How do critical thinking ability and critical thinking disposition relate to the mental health of university students.

\nZhiyuan Liu

  • School of Education, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China

Theories of psychotherapy suggest that human mental problems associate with deficiencies in critical thinking. However, it currently remains unclear whether both critical thinking skill and critical thinking disposition relate to individual differences in mental health. This study explored whether and how the critical thinking ability and critical thinking disposition of university students associate with individual differences in mental health in considering impulsivity that has been revealed to be closely related to both critical thinking and mental health. Regression and structural equation modeling analyses based on a Chinese university student sample ( N = 314, 198 females, M age = 18.65) revealed that critical thinking skill and disposition explained a unique variance of mental health after controlling for impulsivity. Furthermore, the relationship between critical thinking and mental health was mediated by motor impulsivity (acting on the spur of the moment) and non-planning impulsivity (making decisions without careful forethought). These findings provide a preliminary account of how human critical thinking associate with mental health. Practically, developing mental health promotion programs for university students is suggested to pay special attention to cultivating their critical thinking dispositions and enhancing their control over impulsive behavior.


Although there is no consistent definition of critical thinking (CT), it is usually described as “purposeful, self-regulatory judgment that results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanations of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations that judgment is based upon” ( Facione, 1990 , p. 2). This suggests that CT is a combination of skills and dispositions. The skill aspect mainly refers to higher-order cognitive skills such as inference, analysis, and evaluation, while the disposition aspect represents one's consistent motivation and willingness to use CT skills ( Dwyer, 2017 ). An increasing number of studies have indicated that CT plays crucial roles in the activities of university students such as their academic performance (e.g., Ghanizadeh, 2017 ; Ren et al., 2020 ), professional work (e.g., Barry et al., 2020 ), and even the ability to cope with life events (e.g., Butler et al., 2017 ). An area that has received less attention is how critical thinking relates to impulsivity and mental health. This study aimed to clarify the relationship between CT (which included both CT skill and CT disposition), impulsivity, and mental health among university students.

Relationship Between Critical Thinking and Mental Health

Associating critical thinking with mental health is not without reason, since theories of psychotherapy have long stressed a linkage between mental problems and dysfunctional thinking ( Gilbert, 2003 ; Gambrill, 2005 ; Cuijpers, 2019 ). Proponents of cognitive behavioral therapy suggest that the interpretation by people of a situation affects their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Those with mental problems are inclined to bias or heuristic thinking and are more likely to misinterpret neutral or even positive situations ( Hollon and Beck, 2013 ). Therefore, a main goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to overcome biased thinking and change maladaptive beliefs via cognitive modification skills such as objective understanding of one's cognitive distortions, analyzing evidence for and against one's automatic thinking, or testing the effect of an alternative way of thinking. Achieving these therapeutic goals requires the involvement of critical thinking, such as the willingness and ability to critically analyze one's thoughts and evaluate evidence and arguments independently of one's prior beliefs. In addition to theoretical underpinnings, characteristics of university students also suggest a relationship between CT and mental health. University students are a risky population in terms of mental health. They face many normative transitions (e.g., social and romantic relationships, important exams, financial pressures), which are stressful ( Duffy et al., 2019 ). In particular, the risk increases when students experience academic failure ( Lee et al., 2008 ; Mamun et al., 2021 ). Hong et al. (2010) found that the stress in Chinese college students was primarily related to academic, personal, and negative life events. However, university students are also a population with many resources to work on. Critical thinking can be considered one of the important resources that students are able to use ( Stupple et al., 2017 ). Both CT skills and CT disposition are valuable qualities for college students to possess ( Facione, 1990 ). There is evidence showing that students with a higher level of CT are more successful in terms of academic performance ( Ghanizadeh, 2017 ; Ren et al., 2020 ), and that they are better at coping with stressful events ( Butler et al., 2017 ). This suggests that that students with higher CT are less likely to suffer from mental problems.

Empirical research has reported an association between CT and mental health among college students ( Suliman and Halabi, 2007 ; Kargar et al., 2013 ; Yoshinori and Marcus, 2013 ; Chen and Hwang, 2020 ; Ugwuozor et al., 2021 ). Most of these studies focused on the relationship between CT disposition and mental health. For example, Suliman and Halabi (2007) reported that the CT disposition of nursing students was positively correlated with their self-esteem, but was negatively correlated with their state anxiety. There is also a research study demonstrating that CT disposition influenced the intensity of worry in college students either by increasing their responsibility to continue thinking or by enhancing the detached awareness of negative thoughts ( Yoshinori and Marcus, 2013 ). Regarding the relationship between CT ability and mental health, although there has been no direct evidence, there were educational programs examining the effect of teaching CT skills on the mental health of adolescents ( Kargar et al., 2013 ). The results showed that teaching CT skills decreased somatic symptoms, anxiety, depression, and insomnia in adolescents. Another recent CT skill intervention also found a significant reduction in mental stress among university students, suggesting an association between CT skills and mental health ( Ugwuozor et al., 2021 ).

The above research provides preliminary evidence in favor of the relationship between CT and mental health, in line with theories of CT and psychotherapy. However, previous studies have focused solely on the disposition aspect of CT, and its link with mental health. The ability aspect of CT has been largely overlooked in examining its relationship with mental health. Moreover, although the link between CT and mental health has been reported, it remains unknown how CT (including skill and disposition) is associated with mental health.

Impulsivity as a Potential Mediator Between Critical Thinking and Mental Health

One important factor suggested by previous research in accounting for the relationship between CT and mental health is impulsivity. Impulsivity is recognized as a pattern of action without regard to consequences. Patton et al. (1995) proposed that impulsivity is a multi-faceted construct that consists of three behavioral factors, namely, non-planning impulsiveness, referring to making a decision without careful forethought; motor impulsiveness, referring to acting on the spur of the moment; and attentional impulsiveness, referring to one's inability to focus on the task at hand. Impulsivity is prominent in clinical problems associated with psychiatric disorders ( Fortgang et al., 2016 ). A number of mental problems are associated with increased impulsivity that is likely to aggravate clinical illnesses ( Leclair et al., 2020 ). Moreover, a lack of CT is correlated with poor impulse control ( Franco et al., 2017 ). Applications of CT may reduce impulsive behaviors caused by heuristic and biased thinking when one makes a decision ( West et al., 2008 ). For example, Gregory (1991) suggested that CT skills enhance the ability of children to anticipate the health or safety consequences of a decision. Given this, those with high levels of CT are expected to take a rigorous attitude about the consequences of actions and are less likely to engage in impulsive behaviors, which may place them at a low risk of suffering mental problems. To the knowledge of the authors, no study has empirically tested whether impulsivity accounts for the relationship between CT and mental health.

This study examined whether CT skill and disposition are related to the mental health of university students; and if yes, how the relationship works. First, we examined the simultaneous effects of CT ability and CT disposition on mental health. Second, we further tested whether impulsivity mediated the effects of CT on mental health. To achieve the goals, we collected data on CT ability, CT disposition, mental health, and impulsivity from a sample of university students. The results are expected to shed light on the mechanism of the association between CT and mental health.

Participants and Procedure

A total of 314 university students (116 men) with an average age of 18.65 years ( SD = 0.67) participated in this study. They were recruited by advertisements from a local university in central China and majoring in statistics and mathematical finance. The study protocol was approved by the Human Subjects Review Committee of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. Each participant signed a written informed consent describing the study purpose, procedure, and right of free. All the measures were administered in a computer room. The participants were tested in groups of 20–30 by two research assistants. The researchers and research assistants had no formal connections with the participants. The testing included two sections with an interval of 10 min, so that the participants had an opportunity to take a break. In the first section, the participants completed the syllogistic reasoning problems with belief bias (SRPBB), the Chinese version of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (CCSTS-CV), and the Chinese Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory (CCTDI), respectively. In the second session, they completed the Barrett Impulsivity Scale (BIS-11), Depression Anxiety Stress Scale-21 (DASS-21), and University Personality Inventory (UPI) in the given order.

Measures of Critical Thinking Ability

The Chinese version of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test was employed to measure CT skills ( Lin, 2018 ). The CCTST is currently the most cited tool for measuring CT skills and includes analysis, assessment, deduction, inductive reasoning, and inference reasoning. The Chinese version included 34 multiple choice items. The dependent variable was the number of correctly answered items. The internal consistency (Cronbach's α) of the CCTST is 0.56 ( Jacobs, 1995 ). The test–retest reliability of CCTST-CV is 0.63 ( p < 0.01) ( Luo and Yang, 2002 ), and correlations between scores of the subscales and the total score are larger than 0.5 ( Lin, 2018 ), supporting the construct validity of the scale. In this study among the university students, the internal consistency (Cronbach's α) of the CCTST-CV was 0.5.

The second critical thinking test employed in this study was adapted from the belief bias paradigm ( Li et al., 2021 ). This task paradigm measures the ability to evaluate evidence and arguments independently of one's prior beliefs ( West et al., 2008 ), which is a strongly emphasized skill in CT literature. The current test included 20 syllogistic reasoning problems in which the logical conclusion was inconsistent with one's prior knowledge (e.g., “Premise 1: All fruits are sweet. Premise 2: Bananas are not sweet. Conclusion: Bananas are not fruits.” valid conclusion). In addition, four non-conflict items were included as the neutral condition in order to avoid a habitual response from the participants. They were instructed to suppose that all the premises are true and to decide whether the conclusion logically follows from the given premises. The measure showed good internal consistency (Cronbach's α = 0.83) in a Chinese sample ( Li et al., 2021 ). In this study, the internal consistency (Cronbach's α) of the SRPBB was 0.94.

Measures of Critical Thinking Disposition

The Chinese Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory was employed to measure CT disposition ( Peng et al., 2004 ). This scale has been developed in line with the conceptual framework of the California critical thinking disposition inventory. We measured five CT dispositions: truth-seeking (one's objectivity with findings even if this requires changing one's preconceived opinions, e.g., a person inclined toward being truth-seeking might disagree with “I believe what I want to believe.”), inquisitiveness (one's intellectual curiosity. e.g., “No matter what the topic, I am eager to know more about it”), analyticity (the tendency to use reasoning and evidence to solve problems, e.g., “It bothers me when people rely on weak arguments to defend good ideas”), systematically (the disposition of being organized and orderly in inquiry, e.g., “I always focus on the question before I attempt to answer it”), and CT self-confidence (the trust one places in one's own reasoning processes, e.g., “I appreciate my ability to think precisely”). Each disposition aspect contained 10 items, which the participants rated on a 6-point Likert-type scale. This measure has shown high internal consistency (overall Cronbach's α = 0.9) ( Peng et al., 2004 ). In this study, the CCTDI scale was assessed at Cronbach's α = 0.89, indicating good reliability.

Measure of Impulsivity

The well-known Barrett Impulsivity Scale ( Patton et al., 1995 ) was employed to assess three facets of impulsivity: non-planning impulsivity (e.g., “I plan tasks carefully”); motor impulsivity (e.g., “I act on the spur of the moment”); attentional impulsivity (e.g., “I concentrate easily”). The scale includes 30 statements, and each statement is rated on a 5-point scale. The subscales of non-planning impulsivity and attentional impulsivity were reversely scored. The BIS-11 has good internal consistency (Cronbach's α = 0.81, Velotti et al., 2016 ). This study showed that the Cronbach's α of the BIS-11 was 0.83.

Measures of Mental Health

The Depression Anxiety Stress Scale-21 was used to assess mental health problems such as depression (e.g., “I feel that life is meaningless”), anxiety (e.g., “I find myself getting agitated”), and stress (e.g., “I find it difficult to relax”). Each dimension included seven items, which the participants were asked to rate on a 4-point scale. The Chinese version of the DASS-21 has displayed a satisfactory factor structure and internal consistency (Cronbach's α = 0.92, Wang et al., 2016 ). In this study, the internal consistency (Cronbach's α) of the DASS-21 was 0.94.

The University Personality Inventory that has been commonly used to screen for mental problems of college students ( Yoshida et al., 1998 ) was also used for measuring mental health. The 56 symptom-items assessed whether an individual has experienced the described symptom during the past year (e.g., “a lack of interest in anything”). The UPI showed good internal consistency (Cronbach's α = 0.92) in a Chinese sample ( Zhang et al., 2015 ). This study showed that the Cronbach's α of the UPI was 0.85.

