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The Role of Critical Thinking in Problem Analysis

Oct. 13, 2020
Brian D. Egan


Critical thinking allows us to take control of our thinking rather than letting it become hijacked by convenience, mindset, assumptions, and bias. This white paper will walk you through understanding the implications of inputs (data) and influences (bias) to the reasoning process. You will learn how to develop a questioning outlook and quality standards that will lead you to making more effective decisions.


Contrary to what the name implies, critical thinking is not thinking that is critical of others. It is “fundamental” or “vital” thinking. Critical thinking is thinking that drills down to the essence of a problem. It is introspective thinking that questions everything and everyone. Critical thinking should not be thought of as an effort to refute any particular choice or decision, but rather as a way to balance evidence, reason, and options.

Critical thinkers make better decisions because they question their understanding of a subject before making a decision. They are aware of the tendency among decision makers toward lazy, superficial thinking and instead ask questions to illustrate their depth of understanding. Critical thinkers pursue reason and logic as the foundation for effective decision making. They “think hard” rather than thinking quickly.

Asking questions about what we believe and why we believe it puts the extent of our real understanding (knowledge) into perspective. Introspective thinking reveals what we know and do not know for certain about a subject. It unveils the nature and significance of false assumptions and gaps in information. Questioning what you have been told by others may make it harder to make a decision, but the choice will ultimately be made with a fuller understanding of what is the best option in a given situation.

What Is a Good Decision?

The first paper in the Critical Thinking Series, What is a “Good” Decision? How is Quality Judged? , provides an explanation of how to judge the quality of decisions. In short, a decision is of high quality to the extent that the decision maker knows what risks they are taking by making that decision. They know how good or bad their information is and the biases inherent in their reasoning. 

A good decision does not necessarily turn out to be the best decision in hindsight, but is the choice with the best chance of being successful given what is known. The quality of a decision is determined by the quality and quantity of information being utilized and by the reasoning being employed to arrive at the decision. Incorrect and/or incomplete information and reasoning lead to erroneous predictions of future outcomes. 

A bad decision is one in which the decision maker was poorly informed, because of bad information, incomplete information, or faulty reasoning. The decision maker chooses between options without understanding everything they need to know about the pros and cons of each option, or even whether all options have been considered. They do not know how good or bad their information is.

A high-quality (good) decision is based on a methodical analysis of the available information and on sound reasoning.   Good decisions do not depend on luck. They are not just the result of “throwing the dice”; they are examples of well-informed risk-taking. The decision maker knows what they do not know and makes the best choice in light of this knowledge.

Bias Gets in the Way

The second paper in the critical thinking series, Managing Analytical bias – Why Good Decisions Don’t Come Easily, discusses the reason why much of our thinking is not particularly balanced. 

The natural tendency in decision making is:
• to consider only those alternatives that are obvious
• to analyze only the areas of uncertainty with which we are familiar
• to quickly compare the known options through a haze of bias and assumptions.

In general, intuitive or instinctual problem solving (which leads to decisions) is performed by trial and error. Even highly educated people typically muddle through problem analysis in a haphazard way. Most people are content with an occasional success and assume that no one else could do any better.

Biased viewpoints are what prevent people from being objective in their analysis of a situation or problem that requires a decision. Bias is created by experience, education, and genetics. It is the expression of how one thinks and reasons about particular subjects. Bias, in its various forms, discourages us from being thorough in our problem analyses. It exaggerates our understanding of the factors that relate to a decision and encourages quick, poorly informed decisions. The influence of bias is always at play, undermining our ability to be truly objective.

The Role of Critical Thinking

So, good decisions are ones in which the decision maker understands what they do not know about what they must decide. However, people exaggerate what they think they know. Biased viewpoints encourage people to exaggerate their own knowledge and the validity of the information sources they are drawing on. The result is a lot of poorly informed, illogical decisions. The cure that is needed is a structured approach to thinking which will help to ensure balanced reasoning and informed choices. This cure is critical thinking.

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