’ve taken to be more humble have paid off.
Being humble doesn’t mean you become Gandhi or never have opinions or arguments. Sure you do, sure you will.
It just means you create and foster a little bit of space between what happens in your life and what you come across and how you respond to it and interact with it.
Not everything has to be “right” or “wrong.”
Not everything has to even be something you fully understand.
Admitting you don’t know can be one of the wisest things you ever do and can lead to learning much more than the many other people whose ego simply won’t let them admit it.
I’ve learned so much in business and other areas by just honestly admitting I don’t know about a subject or topic.
9) Values over blanket statements
Holding strong opinions or buying into firmly set intellectual positions is fine. In fact, it’s a part of adult life and becoming who you are.
Critical thinking is just about realizing some humility in understanding that you may not hold the absolute truth…
…And that even if you did it would not make you superior to others, nor would it make their views and experiences invalid or “stupid.”
One of the crucial ways to develop this recognition is to find the underlying values that hide behind apparently clashing views.
When arguments come up, for example, about tax cuts or tax raises and stronger government support of the poor, it’s common to hear a typically divided narrative:
One side sees the higher taxes and socialized services as basic compassion and a human right that shouldn’t even be debated.
The other side sees higher taxes as a drain on business growth and false compassion that creates and worsens dependency among the poor.
Are they both correct? Not necessarily. But neither position is 100% incorrect, and to see it in black and white is a mistake.
Furthermore, by recognizing that both have a value of wanting people to live prosperous lives full of opportunity, we can establish that both “sides” have good people who have similar values at heart even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.
10) Common ground does exist
The crucial thing about critical thinking and reasoning in how we relate to others around us is to understand that common ground does exist.
The German band Madsen sings about this in their 2010 song “Everyone for Everyone” (Jeder für Jeden):
“Your worst enemy falls in love with you
The soldier no longer wants to go to war
If you fall,
Then I fall with you
The bouncer lets everyone in
The politician just wants to be honest
When you are happy
Then I’m happy for you.”
This song is about solidarity, and it’s a bit of the spirit that we need to recapture in order to realize that what’s dividing us is often not nearly as much as we think it is.
We’re all going to live and die.
We’re all tied to each other in this wild world, and sometimes we’re not as special as we think we are no matter how many clubs we’re part of.
Realize the power of that and breathe it in. Let the judgments fall to the side for a moment.
See the human in front of you
A lot of the best ways to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills are about recognizing what we have in common.
Around the time of the Enlightenment a few hundred years ago, people began to really focus on what makes them unique.
The Protestant religion even grew out of the idea that our own relationship with the divine should be the basis of faith rather than church teachings.
This has many advantages, but the downside of individualism and liberalism is that it can lead to isolation and extreme polarization.
People begin to feel very different and be quite sure they’re alone and nobody else understands.
They then seek out others who also feel the same way and become more and more polarized, beginning to see the world as a series of moral absolutes.
Critical thinking unfortunately often goes out the window for the simple reason that the isolation of individualism causes many of us to cling to group-held beliefs and absolutes in order to feel a sense of belonging.
The tragedy is that this sense of belonging comes often at the expense of critical thought.
The solution? Let’s create systems and cultures of belonging and solidarity without membership tests and the need to abandon critical thought!