Statistical Analyses

We first performed analyses to detect outliers. Any observation exceeding three standard deviations from the means was replaced with a value that was three standard deviations. This procedure affected no more than 5‰ of observations. Hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to determine the extent to which facets of critical thinking were related to mental health. In addition, structural equation modeling with Amos 22.0 was performed to assess the latent relationship between CT, impulsivity, and mental health.

Descriptive Statistics and Bivariate Correlations

Table 1 presents descriptive statistics and bivariate correlations of all the variables. CT disposition such as truth-seeking, systematicity, self-confidence, and inquisitiveness was significantly correlated with DASS-21 and UPI, but neither CCTST-CV nor SRPBB was related to DASS-21 and UPI. Subscales of BIS-11 were positively correlated with DASS-21 and UPI, but were negatively associated with CT dispositions.

Table 1 . Descriptive results and correlations between all measured variables ( N = 314).

Regression Analyses

Hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to examine the effects of CT skill and disposition on mental health. Before conducting the analyses, scores in DASS-21 and UPI were reversed so that high scores reflected high levels of mental health. Table 2 presents the results of hierarchical regression. In model 1, the sum of the Z-score of DASS-21 and UPI served as the dependent variable. Scores in the CT ability tests and scores in the five dimensions of CCTDI served as predictors. CT skill and disposition explained 13% of the variance in mental health. CT skills did not significantly predict mental health. Two dimensions of dispositions (truth seeking and systematicity) exerted significantly positive effects on mental health. Model 2 examined whether CT predicted mental health after controlling for impulsivity. The model containing only impulsivity scores (see model-2 step 1 in Table 2 ) explained 15% of the variance in mental health. Non-planning impulsivity and motor impulsivity showed significantly negative effects on mental health. The CT variables on the second step explained a significantly unique variance (6%) of CT (see model-2 step 2). This suggests that CT skill and disposition together explained the unique variance in mental health after controlling for impulsivity. 1

Table 2 . Hierarchical regression models predicting mental health from critical thinking skills, critical thinking dispositions, and impulsivity ( N = 314).

Structural equation modeling was performed to examine whether impulsivity mediated the relationship between CT disposition (CT ability was not included since it did not significantly predict mental health) and mental health. Since the regression results showed that only motor impulsivity and non-planning impulsivity significantly predicted mental health, we examined two mediation models with either motor impulsivity or non-planning impulsivity as the hypothesized mediator. The item scores in the motor impulsivity subscale were randomly divided into two indicators of motor impulsivity, as were the scores in the non-planning subscale. Scores of DASS-21 and UPI served as indicators of mental health and dimensions of CCTDI as indicators of CT disposition. In addition, a bootstrapping procedure with 5,000 resamples was established to test for direct and indirect effects. Amos 22.0 was used for the above analyses.

The mediation model that included motor impulsivity (see Figure 1 ) showed an acceptable fit, χ ( 23 ) 2 = 64.71, RMSEA = 0.076, CFI = 0.96, GFI = 0.96, NNFI = 0.93, SRMR = 0.073. Mediation analyses indicated that the 95% boot confidence intervals of the indirect effect and the direct effect were (0.07, 0.26) and (−0.08, 0.32), respectively. As Hayes (2009) indicates, an effect is significant if zero is not between the lower and upper bounds in the 95% confidence interval. Accordingly, the indirect effect between CT disposition and mental health was significant, while the direct effect was not significant. Thus, motor impulsivity completely mediated the relationship between CT disposition and mental health.

Figure 1 . Illustration of the mediation model: Motor impulsivity as mediator variable between critical thinking dispositions and mental health. CTD-l = Truth seeking; CTD-2 = Analyticity; CTD-3 = Systematically; CTD-4 = Self-confidence; CTD-5 = Inquisitiveness. MI-I and MI-2 were sub-scores of motor impulsivity. Solid line represents significant links and dotted line non-significant links. ** p < 0.01.

The mediation model, which included non-planning impulsivity (see Figure 2 ), also showed an acceptable fit to the data, χ ( 23 ) 2 = 52.75, RMSEA = 0.064, CFI = 0.97, GFI = 0.97, NNFI = 0.95, SRMR = 0.06. The 95% boot confidence intervals of the indirect effect and the direct effect were (0.05, 0.33) and (−0.04, 0.38), respectively, indicating that non-planning impulsivity completely mediated the relationship between CT disposition and mental health.

Figure 2 . Illustration of the mediation model: Non-planning impulsivity asmediator variable between critical thinking dispositions and mental health. CTD-l = Truth seeking; CTD-2 = Analyticity; CTD-3 = Systematically; CTD-4 = Self-confidence; CTD-5 = Inquisitiveness. NI-I and NI-2 were sub-scores of Non-planning impulsivity. Solid line represents significant links and dotted line non-significant links. ** p < 0.01.

This study examined how critical thinking skill and disposition are related to mental health. Theories of psychotherapy suggest that human mental problems are in part due to a lack of CT. However, empirical evidence for the hypothesized relationship between CT and mental health is relatively scarce. This study explored whether and how CT ability and disposition are associated with mental health. The results, based on a university student sample, indicated that CT skill and disposition explained a unique variance in mental health. Furthermore, the effect of CT disposition on mental health was mediated by motor impulsivity and non-planning impulsivity. The finding that CT exerted a significant effect on mental health was in accordance with previous studies reporting negative correlations between CT disposition and mental disorders such as anxiety ( Suliman and Halabi, 2007 ). One reason lies in the assumption that CT disposition is usually referred to as personality traits or habits of mind that are a remarkable predictor of mental health (e.g., Benzi et al., 2019 ). This study further found that of the five CT dispositions, only truth-seeking and systematicity were associated with individual differences in mental health. This was not surprising, since the truth-seeking items mainly assess one's inclination to crave for the best knowledge in a given context and to reflect more about additional facts, reasons, or opinions, even if this requires changing one's mind about certain issues. The systematicity items target one's disposition to approach problems in an orderly and focused way. Individuals with high levels of truth-seeking and systematicity are more likely to adopt a comprehensive, reflective, and controlled way of thinking, which is what cognitive therapy aims to achieve by shifting from an automatic mode of processing to a more reflective and controlled mode.

Another important finding was that motor impulsivity and non-planning impulsivity mediated the effect of CT disposition on mental health. The reason may be that people lacking CT have less willingness to enter into a systematically analyzing process or deliberative decision-making process, resulting in more frequently rash behaviors or unplanned actions without regard for consequences ( Billieux et al., 2010 ; Franco et al., 2017 ). Such responses can potentially have tangible negative consequences (e.g., conflict, aggression, addiction) that may lead to social maladjustment that is regarded as a symptom of mental illness. On the contrary, critical thinkers have a sense of deliberativeness and consider alternate consequences before acting, and this thinking-before-acting mode would logically lead to a decrease in impulsivity, which then decreases the likelihood of problematic behaviors and negative moods.

It should be noted that although the raw correlation between attentional impulsivity and mental health was significant, regression analyses with the three dimensions of impulsivity as predictors showed that attentional impulsivity no longer exerted a significant effect on mental effect after controlling for the other impulsivity dimensions. The insignificance of this effect suggests that the significant raw correlation between attentional impulsivity and mental health was due to the variance it shared with the other impulsivity dimensions (especially with the non-planning dimension, which showed a moderately high correlation with attentional impulsivity, r = 0.67).

Some limitations of this study need to be mentioned. First, the sample involved in this study is considered as a limited sample pool, since all the participants are university students enrolled in statistics and mathematical finance, limiting the generalization of the findings. Future studies are recommended to recruit a more representative sample of university students. A study on generalization to a clinical sample is also recommended. Second, as this study was cross-sectional in nature, caution must be taken in interpreting the findings as causal. Further studies using longitudinal, controlled designs are needed to assess the effectiveness of CT intervention on mental health.

In spite of the limitations mentioned above, the findings of this study have some implications for research and practice intervention. The result that CT contributed to individual differences in mental health provides empirical support for the theory of cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing irrational thoughts. The mediating role of impulsivity between CT and mental health gives a preliminary account of the mechanism of how CT is associated with mental health. Practically, although there is evidence that CT disposition of students improves because of teaching or training interventions (e.g., Profetto-Mcgrath, 2005 ; Sanja and Krstivoje, 2015 ; Chan, 2019 ), the results showing that two CT disposition dimensions, namely, truth-seeking and systematicity, are related to mental health further suggest that special attention should be paid to cultivating these specific CT dispositions so as to enhance the control of students over impulsive behaviors in their mental health promotions.


This study revealed that two CT dispositions, truth-seeking and systematicity, were associated with individual differences in mental health. Furthermore, the relationship between critical thinking and mental health was mediated by motor impulsivity and non-planning impulsivity. These findings provide a preliminary account of how human critical thinking is associated with mental health. Practically, developing mental health promotion programs for university students is suggested to pay special attention to cultivating their critical thinking dispositions (especially truth-seeking and systematicity) and enhancing the control of individuals over impulsive behaviors.

Data Availability Statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics Statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by HUST Critical Thinking Research Center (Grant No. 2018CT012). The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author Contributions

XR designed the study and revised the manuscript. ZL collected data and wrote the manuscript. SL assisted in analyzing the data. SS assisted in re-drafting and editing the manuscript. All the authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.

This work was supported by the Social Science Foundation of China (grant number: BBA200034).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher's Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

1. ^ We re-analyzed the data by controlling for age and gender of the participants in the regression analyses. The results were virtually the same as those reported in the study.

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Keywords: mental health, critical thinking ability, critical thinking disposition, impulsivity, depression

Citation: Liu Z, Li S, Shang S and Ren X (2021) How Do Critical Thinking Ability and Critical Thinking Disposition Relate to the Mental Health of University Students? Front. Psychol. 12:704229. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.704229

Received: 04 May 2021; Accepted: 21 July 2021; Published: 19 August 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Liu, Li, Shang and Ren. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Xuezhu Ren,

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a widely accepted educational goal. Its definition is contested, but the competing definitions can be understood as differing conceptions of the same basic concept: careful thinking directed to a goal. Conceptions differ with respect to the scope of such thinking, the type of goal, the criteria and norms for thinking carefully, and the thinking components on which they focus. Its adoption as an educational goal has been recommended on the basis of respect for students’ autonomy and preparing students for success in life and for democratic citizenship. “Critical thinkers” have the dispositions and abilities that lead them to think critically when appropriate. The abilities can be identified directly; the dispositions indirectly, by considering what factors contribute to or impede exercise of the abilities. Standardized tests have been developed to assess the degree to which a person possesses such dispositions and abilities. Educational intervention has been shown experimentally to improve them, particularly when it includes dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring. Controversies have arisen over the generalizability of critical thinking across domains, over alleged bias in critical thinking theories and instruction, and over the relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking.

2.1 Dewey’s Three Main Examples

2.2 dewey’s other examples, 2.3 further examples, 2.4 non-examples, 3. the definition of critical thinking, 4. its value, 5. the process of thinking critically, 6. components of the process, 7. contributory dispositions and abilities, 8.1 initiating dispositions, 8.2 internal dispositions, 9. critical thinking abilities, 10. required knowledge, 11. educational methods, 12.1 the generalizability of critical thinking, 12.2 bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, 12.3 relationship of critical thinking to other types of thinking, other internet resources, related entries.

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’. He defined it as

active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Dewey 1910: 6; 1933: 9)

and identified a habit of such consideration with a scientific attitude of mind. His lengthy quotations of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill indicate that he was not the first person to propose development of a scientific attitude of mind as an educational goal.

In the 1930s, many of the schools that participated in the Eight-Year Study of the Progressive Education Association (Aikin 1942) adopted critical thinking as an educational goal, for whose achievement the study’s Evaluation Staff developed tests (Smith, Tyler, & Evaluation Staff 1942). Glaser (1941) showed experimentally that it was possible to improve the critical thinking of high school students. Bloom’s influential taxonomy of cognitive educational objectives (Bloom et al. 1956) incorporated critical thinking abilities. Ennis (1962) proposed 12 aspects of critical thinking as a basis for research on the teaching and evaluation of critical thinking ability.

Since 1980, an annual international conference in California on critical thinking and educational reform has attracted tens of thousands of educators from all levels of education and from many parts of the world. Also since 1980, the state university system in California has required all undergraduate students to take a critical thinking course. Since 1983, the Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking has sponsored sessions in conjunction with the divisional meetings of the American Philosophical Association (APA). In 1987, the APA’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy commissioned a consensus statement on critical thinking for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Facione 1990a). Researchers have developed standardized tests of critical thinking abilities and dispositions; for details, see the Supplement on Assessment . Educational jurisdictions around the world now include critical thinking in guidelines for curriculum and assessment.

For details on this history, see the Supplement on History .

2. Examples and Non-Examples

Before considering the definition of critical thinking, it will be helpful to have in mind some examples of critical thinking, as well as some examples of kinds of thinking that would apparently not count as critical thinking.

Dewey (1910: 68–71; 1933: 91–94) takes as paradigms of reflective thinking three class papers of students in which they describe their thinking. The examples range from the everyday to the scientific.

Transit : “The other day, when I was down town on 16th Street, a clock caught my eye. I saw that the hands pointed to 12:20. This suggested that I had an engagement at 124th Street, at one o’clock. I reasoned that as it had taken me an hour to come down on a surface car, I should probably be twenty minutes late if I returned the same way. I might save twenty minutes by a subway express. But was there a station near? If not, I might lose more than twenty minutes in looking for one. Then I thought of the elevated, and I saw there was such a line within two blocks. But where was the station? If it were several blocks above or below the street I was on, I should lose time instead of gaining it. My mind went back to the subway express as quicker than the elevated; furthermore, I remembered that it went nearer than the elevated to the part of 124th Street I wished to reach, so that time would be saved at the end of the journey. I concluded in favor of the subway, and reached my destination by one o’clock.” (Dewey 1910: 68–69; 1933: 91–92)

Ferryboat : “Projecting nearly horizontally from the upper deck of the ferryboat on which I daily cross the river is a long white pole, having a gilded ball at its tip. It suggested a flagpole when I first saw it; its color, shape, and gilded ball agreed with this idea, and these reasons seemed to justify me in this belief. But soon difficulties presented themselves. The pole was nearly horizontal, an unusual position for a flagpole; in the next place, there was no pulley, ring, or cord by which to attach a flag; finally, there were elsewhere on the boat two vertical staffs from which flags were occasionally flown. It seemed probable that the pole was not there for flag-flying.

“I then tried to imagine all possible purposes of the pole, and to consider for which of these it was best suited: (a) Possibly it was an ornament. But as all the ferryboats and even the tugboats carried poles, this hypothesis was rejected. (b) Possibly it was the terminal of a wireless telegraph. But the same considerations made this improbable. Besides, the more natural place for such a terminal would be the highest part of the boat, on top of the pilot house. (c) Its purpose might be to point out the direction in which the boat is moving.

“In support of this conclusion, I discovered that the pole was lower than the pilot house, so that the steersman could easily see it. Moreover, the tip was enough higher than the base, so that, from the pilot’s position, it must appear to project far out in front of the boat. Moreover, the pilot being near the front of the boat, he would need some such guide as to its direction. Tugboats would also need poles for such a purpose. This hypothesis was so much more probable than the others that I accepted it. I formed the conclusion that the pole was set up for the purpose of showing the pilot the direction in which the boat pointed, to enable him to steer correctly.” (Dewey 1910: 69–70; 1933: 92–93)

Bubbles : “In washing tumblers in hot soapsuds and placing them mouth downward on a plate, bubbles appeared on the outside of the mouth of the tumblers and then went inside. Why? The presence of bubbles suggests air, which I note must come from inside the tumbler. I see that the soapy water on the plate prevents escape of the air save as it may be caught in bubbles. But why should air leave the tumbler? There was no substance entering to force it out. It must have expanded. It expands by increase of heat, or by decrease of pressure, or both. Could the air have become heated after the tumbler was taken from the hot suds? Clearly not the air that was already entangled in the water. If heated air was the cause, cold air must have entered in transferring the tumblers from the suds to the plate. I test to see if this supposition is true by taking several more tumblers out. Some I shake so as to make sure of entrapping cold air in them. Some I take out holding mouth downward in order to prevent cold air from entering. Bubbles appear on the outside of every one of the former and on none of the latter. I must be right in my inference. Air from the outside must have been expanded by the heat of the tumbler, which explains the appearance of the bubbles on the outside. But why do they then go inside? Cold contracts. The tumbler cooled and also the air inside it. Tension was removed, and hence bubbles appeared inside. To be sure of this, I test by placing a cup of ice on the tumbler while the bubbles are still forming outside. They soon reverse” (Dewey 1910: 70–71; 1933: 93–94).

Dewey (1910, 1933) sprinkles his book with other examples of critical thinking. We will refer to the following.

Weather : A man on a walk notices that it has suddenly become cool, thinks that it is probably going to rain, looks up and sees a dark cloud obscuring the sun, and quickens his steps (1910: 6–10; 1933: 9–13).

Disorder : A man finds his rooms on his return to them in disorder with his belongings thrown about, thinks at first of burglary as an explanation, then thinks of mischievous children as being an alternative explanation, then looks to see whether valuables are missing, and discovers that they are (1910: 82–83; 1933: 166–168).

Typhoid : A physician diagnosing a patient whose conspicuous symptoms suggest typhoid avoids drawing a conclusion until more data are gathered by questioning the patient and by making tests (1910: 85–86; 1933: 170).

Blur : A moving blur catches our eye in the distance, we ask ourselves whether it is a cloud of whirling dust or a tree moving its branches or a man signaling to us, we think of other traits that should be found on each of those possibilities, and we look and see if those traits are found (1910: 102, 108; 1933: 121, 133).

Suction pump : In thinking about the suction pump, the scientist first notes that it will draw water only to a maximum height of 33 feet at sea level and to a lesser maximum height at higher elevations, selects for attention the differing atmospheric pressure at these elevations, sets up experiments in which the air is removed from a vessel containing water (when suction no longer works) and in which the weight of air at various levels is calculated, compares the results of reasoning about the height to which a given weight of air will allow a suction pump to raise water with the observed maximum height at different elevations, and finally assimilates the suction pump to such apparently different phenomena as the siphon and the rising of a balloon (1910: 150–153; 1933: 195–198).

Diamond : A passenger in a car driving in a diamond lane reserved for vehicles with at least one passenger notices that the diamond marks on the pavement are far apart in some places and close together in others. Why? The driver suggests that the reason may be that the diamond marks are not needed where there is a solid double line separating the diamond lane from the adjoining lane, but are needed when there is a dotted single line permitting crossing into the diamond lane. Further observation confirms that the diamonds are close together when a dotted line separates the diamond lane from its neighbour, but otherwise far apart.

Rash : A woman suddenly develops a very itchy red rash on her throat and upper chest. She recently noticed a mark on the back of her right hand, but was not sure whether the mark was a rash or a scrape. She lies down in bed and thinks about what might be causing the rash and what to do about it. About two weeks before, she began taking blood pressure medication that contained a sulfa drug, and the pharmacist had warned her, in view of a previous allergic reaction to a medication containing a sulfa drug, to be on the alert for an allergic reaction; however, she had been taking the medication for two weeks with no such effect. The day before, she began using a new cream on her neck and upper chest; against the new cream as the cause was mark on the back of her hand, which had not been exposed to the cream. She began taking probiotics about a month before. She also recently started new eye drops, but she supposed that manufacturers of eye drops would be careful not to include allergy-causing components in the medication. The rash might be a heat rash, since she recently was sweating profusely from her upper body. Since she is about to go away on a short vacation, where she would not have access to her usual physician, she decides to keep taking the probiotics and using the new eye drops but to discontinue the blood pressure medication and to switch back to the old cream for her neck and upper chest. She forms a plan to consult her regular physician on her return about the blood pressure medication.

Candidate : Although Dewey included no examples of thinking directed at appraising the arguments of others, such thinking has come to be considered a kind of critical thinking. We find an example of such thinking in the performance task on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), which its sponsoring organization describes as

a performance-based assessment that provides a measure of an institution’s contribution to the development of critical-thinking and written communication skills of its students. (Council for Aid to Education 2017)

A sample task posted on its website requires the test-taker to write a report for public distribution evaluating a fictional candidate’s policy proposals and their supporting arguments, using supplied background documents, with a recommendation on whether to endorse the candidate.

Immediate acceptance of an idea that suggests itself as a solution to a problem (e.g., a possible explanation of an event or phenomenon, an action that seems likely to produce a desired result) is “uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection” (Dewey 1910: 13). On-going suspension of judgment in the light of doubt about a possible solution is not critical thinking (Dewey 1910: 108). Critique driven by a dogmatically held political or religious ideology is not critical thinking; thus Paulo Freire (1968 [1970]) is using the term (e.g., at 1970: 71, 81, 100, 146) in a more politically freighted sense that includes not only reflection but also revolutionary action against oppression. Derivation of a conclusion from given data using an algorithm is not critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. Ennis (2016) lists 14 philosophically oriented scholarly definitions and three dictionary definitions. Following Rawls (1971), who distinguished his conception of justice from a utilitarian conception but regarded them as rival conceptions of the same concept, Ennis maintains that the 17 definitions are different conceptions of the same concept. Rawls articulated the shared concept of justice as

a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining… the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. (Rawls 1971: 5)

Bailin et al. (1999b) claim that, if one considers what sorts of thinking an educator would take not to be critical thinking and what sorts to be critical thinking, one can conclude that educators typically understand critical thinking to have at least three features.

  • It is done for the purpose of making up one’s mind about what to believe or do.
  • The person engaging in the thinking is trying to fulfill standards of adequacy and accuracy appropriate to the thinking.
  • The thinking fulfills the relevant standards to some threshold level.

One could sum up the core concept that involves these three features by saying that critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking. This core concept seems to apply to all the examples of critical thinking described in the previous section. As for the non-examples, their exclusion depends on construing careful thinking as excluding jumping immediately to conclusions, suspending judgment no matter how strong the evidence, reasoning from an unquestioned ideological or religious perspective, and routinely using an algorithm to answer a question.

If the core of critical thinking is careful goal-directed thinking, conceptions of it can vary according to its presumed scope, its presumed goal, one’s criteria and threshold for being careful, and the thinking component on which one focuses. As to its scope, some conceptions (e.g., Dewey 1910, 1933) restrict it to constructive thinking on the basis of one’s own observations and experiments, others (e.g., Ennis 1962; Fisher & Scriven 1997; Johnson 1992) to appraisal of the products of such thinking. Ennis (1991) and Bailin et al. (1999b) take it to cover both construction and appraisal. As to its goal, some conceptions restrict it to forming a judgment (Dewey 1910, 1933; Lipman 1987; Facione 1990a). Others allow for actions as well as beliefs as the end point of a process of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b). As to the criteria and threshold for being careful, definitions vary in the term used to indicate that critical thinking satisfies certain norms: “intellectually disciplined” (Scriven & Paul 1987), “reasonable” (Ennis 1991), “skillful” (Lipman 1987), “skilled” (Fisher & Scriven 1997), “careful” (Bailin & Battersby 2009). Some definitions specify these norms, referring variously to “consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends” (Dewey 1910, 1933); “the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning” (Glaser 1941); “conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication” (Scriven & Paul 1987); the requirement that “it is sensitive to context, relies on criteria, and is self-correcting” (Lipman 1987); “evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations” (Facione 1990a); and “plus-minus considerations of the product in terms of appropriate standards (or criteria)” (Johnson 1992). Stanovich and Stanovich (2010) propose to ground the concept of critical thinking in the concept of rationality, which they understand as combining epistemic rationality (fitting one’s beliefs to the world) and instrumental rationality (optimizing goal fulfillment); a critical thinker, in their view, is someone with “a propensity to override suboptimal responses from the autonomous mind” (2010: 227). These variant specifications of norms for critical thinking are not necessarily incompatible with one another, and in any case presuppose the core notion of thinking carefully. As to the thinking component singled out, some definitions focus on suspension of judgment during the thinking (Dewey 1910; McPeck 1981), others on inquiry while judgment is suspended (Bailin & Battersby 2009, 2021), others on the resulting judgment (Facione 1990a), and still others on responsiveness to reasons (Siegel 1988). Kuhn (2019) takes critical thinking to be more a dialogic practice of advancing and responding to arguments than an individual ability.

In educational contexts, a definition of critical thinking is a “programmatic definition” (Scheffler 1960: 19). It expresses a practical program for achieving an educational goal. For this purpose, a one-sentence formulaic definition is much less useful than articulation of a critical thinking process, with criteria and standards for the kinds of thinking that the process may involve. The real educational goal is recognition, adoption and implementation by students of those criteria and standards. That adoption and implementation in turn consists in acquiring the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker.

Conceptions of critical thinking generally do not include moral integrity as part of the concept. Dewey, for example, took critical thinking to be the ultimate intellectual goal of education, but distinguished it from the development of social cooperation among school children, which he took to be the central moral goal. Ennis (1996, 2011) added to his previous list of critical thinking dispositions a group of dispositions to care about the dignity and worth of every person, which he described as a “correlative” (1996) disposition without which critical thinking would be less valuable and perhaps harmful. An educational program that aimed at developing critical thinking but not the correlative disposition to care about the dignity and worth of every person, he asserted, “would be deficient and perhaps dangerous” (Ennis 1996: 172).

Dewey thought that education for reflective thinking would be of value to both the individual and society; recognition in educational practice of the kinship to the scientific attitude of children’s native curiosity, fertile imagination and love of experimental inquiry “would make for individual happiness and the reduction of social waste” (Dewey 1910: iii). Schools participating in the Eight-Year Study took development of the habit of reflective thinking and skill in solving problems as a means to leading young people to understand, appreciate and live the democratic way of life characteristic of the United States (Aikin 1942: 17–18, 81). Harvey Siegel (1988: 55–61) has offered four considerations in support of adopting critical thinking as an educational ideal. (1) Respect for persons requires that schools and teachers honour students’ demands for reasons and explanations, deal with students honestly, and recognize the need to confront students’ independent judgment; these requirements concern the manner in which teachers treat students. (2) Education has the task of preparing children to be successful adults, a task that requires development of their self-sufficiency. (3) Education should initiate children into the rational traditions in such fields as history, science and mathematics. (4) Education should prepare children to become democratic citizens, which requires reasoned procedures and critical talents and attitudes. To supplement these considerations, Siegel (1988: 62–90) responds to two objections: the ideology objection that adoption of any educational ideal requires a prior ideological commitment and the indoctrination objection that cultivation of critical thinking cannot escape being a form of indoctrination.

Despite the diversity of our 11 examples, one can recognize a common pattern. Dewey analyzed it as consisting of five phases:

  • suggestions , in which the mind leaps forward to a possible solution;
  • an intellectualization of the difficulty or perplexity into a problem to be solved, a question for which the answer must be sought;
  • the use of one suggestion after another as a leading idea, or hypothesis , to initiate and guide observation and other operations in collection of factual material;
  • the mental elaboration of the idea or supposition as an idea or supposition ( reasoning , in the sense on which reasoning is a part, not the whole, of inference); and
  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action. (Dewey 1933: 106–107; italics in original)

The process of reflective thinking consisting of these phases would be preceded by a perplexed, troubled or confused situation and followed by a cleared-up, unified, resolved situation (Dewey 1933: 106). The term ‘phases’ replaced the term ‘steps’ (Dewey 1910: 72), thus removing the earlier suggestion of an invariant sequence. Variants of the above analysis appeared in (Dewey 1916: 177) and (Dewey 1938: 101–119).

The variant formulations indicate the difficulty of giving a single logical analysis of such a varied process. The process of critical thinking may have a spiral pattern, with the problem being redefined in the light of obstacles to solving it as originally formulated. For example, the person in Transit might have concluded that getting to the appointment at the scheduled time was impossible and have reformulated the problem as that of rescheduling the appointment for a mutually convenient time. Further, defining a problem does not always follow after or lead immediately to an idea of a suggested solution. Nor should it do so, as Dewey himself recognized in describing the physician in Typhoid as avoiding any strong preference for this or that conclusion before getting further information (Dewey 1910: 85; 1933: 170). People with a hypothesis in mind, even one to which they have a very weak commitment, have a so-called “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998): they are likely to pay attention to evidence that confirms the hypothesis and to ignore evidence that counts against it or for some competing hypothesis. Detectives, intelligence agencies, and investigators of airplane accidents are well advised to gather relevant evidence systematically and to postpone even tentative adoption of an explanatory hypothesis until the collected evidence rules out with the appropriate degree of certainty all but one explanation. Dewey’s analysis of the critical thinking process can be faulted as well for requiring acceptance or rejection of a possible solution to a defined problem, with no allowance for deciding in the light of the available evidence to suspend judgment. Further, given the great variety of kinds of problems for which reflection is appropriate, there is likely to be variation in its component events. Perhaps the best way to conceptualize the critical thinking process is as a checklist whose component events can occur in a variety of orders, selectively, and more than once. These component events might include (1) noticing a difficulty, (2) defining the problem, (3) dividing the problem into manageable sub-problems, (4) formulating a variety of possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (5) determining what evidence is relevant to deciding among possible solutions to the problem or sub-problem, (6) devising a plan of systematic observation or experiment that will uncover the relevant evidence, (7) carrying out the plan of systematic observation or experimentation, (8) noting the results of the systematic observation or experiment, (9) gathering relevant testimony and information from others, (10) judging the credibility of testimony and information gathered from others, (11) drawing conclusions from gathered evidence and accepted testimony, and (12) accepting a solution that the evidence adequately supports (cf. Hitchcock 2017: 485).

Checklist conceptions of the process of critical thinking are open to the objection that they are too mechanical and procedural to fit the multi-dimensional and emotionally charged issues for which critical thinking is urgently needed (Paul 1984). For such issues, a more dialectical process is advocated, in which competing relevant world views are identified, their implications explored, and some sort of creative synthesis attempted.

If one considers the critical thinking process illustrated by the 11 examples, one can identify distinct kinds of mental acts and mental states that form part of it. To distinguish, label and briefly characterize these components is a useful preliminary to identifying abilities, skills, dispositions, attitudes, habits and the like that contribute causally to thinking critically. Identifying such abilities and habits is in turn a useful preliminary to setting educational goals. Setting the goals is in its turn a useful preliminary to designing strategies for helping learners to achieve the goals and to designing ways of measuring the extent to which learners have done so. Such measures provide both feedback to learners on their achievement and a basis for experimental research on the effectiveness of various strategies for educating people to think critically. Let us begin, then, by distinguishing the kinds of mental acts and mental events that can occur in a critical thinking process.

  • Observing : One notices something in one’s immediate environment (sudden cooling of temperature in Weather , bubbles forming outside a glass and then going inside in Bubbles , a moving blur in the distance in Blur , a rash in Rash ). Or one notes the results of an experiment or systematic observation (valuables missing in Disorder , no suction without air pressure in Suction pump )
  • Feeling : One feels puzzled or uncertain about something (how to get to an appointment on time in Transit , why the diamonds vary in spacing in Diamond ). One wants to resolve this perplexity. One feels satisfaction once one has worked out an answer (to take the subway express in Transit , diamonds closer when needed as a warning in Diamond ).
  • Wondering : One formulates a question to be addressed (why bubbles form outside a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , how suction pumps work in Suction pump , what caused the rash in Rash ).
  • Imagining : One thinks of possible answers (bus or subway or elevated in Transit , flagpole or ornament or wireless communication aid or direction indicator in Ferryboat , allergic reaction or heat rash in Rash ).
  • Inferring : One works out what would be the case if a possible answer were assumed (valuables missing if there has been a burglary in Disorder , earlier start to the rash if it is an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug in Rash ). Or one draws a conclusion once sufficient relevant evidence is gathered (take the subway in Transit , burglary in Disorder , discontinue blood pressure medication and new cream in Rash ).
  • Knowledge : One uses stored knowledge of the subject-matter to generate possible answers or to infer what would be expected on the assumption of a particular answer (knowledge of a city’s public transit system in Transit , of the requirements for a flagpole in Ferryboat , of Boyle’s law in Bubbles , of allergic reactions in Rash ).
  • Experimenting : One designs and carries out an experiment or a systematic observation to find out whether the results deduced from a possible answer will occur (looking at the location of the flagpole in relation to the pilot’s position in Ferryboat , putting an ice cube on top of a tumbler taken from hot water in Bubbles , measuring the height to which a suction pump will draw water at different elevations in Suction pump , noticing the spacing of diamonds when movement to or from a diamond lane is allowed in Diamond ).
  • Consulting : One finds a source of information, gets the information from the source, and makes a judgment on whether to accept it. None of our 11 examples include searching for sources of information. In this respect they are unrepresentative, since most people nowadays have almost instant access to information relevant to answering any question, including many of those illustrated by the examples. However, Candidate includes the activities of extracting information from sources and evaluating its credibility.
  • Identifying and analyzing arguments : One notices an argument and works out its structure and content as a preliminary to evaluating its strength. This activity is central to Candidate . It is an important part of a critical thinking process in which one surveys arguments for various positions on an issue.
  • Judging : One makes a judgment on the basis of accumulated evidence and reasoning, such as the judgment in Ferryboat that the purpose of the pole is to provide direction to the pilot.
  • Deciding : One makes a decision on what to do or on what policy to adopt, as in the decision in Transit to take the subway.

By definition, a person who does something voluntarily is both willing and able to do that thing at that time. Both the willingness and the ability contribute causally to the person’s action, in the sense that the voluntary action would not occur if either (or both) of these were lacking. For example, suppose that one is standing with one’s arms at one’s sides and one voluntarily lifts one’s right arm to an extended horizontal position. One would not do so if one were unable to lift one’s arm, if for example one’s right side was paralyzed as the result of a stroke. Nor would one do so if one were unwilling to lift one’s arm, if for example one were participating in a street demonstration at which a white supremacist was urging the crowd to lift their right arm in a Nazi salute and one were unwilling to express support in this way for the racist Nazi ideology. The same analysis applies to a voluntary mental process of thinking critically. It requires both willingness and ability to think critically, including willingness and ability to perform each of the mental acts that compose the process and to coordinate those acts in a sequence that is directed at resolving the initiating perplexity.

Consider willingness first. We can identify causal contributors to willingness to think critically by considering factors that would cause a person who was able to think critically about an issue nevertheless not to do so (Hamby 2014). For each factor, the opposite condition thus contributes causally to willingness to think critically on a particular occasion. For example, people who habitually jump to conclusions without considering alternatives will not think critically about issues that arise, even if they have the required abilities. The contrary condition of willingness to suspend judgment is thus a causal contributor to thinking critically.

Now consider ability. In contrast to the ability to move one’s arm, which can be completely absent because a stroke has left the arm paralyzed, the ability to think critically is a developed ability, whose absence is not a complete absence of ability to think but absence of ability to think well. We can identify the ability to think well directly, in terms of the norms and standards for good thinking. In general, to be able do well the thinking activities that can be components of a critical thinking process, one needs to know the concepts and principles that characterize their good performance, to recognize in particular cases that the concepts and principles apply, and to apply them. The knowledge, recognition and application may be procedural rather than declarative. It may be domain-specific rather than widely applicable, and in either case may need subject-matter knowledge, sometimes of a deep kind.

Reflections of the sort illustrated by the previous two paragraphs have led scholars to identify the knowledge, abilities and dispositions of a “critical thinker”, i.e., someone who thinks critically whenever it is appropriate to do so. We turn now to these three types of causal contributors to thinking critically. We start with dispositions, since arguably these are the most powerful contributors to being a critical thinker, can be fostered at an early stage of a child’s development, and are susceptible to general improvement (Glaser 1941: 175)

8. Critical Thinking Dispositions

Educational researchers use the term ‘dispositions’ broadly for the habits of mind and attitudes that contribute causally to being a critical thinker. Some writers (e.g., Paul & Elder 2006; Hamby 2014; Bailin & Battersby 2016a) propose to use the term ‘virtues’ for this dimension of a critical thinker. The virtues in question, although they are virtues of character, concern the person’s ways of thinking rather than the person’s ways of behaving towards others. They are not moral virtues but intellectual virtues, of the sort articulated by Zagzebski (1996) and discussed by Turri, Alfano, and Greco (2017).

On a realistic conception, thinking dispositions or intellectual virtues are real properties of thinkers. They are general tendencies, propensities, or inclinations to think in particular ways in particular circumstances, and can be genuinely explanatory (Siegel 1999). Sceptics argue that there is no evidence for a specific mental basis for the habits of mind that contribute to thinking critically, and that it is pedagogically misleading to posit such a basis (Bailin et al. 1999a). Whatever their status, critical thinking dispositions need motivation for their initial formation in a child—motivation that may be external or internal. As children develop, the force of habit will gradually become important in sustaining the disposition (Nieto & Valenzuela 2012). Mere force of habit, however, is unlikely to sustain critical thinking dispositions. Critical thinkers must value and enjoy using their knowledge and abilities to think things through for themselves. They must be committed to, and lovers of, inquiry.

A person may have a critical thinking disposition with respect to only some kinds of issues. For example, one could be open-minded about scientific issues but not about religious issues. Similarly, one could be confident in one’s ability to reason about the theological implications of the existence of evil in the world but not in one’s ability to reason about the best design for a guided ballistic missile.

Facione (1990a: 25) divides “affective dispositions” of critical thinking into approaches to life and living in general and approaches to specific issues, questions or problems. Adapting this distinction, one can usefully divide critical thinking dispositions into initiating dispositions (those that contribute causally to starting to think critically about an issue) and internal dispositions (those that contribute causally to doing a good job of thinking critically once one has started). The two categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, open-mindedness, in the sense of willingness to consider alternative points of view to one’s own, is both an initiating and an internal disposition.

Using the strategy of considering factors that would block people with the ability to think critically from doing so, we can identify as initiating dispositions for thinking critically attentiveness, a habit of inquiry, self-confidence, courage, open-mindedness, willingness to suspend judgment, trust in reason, wanting evidence for one’s beliefs, and seeking the truth. We consider briefly what each of these dispositions amounts to, in each case citing sources that acknowledge them.

  • Attentiveness : One will not think critically if one fails to recognize an issue that needs to be thought through. For example, the pedestrian in Weather would not have looked up if he had not noticed that the air was suddenly cooler. To be a critical thinker, then, one needs to be habitually attentive to one’s surroundings, noticing not only what one senses but also sources of perplexity in messages received and in one’s own beliefs and attitudes (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Habit of inquiry : Inquiry is effortful, and one needs an internal push to engage in it. For example, the student in Bubbles could easily have stopped at idle wondering about the cause of the bubbles rather than reasoning to a hypothesis, then designing and executing an experiment to test it. Thus willingness to think critically needs mental energy and initiative. What can supply that energy? Love of inquiry, or perhaps just a habit of inquiry. Hamby (2015) has argued that willingness to inquire is the central critical thinking virtue, one that encompasses all the others. It is recognized as a critical thinking disposition by Dewey (1910: 29; 1933: 35), Glaser (1941: 5), Ennis (1987: 12; 1991: 8), Facione (1990a: 25), Bailin et al. (1999b: 294), Halpern (1998: 452), and Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo (2001).
  • Self-confidence : Lack of confidence in one’s abilities can block critical thinking. For example, if the woman in Rash lacked confidence in her ability to figure things out for herself, she might just have assumed that the rash on her chest was the allergic reaction to her medication against which the pharmacist had warned her. Thus willingness to think critically requires confidence in one’s ability to inquire (Facione 1990a: 25; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001).
  • Courage : Fear of thinking for oneself can stop one from doing it. Thus willingness to think critically requires intellectual courage (Paul & Elder 2006: 16).
  • Open-mindedness : A dogmatic attitude will impede thinking critically. For example, a person who adheres rigidly to a “pro-choice” position on the issue of the legal status of induced abortion is likely to be unwilling to consider seriously the issue of when in its development an unborn child acquires a moral right to life. Thus willingness to think critically requires open-mindedness, in the sense of a willingness to examine questions to which one already accepts an answer but which further evidence or reasoning might cause one to answer differently (Dewey 1933; Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Bailin et al. 1999b; Halpern 1998, Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). Paul (1981) emphasizes open-mindedness about alternative world-views, and recommends a dialectical approach to integrating such views as central to what he calls “strong sense” critical thinking. In three studies, Haran, Ritov, & Mellers (2013) found that actively open-minded thinking, including “the tendency to weigh new evidence against a favored belief, to spend sufficient time on a problem before giving up, and to consider carefully the opinions of others in forming one’s own”, led study participants to acquire information and thus to make accurate estimations.
  • Willingness to suspend judgment : Premature closure on an initial solution will block critical thinking. Thus willingness to think critically requires a willingness to suspend judgment while alternatives are explored (Facione 1990a; Ennis 1991; Halpern 1998).
  • Trust in reason : Since distrust in the processes of reasoned inquiry will dissuade one from engaging in it, trust in them is an initiating critical thinking disposition (Facione 1990a, 25; Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001; Paul & Elder 2006). In reaction to an allegedly exclusive emphasis on reason in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, Thayer-Bacon (2000) argues that intuition, imagination, and emotion have important roles to play in an adequate conception of critical thinking that she calls “constructive thinking”. From her point of view, critical thinking requires trust not only in reason but also in intuition, imagination, and emotion.
  • Seeking the truth : If one does not care about the truth but is content to stick with one’s initial bias on an issue, then one will not think critically about it. Seeking the truth is thus an initiating critical thinking disposition (Bailin et al. 1999b: 294; Facione, Facione, & Giancarlo 2001). A disposition to seek the truth is implicit in more specific critical thinking dispositions, such as trying to be well-informed, considering seriously points of view other than one’s own, looking for alternatives, suspending judgment when the evidence is insufficient, and adopting a position when the evidence supporting it is sufficient.

Some of the initiating dispositions, such as open-mindedness and willingness to suspend judgment, are also internal critical thinking dispositions, in the sense of mental habits or attitudes that contribute causally to doing a good job of critical thinking once one starts the process. But there are many other internal critical thinking dispositions. Some of them are parasitic on one’s conception of good thinking. For example, it is constitutive of good thinking about an issue to formulate the issue clearly and to maintain focus on it. For this purpose, one needs not only the corresponding ability but also the corresponding disposition. Ennis (1991: 8) describes it as the disposition “to determine and maintain focus on the conclusion or question”, Facione (1990a: 25) as “clarity in stating the question or concern”. Other internal dispositions are motivators to continue or adjust the critical thinking process, such as willingness to persist in a complex task and willingness to abandon nonproductive strategies in an attempt to self-correct (Halpern 1998: 452). For a list of identified internal critical thinking dispositions, see the Supplement on Internal Critical Thinking Dispositions .

Some theorists postulate skills, i.e., acquired abilities, as operative in critical thinking. It is not obvious, however, that a good mental act is the exercise of a generic acquired skill. Inferring an expected time of arrival, as in Transit , has some generic components but also uses non-generic subject-matter knowledge. Bailin et al. (1999a) argue against viewing critical thinking skills as generic and discrete, on the ground that skilled performance at a critical thinking task cannot be separated from knowledge of concepts and from domain-specific principles of good thinking. Talk of skills, they concede, is unproblematic if it means merely that a person with critical thinking skills is capable of intelligent performance.

Despite such scepticism, theorists of critical thinking have listed as general contributors to critical thinking what they variously call abilities (Glaser 1941; Ennis 1962, 1991), skills (Facione 1990a; Halpern 1998) or competencies (Fisher & Scriven 1997). Amalgamating these lists would produce a confusing and chaotic cornucopia of more than 50 possible educational objectives, with only partial overlap among them. It makes sense instead to try to understand the reasons for the multiplicity and diversity, and to make a selection according to one’s own reasons for singling out abilities to be developed in a critical thinking curriculum. Two reasons for diversity among lists of critical thinking abilities are the underlying conception of critical thinking and the envisaged educational level. Appraisal-only conceptions, for example, involve a different suite of abilities than constructive-only conceptions. Some lists, such as those in (Glaser 1941), are put forward as educational objectives for secondary school students, whereas others are proposed as objectives for college students (e.g., Facione 1990a).

The abilities described in the remaining paragraphs of this section emerge from reflection on the general abilities needed to do well the thinking activities identified in section 6 as components of the critical thinking process described in section 5 . The derivation of each collection of abilities is accompanied by citation of sources that list such abilities and of standardized tests that claim to test them.

Observational abilities : Careful and accurate observation sometimes requires specialist expertise and practice, as in the case of observing birds and observing accident scenes. However, there are general abilities of noticing what one’s senses are picking up from one’s environment and of being able to articulate clearly and accurately to oneself and others what one has observed. It helps in exercising them to be able to recognize and take into account factors that make one’s observation less trustworthy, such as prior framing of the situation, inadequate time, deficient senses, poor observation conditions, and the like. It helps as well to be skilled at taking steps to make one’s observation more trustworthy, such as moving closer to get a better look, measuring something three times and taking the average, and checking what one thinks one is observing with someone else who is in a good position to observe it. It also helps to be skilled at recognizing respects in which one’s report of one’s observation involves inference rather than direct observation, so that one can then consider whether the inference is justified. These abilities come into play as well when one thinks about whether and with what degree of confidence to accept an observation report, for example in the study of history or in a criminal investigation or in assessing news reports. Observational abilities show up in some lists of critical thinking abilities (Ennis 1962: 90; Facione 1990a: 16; Ennis 1991: 9). There are items testing a person’s ability to judge the credibility of observation reports in the Cornell Critical Thinking Tests, Levels X and Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). Norris and King (1983, 1985, 1990a, 1990b) is a test of ability to appraise observation reports.

Emotional abilities : The emotions that drive a critical thinking process are perplexity or puzzlement, a wish to resolve it, and satisfaction at achieving the desired resolution. Children experience these emotions at an early age, without being trained to do so. Education that takes critical thinking as a goal needs only to channel these emotions and to make sure not to stifle them. Collaborative critical thinking benefits from ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotional commitments and reactions.

Questioning abilities : A critical thinking process needs transformation of an inchoate sense of perplexity into a clear question. Formulating a question well requires not building in questionable assumptions, not prejudging the issue, and using language that in context is unambiguous and precise enough (Ennis 1962: 97; 1991: 9).

Imaginative abilities : Thinking directed at finding the correct causal explanation of a general phenomenon or particular event requires an ability to imagine possible explanations. Thinking about what policy or plan of action to adopt requires generation of options and consideration of possible consequences of each option. Domain knowledge is required for such creative activity, but a general ability to imagine alternatives is helpful and can be nurtured so as to become easier, quicker, more extensive, and deeper (Dewey 1910: 34–39; 1933: 40–47). Facione (1990a) and Halpern (1998) include the ability to imagine alternatives as a critical thinking ability.

Inferential abilities : The ability to draw conclusions from given information, and to recognize with what degree of certainty one’s own or others’ conclusions follow, is universally recognized as a general critical thinking ability. All 11 examples in section 2 of this article include inferences, some from hypotheses or options (as in Transit , Ferryboat and Disorder ), others from something observed (as in Weather and Rash ). None of these inferences is formally valid. Rather, they are licensed by general, sometimes qualified substantive rules of inference (Toulmin 1958) that rest on domain knowledge—that a bus trip takes about the same time in each direction, that the terminal of a wireless telegraph would be located on the highest possible place, that sudden cooling is often followed by rain, that an allergic reaction to a sulfa drug generally shows up soon after one starts taking it. It is a matter of controversy to what extent the specialized ability to deduce conclusions from premisses using formal rules of inference is needed for critical thinking. Dewey (1933) locates logical forms in setting out the products of reflection rather than in the process of reflection. Ennis (1981a), on the other hand, maintains that a liberally-educated person should have the following abilities: to translate natural-language statements into statements using the standard logical operators, to use appropriately the language of necessary and sufficient conditions, to deal with argument forms and arguments containing symbols, to determine whether in virtue of an argument’s form its conclusion follows necessarily from its premisses, to reason with logically complex propositions, and to apply the rules and procedures of deductive logic. Inferential abilities are recognized as critical thinking abilities by Glaser (1941: 6), Facione (1990a: 9), Ennis (1991: 9), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 99, 111), and Halpern (1998: 452). Items testing inferential abilities constitute two of the five subtests of the Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (Watson & Glaser 1980a, 1980b, 1994), two of the four sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), three of the seven sections in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005), 11 of the 34 items on Forms A and B of the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992), and a high but variable proportion of the 25 selected-response questions in the Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Experimenting abilities : Knowing how to design and execute an experiment is important not just in scientific research but also in everyday life, as in Rash . Dewey devoted a whole chapter of his How We Think (1910: 145–156; 1933: 190–202) to the superiority of experimentation over observation in advancing knowledge. Experimenting abilities come into play at one remove in appraising reports of scientific studies. Skill in designing and executing experiments includes the acknowledged abilities to appraise evidence (Glaser 1941: 6), to carry out experiments and to apply appropriate statistical inference techniques (Facione 1990a: 9), to judge inductions to an explanatory hypothesis (Ennis 1991: 9), and to recognize the need for an adequately large sample size (Halpern 1998). The Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) includes four items (out of 52) on experimental design. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) makes room for appraisal of study design in both its performance task and its selected-response questions.

Consulting abilities : Skill at consulting sources of information comes into play when one seeks information to help resolve a problem, as in Candidate . Ability to find and appraise information includes ability to gather and marshal pertinent information (Glaser 1941: 6), to judge whether a statement made by an alleged authority is acceptable (Ennis 1962: 84), to plan a search for desired information (Facione 1990a: 9), and to judge the credibility of a source (Ennis 1991: 9). Ability to judge the credibility of statements is tested by 24 items (out of 76) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level X (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005) and by four items (out of 52) in the Cornell Critical Thinking Test Level Z (Ennis & Millman 1971; Ennis, Millman, & Tomko 1985, 2005). The College Learning Assessment’s performance task requires evaluation of whether information in documents is credible or unreliable (Council for Aid to Education 2017).

Argument analysis abilities : The ability to identify and analyze arguments contributes to the process of surveying arguments on an issue in order to form one’s own reasoned judgment, as in Candidate . The ability to detect and analyze arguments is recognized as a critical thinking skill by Facione (1990a: 7–8), Ennis (1991: 9) and Halpern (1998). Five items (out of 34) on the California Critical Thinking Skills Test (Facione 1990b, 1992) test skill at argument analysis. The College Learning Assessment (Council for Aid to Education 2017) incorporates argument analysis in its selected-response tests of critical reading and evaluation and of critiquing an argument.

Judging skills and deciding skills : Skill at judging and deciding is skill at recognizing what judgment or decision the available evidence and argument supports, and with what degree of confidence. It is thus a component of the inferential skills already discussed.

Lists and tests of critical thinking abilities often include two more abilities: identifying assumptions and constructing and evaluating definitions.

In addition to dispositions and abilities, critical thinking needs knowledge: of critical thinking concepts, of critical thinking principles, and of the subject-matter of the thinking.

We can derive a short list of concepts whose understanding contributes to critical thinking from the critical thinking abilities described in the preceding section. Observational abilities require an understanding of the difference between observation and inference. Questioning abilities require an understanding of the concepts of ambiguity and vagueness. Inferential abilities require an understanding of the difference between conclusive and defeasible inference (traditionally, between deduction and induction), as well as of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Experimenting abilities require an understanding of the concepts of hypothesis, null hypothesis, assumption and prediction, as well as of the concept of statistical significance and of its difference from importance. They also require an understanding of the difference between an experiment and an observational study, and in particular of the difference between a randomized controlled trial, a prospective correlational study and a retrospective (case-control) study. Argument analysis abilities require an understanding of the concepts of argument, premiss, assumption, conclusion and counter-consideration. Additional critical thinking concepts are proposed by Bailin et al. (1999b: 293), Fisher & Scriven (1997: 105–106), Black (2012), and Blair (2021).

According to Glaser (1941: 25), ability to think critically requires knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning. If we review the list of abilities in the preceding section, however, we can see that some of them can be acquired and exercised merely through practice, possibly guided in an educational setting, followed by feedback. Searching intelligently for a causal explanation of some phenomenon or event requires that one consider a full range of possible causal contributors, but it seems more important that one implements this principle in one’s practice than that one is able to articulate it. What is important is “operational knowledge” of the standards and principles of good thinking (Bailin et al. 1999b: 291–293). But the development of such critical thinking abilities as designing an experiment or constructing an operational definition can benefit from learning their underlying theory. Further, explicit knowledge of quirks of human thinking seems useful as a cautionary guide. Human memory is not just fallible about details, as people learn from their own experiences of misremembering, but is so malleable that a detailed, clear and vivid recollection of an event can be a total fabrication (Loftus 2017). People seek or interpret evidence in ways that are partial to their existing beliefs and expectations, often unconscious of their “confirmation bias” (Nickerson 1998). Not only are people subject to this and other cognitive biases (Kahneman 2011), of which they are typically unaware, but it may be counter-productive for one to make oneself aware of them and try consciously to counteract them or to counteract social biases such as racial or sexual stereotypes (Kenyon & Beaulac 2014). It is helpful to be aware of these facts and of the superior effectiveness of blocking the operation of biases—for example, by making an immediate record of one’s observations, refraining from forming a preliminary explanatory hypothesis, blind refereeing, double-blind randomized trials, and blind grading of students’ work. It is also helpful to be aware of the prevalence of “noise” (unwanted unsystematic variability of judgments), of how to detect noise (through a noise audit), and of how to reduce noise: make accuracy the goal, think statistically, break a process of arriving at a judgment into independent tasks, resist premature intuitions, in a group get independent judgments first, favour comparative judgments and scales (Kahneman, Sibony, & Sunstein 2021). It is helpful as well to be aware of the concept of “bounded rationality” in decision-making and of the related distinction between “satisficing” and optimizing (Simon 1956; Gigerenzer 2001).

Critical thinking about an issue requires substantive knowledge of the domain to which the issue belongs. Critical thinking abilities are not a magic elixir that can be applied to any issue whatever by somebody who has no knowledge of the facts relevant to exploring that issue. For example, the student in Bubbles needed to know that gases do not penetrate solid objects like a glass, that air expands when heated, that the volume of an enclosed gas varies directly with its temperature and inversely with its pressure, and that hot objects will spontaneously cool down to the ambient temperature of their surroundings unless kept hot by insulation or a source of heat. Critical thinkers thus need a rich fund of subject-matter knowledge relevant to the variety of situations they encounter. This fact is recognized in the inclusion among critical thinking dispositions of a concern to become and remain generally well informed.

Experimental educational interventions, with control groups, have shown that education can improve critical thinking skills and dispositions, as measured by standardized tests. For information about these tests, see the Supplement on Assessment .

What educational methods are most effective at developing the dispositions, abilities and knowledge of a critical thinker? In a comprehensive meta-analysis of experimental and quasi-experimental studies of strategies for teaching students to think critically, Abrami et al. (2015) found that dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring each increased the effectiveness of the educational intervention, and that they were most effective when combined. They also found that in these studies a combination of separate instruction in critical thinking with subject-matter instruction in which students are encouraged to think critically was more effective than either by itself. However, the difference was not statistically significant; that is, it might have arisen by chance.

Most of these studies lack the longitudinal follow-up required to determine whether the observed differential improvements in critical thinking abilities or dispositions continue over time, for example until high school or college graduation. For details on studies of methods of developing critical thinking skills and dispositions, see the Supplement on Educational Methods .

12. Controversies

Scholars have denied the generalizability of critical thinking abilities across subject domains, have alleged bias in critical thinking theory and pedagogy, and have investigated the relationship of critical thinking to other kinds of thinking.

McPeck (1981) attacked the thinking skills movement of the 1970s, including the critical thinking movement. He argued that there are no general thinking skills, since thinking is always thinking about some subject-matter. It is futile, he claimed, for schools and colleges to teach thinking as if it were a separate subject. Rather, teachers should lead their pupils to become autonomous thinkers by teaching school subjects in a way that brings out their cognitive structure and that encourages and rewards discussion and argument. As some of his critics (e.g., Paul 1985; Siegel 1985) pointed out, McPeck’s central argument needs elaboration, since it has obvious counter-examples in writing and speaking, for which (up to a certain level of complexity) there are teachable general abilities even though they are always about some subject-matter. To make his argument convincing, McPeck needs to explain how thinking differs from writing and speaking in a way that does not permit useful abstraction of its components from the subject-matters with which it deals. He has not done so. Nevertheless, his position that the dispositions and abilities of a critical thinker are best developed in the context of subject-matter instruction is shared by many theorists of critical thinking, including Dewey (1910, 1933), Glaser (1941), Passmore (1980), Weinstein (1990), Bailin et al. (1999b), and Willingham (2019).

McPeck’s challenge prompted reflection on the extent to which critical thinking is subject-specific. McPeck argued for a strong subject-specificity thesis, according to which it is a conceptual truth that all critical thinking abilities are specific to a subject. (He did not however extend his subject-specificity thesis to critical thinking dispositions. In particular, he took the disposition to suspend judgment in situations of cognitive dissonance to be a general disposition.) Conceptual subject-specificity is subject to obvious counter-examples, such as the general ability to recognize confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions. A more modest thesis, also endorsed by McPeck, is epistemological subject-specificity, according to which the norms of good thinking vary from one field to another. Epistemological subject-specificity clearly holds to a certain extent; for example, the principles in accordance with which one solves a differential equation are quite different from the principles in accordance with which one determines whether a painting is a genuine Picasso. But the thesis suffers, as Ennis (1989) points out, from vagueness of the concept of a field or subject and from the obvious existence of inter-field principles, however broadly the concept of a field is construed. For example, the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning hold for all the varied fields in which such reasoning occurs. A third kind of subject-specificity is empirical subject-specificity, according to which as a matter of empirically observable fact a person with the abilities and dispositions of a critical thinker in one area of investigation will not necessarily have them in another area of investigation.

The thesis of empirical subject-specificity raises the general problem of transfer. If critical thinking abilities and dispositions have to be developed independently in each school subject, how are they of any use in dealing with the problems of everyday life and the political and social issues of contemporary society, most of which do not fit into the framework of a traditional school subject? Proponents of empirical subject-specificity tend to argue that transfer is more likely to occur if there is critical thinking instruction in a variety of domains, with explicit attention to dispositions and abilities that cut across domains. But evidence for this claim is scanty. There is a need for well-designed empirical studies that investigate the conditions that make transfer more likely.

It is common ground in debates about the generality or subject-specificity of critical thinking dispositions and abilities that critical thinking about any topic requires background knowledge about the topic. For example, the most sophisticated understanding of the principles of hypothetico-deductive reasoning is of no help unless accompanied by some knowledge of what might be plausible explanations of some phenomenon under investigation.

Critics have objected to bias in the theory, pedagogy and practice of critical thinking. Commentators (e.g., Alston 1995; Ennis 1998) have noted that anyone who takes a position has a bias in the neutral sense of being inclined in one direction rather than others. The critics, however, are objecting to bias in the pejorative sense of an unjustified favoring of certain ways of knowing over others, frequently alleging that the unjustly favoured ways are those of a dominant sex or culture (Bailin 1995). These ways favour:

  • reinforcement of egocentric and sociocentric biases over dialectical engagement with opposing world-views (Paul 1981, 1984; Warren 1998)
  • distancing from the object of inquiry over closeness to it (Martin 1992; Thayer-Bacon 1992)
  • indifference to the situation of others over care for them (Martin 1992)
  • orientation to thought over orientation to action (Martin 1992)
  • being reasonable over caring to understand people’s ideas (Thayer-Bacon 1993)
  • being neutral and objective over being embodied and situated (Thayer-Bacon 1995a)
  • doubting over believing (Thayer-Bacon 1995b)
  • reason over emotion, imagination and intuition (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • solitary thinking over collaborative thinking (Thayer-Bacon 2000)
  • written and spoken assignments over other forms of expression (Alston 2001)
  • attention to written and spoken communications over attention to human problems (Alston 2001)
  • winning debates in the public sphere over making and understanding meaning (Alston 2001)

A common thread in this smorgasbord of accusations is dissatisfaction with focusing on the logical analysis and evaluation of reasoning and arguments. While these authors acknowledge that such analysis and evaluation is part of critical thinking and should be part of its conceptualization and pedagogy, they insist that it is only a part. Paul (1981), for example, bemoans the tendency of atomistic teaching of methods of analyzing and evaluating arguments to turn students into more able sophists, adept at finding fault with positions and arguments with which they disagree but even more entrenched in the egocentric and sociocentric biases with which they began. Martin (1992) and Thayer-Bacon (1992) cite with approval the self-reported intimacy with their subject-matter of leading researchers in biology and medicine, an intimacy that conflicts with the distancing allegedly recommended in standard conceptions and pedagogy of critical thinking. Thayer-Bacon (2000) contrasts the embodied and socially embedded learning of her elementary school students in a Montessori school, who used their imagination, intuition and emotions as well as their reason, with conceptions of critical thinking as

thinking that is used to critique arguments, offer justifications, and make judgments about what are the good reasons, or the right answers. (Thayer-Bacon 2000: 127–128)

Alston (2001) reports that her students in a women’s studies class were able to see the flaws in the Cinderella myth that pervades much romantic fiction but in their own romantic relationships still acted as if all failures were the woman’s fault and still accepted the notions of love at first sight and living happily ever after. Students, she writes, should

be able to connect their intellectual critique to a more affective, somatic, and ethical account of making risky choices that have sexist, racist, classist, familial, sexual, or other consequences for themselves and those both near and far… critical thinking that reads arguments, texts, or practices merely on the surface without connections to feeling/desiring/doing or action lacks an ethical depth that should infuse the difference between mere cognitive activity and something we want to call critical thinking. (Alston 2001: 34)

Some critics portray such biases as unfair to women. Thayer-Bacon (1992), for example, has charged modern critical thinking theory with being sexist, on the ground that it separates the self from the object and causes one to lose touch with one’s inner voice, and thus stigmatizes women, who (she asserts) link self to object and listen to their inner voice. Her charge does not imply that women as a group are on average less able than men to analyze and evaluate arguments. Facione (1990c) found no difference by sex in performance on his California Critical Thinking Skills Test. Kuhn (1991: 280–281) found no difference by sex in either the disposition or the competence to engage in argumentative thinking.

The critics propose a variety of remedies for the biases that they allege. In general, they do not propose to eliminate or downplay critical thinking as an educational goal. Rather, they propose to conceptualize critical thinking differently and to change its pedagogy accordingly. Their pedagogical proposals arise logically from their objections. They can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus on argument networks with dialectical exchanges reflecting contesting points of view rather than on atomic arguments, so as to develop “strong sense” critical thinking that transcends egocentric and sociocentric biases (Paul 1981, 1984).
  • Foster closeness to the subject-matter and feeling connected to others in order to inform a humane democracy (Martin 1992).
  • Develop “constructive thinking” as a social activity in a community of physically embodied and socially embedded inquirers with personal voices who value not only reason but also imagination, intuition and emotion (Thayer-Bacon 2000).
  • In developing critical thinking in school subjects, treat as important neither skills nor dispositions but opening worlds of meaning (Alston 2001).
  • Attend to the development of critical thinking dispositions as well as skills, and adopt the “critical pedagogy” practised and advocated by Freire (1968 [1970]) and hooks (1994) (Dalgleish, Girard, & Davies 2017).

A common thread in these proposals is treatment of critical thinking as a social, interactive, personally engaged activity like that of a quilting bee or a barn-raising (Thayer-Bacon 2000) rather than as an individual, solitary, distanced activity symbolized by Rodin’s The Thinker . One can get a vivid description of education with the former type of goal from the writings of bell hooks (1994, 2010). Critical thinking for her is open-minded dialectical exchange across opposing standpoints and from multiple perspectives, a conception similar to Paul’s “strong sense” critical thinking (Paul 1981). She abandons the structure of domination in the traditional classroom. In an introductory course on black women writers, for example, she assigns students to write an autobiographical paragraph about an early racial memory, then to read it aloud as the others listen, thus affirming the uniqueness and value of each voice and creating a communal awareness of the diversity of the group’s experiences (hooks 1994: 84). Her “engaged pedagogy” is thus similar to the “freedom under guidance” implemented in John Dewey’s Laboratory School of Chicago in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It incorporates the dialogue, anchored instruction, and mentoring that Abrami (2015) found to be most effective in improving critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What is the relationship of critical thinking to problem solving, decision-making, higher-order thinking, creative thinking, and other recognized types of thinking? One’s answer to this question obviously depends on how one defines the terms used in the question. If critical thinking is conceived broadly to cover any careful thinking about any topic for any purpose, then problem solving and decision making will be kinds of critical thinking, if they are done carefully. Historically, ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ were two names for the same thing. If critical thinking is conceived more narrowly as consisting solely of appraisal of intellectual products, then it will be disjoint with problem solving and decision making, which are constructive.

Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives used the phrase “intellectual abilities and skills” for what had been labeled “critical thinking” by some, “reflective thinking” by Dewey and others, and “problem solving” by still others (Bloom et al. 1956: 38). Thus, the so-called “higher-order thinking skills” at the taxonomy’s top levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation are just critical thinking skills, although they do not come with general criteria for their assessment (Ennis 1981b). The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2001) likewise treats critical thinking as cutting across those types of cognitive process that involve more than remembering (Anderson et al. 2001: 269–270). For details, see the Supplement on History .

As to creative thinking, it overlaps with critical thinking (Bailin 1987, 1988). Thinking about the explanation of some phenomenon or event, as in Ferryboat , requires creative imagination in constructing plausible explanatory hypotheses. Likewise, thinking about a policy question, as in Candidate , requires creativity in coming up with options. Conversely, creativity in any field needs to be balanced by critical appraisal of the draft painting or novel or mathematical theory.

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  • Weinstein, Mark, 1990, “Towards a Research Agenda for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking”, Informal Logic , 12(3): 121–143. [ Weinstein 1990 available online ]
  • –––, 2013, Logic, Truth and Inquiry , London: College Publications.
  • Willingham, Daniel T., 2019, “How to Teach Critical Thinking”, Education: Future Frontiers , 1: 1–17. [Available online at]
  • Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus, 1996, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139174763
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
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Lydia Denworth


The five senses and the nature of perception, perceiving the world looks, sounds, and feels easy. it isn't..

Posted November 11, 2014 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

We perceive the world through our five senses—our eyes, ears, skin, nose, and mouth are all receptors. Everything that comes into the brain enters through one of these doors. Because most of us take the world in through our senses effortlessly, we don’t give much thought or attention to how we do this.

Even scientists were guilty of underappreciating the complexity of the senses. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when computers were in their infancy, the thinking was that it would take a decade or so to build “perceiving machines” that could respond to sight, sound, touch and so on as well as a human being. Such a machine still doesn’t exist.

Lose a sense, however, and you will quickly appreciate what is missing. I know because that’s what happened to me when I found out my son was deaf. There was so much to learn about the way hearing works and the role of sound in the brain that I wrote a whole book about it. That was the long version.

This is the short version. What has to happen to put on the show that is our awareness of our environment? An awful lot. Neuroscientists have recently done some radical rethinking about the very nature of perception .

“Historically, the way we intuitively think about all perception is that we’re like a passive recording device with detectors that are specialized for certain things, like a retina for seeing, a cochlea for hearing, and so forth,” says David Poeppel , a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and a director of the newly established Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics . “We’re kind of a camera or microphone that gets encoded somehow and then magically makes contact with the stuff in your head.”

At the same time, many of the big thinkers who pondered perception, as far back as the 19th-century German physician Hermann von Helmholtz, knew that couldn’t be quite right. If we reached for a glass or listened to a sentence, didn’t it help to be able to anticipate what might come next?

In the mid-to-late 20th century, a handful of prominent researchers proposed models of perception that suggested that we engaged in “active sensing,” seeking out what was possible as we went along. Such ideas didn’t gain much traction until the past decade, when they suddenly became a hot topic in the study of cognition . What everyone is talking about today is the brain’s power of prediction.

On one level, prediction is just common sense, which may be one reason it didn’t get much scientific respect for so long. If you see your doctor in the doctor’s office, you recognize her quickly. If you see her in the grocery store dressed in jeans, you’ll be slower to realize you know her.

Predictable events are easy for the brain; unpredictable events require more effort. “Our expectations for what we’re going to perceive seem to be a critical part of the process,” says Greg Hickok , a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine. “It allows the system to make guesses as to what it might be seeing and to use computational shortcuts.”

In the old view of perception, a cascade of responses flows from the ear or the eye through the brain and ends with the ability to follow a complicated sentence or pick out the one person you are looking for in a crowded theater. That is known as bottom-up processing. It starts with basic input to any sense—raw data—and ends with such higher-level skills as reasoning and judgment and critical thinking—in other words, our expectations and knowledge.

But that is only half the story. Neuroscientists now believe that the process is also happening in reverse, that the cascade flows both ways, with information being prepared, treated, and converted in both directions simultaneously, from the bottom up and the top down.

This holds for simple responses as well as for complex thinking about philosophy or physics. If a sound is uncomfortably loud, for instance, it is the cortex that registers that fact and sends a message all the way back to the cochlea to stiffen hair cells as a protective measure. The same is true of the retina, adjusting for the amount of light available. It’s not your eye or ear doing that, it’s your brain.

Imagine someone beating rhythmically on a table with a pencil: tap, tap, tap, tap. By the third beat, you have anticipated the timing. By the fourth, scientists like Poeppel and Hickok could see activity in the brain that represents that prediction.

Perception then is an active process of constructing a reality, a conversation between the senses and the cortex that balances new information from the outside world with predictions from the interior world of our brain.

how does perception affect critical thinking scholarly articles

Parts of this post originally appeared in I Can Hear You Whisper: An Intimate Journey through the Science of Sound and Language (Dutton 2014).

Lydia Denworth

Lydia Denworth is a science journalist and author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond.

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The Effect of Concept Maps on Undergraduate Nursing Students' Critical Thinking


  • 1 About the Authors: Janet K. Garwood, DNP, MSN (Ed), CNE, is an assistant professor, College of Nursing, Purdue University Northwest, Westville, Indiana. Azza Ahmed, DNSc, RN, IBCLC, CPNP, is an associate professor, School of Nursing, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Sara McComb, PhD, PE, is a professor with a joint appointment in the School of Nursing and the School of Industrial Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. For more information, contact Dr. Garwood at [email protected].
  • PMID: 29629932
  • DOI: 10.1097/01.NEP.0000000000000307

Aim: The aim of the study was to evaluate the effect of using concept maps as a teaching and learning strategy on students' critical thinking abilities and examine students' perceptions toward concept maps utilizing the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines.

Background: Researchers have found that almost two thirds of nurse graduates do not have adequate critical thinking skills for a beginner nurse. Critical thinking skills are required for safe practice and mandated by accrediting organizations. Nursing educators should consider teaching and learning strategies that promote the development of critical thinking skills.

Method: A literature review was conducted using "concept maps, nursing education, and critical thinking" as the combined search terms. Inclusion criteria were studies that measured the effects of concept mapping on critical thinking in nursing students.

Results: Seventeen articles were identified.

Conclusion: Concept maps may be useful tools to promote critical thinking in nursing education and for applying theory to practice.

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Shaping Our Reality: The Influence of Critical Thinking on Perception and Mental Health

Our perception of reality is shaped by a complex interplay of our thoughts, experiences, and beliefs. it influences how we interpret the world around us, how we relate to others, and ultimately, our mental health..

Critical thinking, the ability to analyse, evaluate, and form judgements, plays a significant role in shaping our perception and its impact on mental health. 

Here we will explore this intriguing intersection and its implications for mental health counselling.

Understanding Perception 

Perception refers to the process by which we interpret and understand sensory information. It involves taking in information from our environment, processing it through our cognitive and emotional filters, and constructing our version of reality. Our perception is, therefore, not an exact reflection of reality but a subjective interpretation shaped by our personal experiences, beliefs, and cognitive processes.

Our perception plays a pivotal role in mental health. It influences how we interpret events, how we respond to stressors, and how we navigate our relationships. Negative or distorted perceptions can lead to emotional distress, problematic behaviours, and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

The Role of Critical Thinking in Shaping Perception 

Critical thinking can significantly influence our perception. It involves analysing, evaluating, and making judgements about information, enabling us to develop a more objective and nuanced understanding of our environment.

Critical thinking encourages us to question our assumptions, consider alternative perspectives, and make decisions based on evidence rather than emotions or biases. This cognitive approach can help us recognise and correct distorted perceptions, leading to a more accurate and balanced understanding of reality.

Critical Thinking and Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases, systematic errors in thinking that influence our judgements and decisions, can significantly distort our perception. They can lead us to overemphasise negative information, jump to conclusions, or interpret neutral events as threatening

Critical thinking can help us recognise and counter these cognitive biases. By questioning our thoughts, considering the evidence, and evaluating alternative interpretations, we can mitigate the impact of cognitive biases on our perception. This can lead to a more objective understanding of our environment, improved decision-making, and enhanced mental health. 

Critical Thinking and Emotional Regulation 

Our perception is not only influenced by our cognitive processes but also our emotions. When we are anxious or depressed, we are more likely to interpret events negatively, contributing to a downward spiral of negative thinking and emotional distress. 

Critical thinking can play a crucial role in managing these emotional influences on our perception. By helping us analyse and evaluate our thoughts, it can prevent us from getting caught up in our emotions and enable us to develop a more balanced and rational perspective.

Critical Thinking in Counselling

In the context of mental health counselling, critical thinking is a valuable skill for both counsellors and clients. Counsellors can use critical thinking to help clients recognise and challenge distorted perceptions, develop healthier thinking patterns, and improve their mental health. 

Clients, on the other hand, can benefit from developing their critical thinking skills. It can empower them to take charge of their mental health, challenge their negative perceptions, and cultivate a more positive and balanced outlook.

In conclusion, critical thinking plays a significant role in shaping our perception and its impact on mental health. By promoting objectivity, reducing the influence of cognitive biases, and fostering emotional regulation, it can help us develop a more accurate and balanced perception of reality.

Developing critical thinking skills is a lifelong journey that requires practice, patience, and perseverance. With the right guidance and support, individuals can harness the power of critical thinking to transform their perception, enhance their mental health, and lead a more fulfilled and balanced life.

At times, life can be overwhelming and leave us feeling lost, anxious, or depressed.

Counselling can provide the support and guidance needed to navigate difficult times and achieve mental well-being. We offer a safe and confidential space to explore your thoughts, feelings, and concerns. We believe that everyone deserves access to quality mental health care, and we strive to provide an inclusive and non-judgmental environment for all. 

If you are struggling with mental health issues or feeling overwhelmed, we invite you to reach out to us for support. We are here to listen, guide, and empower you towards a healthier and happier life. Don't let mental health challenges hold you back from living your best life. Contact us today to schedule an appointment and take the first step towards better mental health.

how does perception affect critical thinking scholarly articles

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  • Front Hum Neurosci

Understanding human perception by human-made illusions

Claus-christian carbon.

1 Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany

2 Bamberg Graduate School of Affective and Cognitive Sciences (BaGrACS), Bamberg, Germany

It may be fun to perceive illusions, but the understanding of how they work is even more stimulating and sustainable: They can tell us where the limits and capacity of our perceptual apparatus are found—they can specify how the constraints of perception are set. Furthermore, they let us analyze the cognitive sub-processes underlying our perception. Illusions in a scientific context are not mainly created to reveal the failures of our perception or the dysfunctions of our apparatus, but instead point to the specific power of human perception. The main task of human perception is to amplify and strengthen sensory inputs to be able to perceive, orientate and act very quickly, specifically and efficiently. The present paper strengthens this line of argument, strongly put forth by perceptual pioneer Richard L. Gregory (e.g., Gregory, 2009 ), by discussing specific visual illusions and how they can help us to understand the magic of perception.

About the veridicality of perception

The relationship between reality and object.

Sensory perception is often the most striking proof of something factual—when we perceive something, we interpret it and take it as “objective”, “real”. Most obviously, you can experience this with eyewitness testimonies: If an eyewitness has “seen it with the naked eye”, judges, jury members and attendees take the reports of these percepts not only as strong evidence, but usually as fact—despite the active and biasing processes on basis of perception and memory. Indeed, it seems that there is no better, no more “proof” of something being factual knowledge than having perceived it. The assumed link between perception and physical reality is particularly strong for the visual sense—in fact, we scrutinize it only when sight conditions have been unfortunate, when people have bad vision or when we know that the eyewitness was under stress or was lacking in cognitive faculties. When people need even more proof of reality than via the naked eye, they intuitively try to touch the to-be-analyzed entity (if at all possible) in order to investigate it haptically. Feeling something by touch seems to be the ultimate perceptual experience in order for humans to speak of physical proof (Carbon and Jakesch, 2013 ).

We can analyze the quality of our perceptual experiences by standard methodological criteria. By doing so we can regularly find out that our perception is indeed mostly very reliable and also objective (Gregory and Gombrich, 1973 )—but only if we employ standard definitions of “objective” as being consensual among different beholders. Still, even by meeting these methodological criteria, we cannot give something in evidence about physical reality. It seems that knowledge about the physical properties of objects cannot be gained by perception, so perception is neither “veridical” nor “valid” in the strict sense of the words—the properties of the “thing in itself” remain indeterminate in any empirical sense (Kant, 1787/1998 ). We “reliably” and “objectively” might perceive the sun going up in the morning and down in the evening; the physical relations are definitely different, as we have known at least since Nicolaus Copernicus’s proposed heliocentricism—it might also be common sense that the Earth is a spheroid for most people, still the majority of people have neither perceived the Earth as spherical nor represented it like that; one reason for this is that in everyday life contexts the illusion of a plane works perfectly well to guide us in the planning and execution of our actions (Carbon, 2010b ).

Limitations of the possibility of objective perception

The limitations of perception are even more far reaching: our perception is not only limited when we do not have access to the thing in itself, it is very practically limited to the quality of processing and the general specifications of our perceptual system. For instance, our acoustic sense can only register and process a very narrow band of frequencies ranging from about 16 Hz–20 kHz as a young adult—this band gets narrower and narrower with increasing age. Typically, infrasonic and ultrasonic bands are just not perceivable despite being essential for other species such as elephants and bats, respectively. The perception of the environment and, consequently, the perception and representation of the world as such, is different for these species—what would be the favorite music of an elephant, which preference would a bat indicate if “honestly asked”? What does infrasonic acoustics sound and feel like? Note: infrasonic frequencies can also be perceived by humans; not acoustically in a strict sense but via vibrations—still, the resulting experiences are very different (cf. Nagel, 1974 ). To make such information accessible we need transformation techniques; for instance, a Geiger-Müller tube for making ionizing radiation perceivable as we have not developed any sensory system for detecting and feeling this band of extremely high frequency electromagnetic radiation.

But even if we have access to given information from the environmental world, it would be an illusion to think of “objective perception” of it—differences in perception across different individuals seem to be obvious: this is one reason for different persons having different tastes, but it is even more extreme: even within a lifetime of one person, the perceptual qualities and quantities which we can process change. Elderly people, for instance, often have yellowish corneas yielding biased color perception reducing the ability to detect and differentiate bluish color spectra. So even objectivity of perceptions in the sense of consensual experience is hardly achievable, even within one species, even within one individual—just think of fashion phenomena (Carbon, 2011a ), of changes in taste (Martindale, 1990 ) or the so-called cycle of preferences (Carbon, 2010a )! Clearly, so-called objective perception is impossible, it is an illusion.

Illusory construction of the world

The problem with the idea of veridical perception of the world is further intensified when taking additional perceptual phenomena, which demonstrate highly constructive qualities of our perceptual system, into account. A very prominent example of this kind is the perceptual effect which arises when any visual information which we want to process falls on the area of the retina where the so-called blind spot is located (see Figure ​ Figure1 1 ).

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is fnhum-08-00566-g0001.jpg

Demonstration of the blind spot, the area on the retina where visual information cannot be processed due to a lack of photoreceptors . The demonstration works as follows: Fixate at a distance of approx. 40 cm the X on the left side with your right eye while having closed your left eye—now move your head slightly in a horizontal way from left to right and backwards till the black disc on the right side seems to vanish.

Interestingly, visual information that is mapped on the blind spot is not just dropped—this would be the easiest solution for the visual apparatus. It is also not rigidly interpolated, for instance, by just doubling neighbor information, but intelligently complemented by analysing the meaning and Gestalt of the context. If we, for example, are exposed to a couple of lines, the perceptual system would complement the physically non-existing information of the blind spot by a best guess heuristic how the lines are interconnected in each case, mostly yielding a very close approximation to “reality” as it uses most probable solutions. Finally, we experience clear visual information, seemingly in the same quality as the one which mirrors physical perception—in the end, the “physical perception” and the “constructed perception”, are of the same quality, also because the “physical perception” is neither a depiction of physical reality, but is also constructed by top-down processes based on best guess heuristic as a kind of hypothesis testing or problem solving (Gregory, 1970 ).

Beside this prominent example which has become common knowledge up to now, a series of further phenomena exist where we can speak of full perceptual constructions of the world outside without any direct link to the physical realities. A very intriguing example of this kind will be described in more detail in the following: When we make fast eye movements (so-called saccades) our perceptual system is suppressed, with the result that we are functionally blind during such saccades. Actually, we do not perceive these blind moments of life although they are highly frequent and relatively long as such—actually, Rayner et al. estimated that typical fixations last about 200–250 ms and saccades last about 20–40 ms (Rayner et al., 2001 ), so about 10% of our time when we are awake is susceptible to such suppression effects. In accordance with other filling-in phenomena, missing data is filled up with the most plausible information: Such a process needs hypotheses about what is going on in the current situation and how the situation will evolve (Gregory, 1970 , 1990 ). If the hypotheses are misleading because the underlying mental model of the situation and its further genesis is incorrect, we face an essential problem: what we then perceive (or fail to perceive) is incompatible with the current situation, and so will mislead our upcoming action. In most extreme cases, this could lead to fatal decisions: for instance: if the model does not construct a specific interfering object in our movement axis, we might miss information essential to changing our current trajectory resulting in a collision course. In such a constellation, we would be totally startled by the crash, as we would not have perceived the target object at all—this is not about missing an object but about entirely overlooking it due to a non-existing trace of perception.

Despite the knowledge about these characteristics of the visual system, we might doubt such processes as the mechanisms are working to so great an extent in most everyday life situations that it provides the perfect illusion of continuous, correct and super-detailed visual input. We can, however, illustrate this mechanism very easily by just observing our eye movements in a mirror: when executing fast eye movements, we cannot observe them by directly inspecting our face in the mirror—we can only perceive our fixations and the slow movements of the eyes. If we, however, film the same scene with a video camera, the whole procedure looks totally different: Now we clearly also see the fast movements; so we can directly experience the specific operation of the visual system in this respect by comparing the same scene captured by two differently working visual systems: our own, very cognitively operating, visual system and the rigidly filming video system which just catches the scene frame by frame without further processing, interpreting and tuning it. 1 We call this moment of temporary functional blindness phenomenon “saccade blindness” or “saccade suppression”, which again illustrates the illusionary aspects of human perception “saccadic suppression”, Bridgeman et al., 1975 ; “tactile suppression”, Ziat et al., 2010 ). We can utilize this phenomena for testing interesting hypotheses on the mental representation of the visual environment: if we change details of a visual display during such functional blind phases of saccadic movements, people usually do not become aware of such changes, even if very important details, e.g., the expression of the mouth, are changed (Bohrn et al., 2010 ).

Illusions by top-down-processes

Gregory proposed that perception shows the quality of hypothesis testing and that illusions make us clear how these hypotheses are formulated and on which data they are based (Gregory, 1970 ). One of the key assumptions for hypothesis testing is that perception is a constructive process depending on top-down processing. Such top-down processes can be guided through knowledge gained over the years, but perception can also be guided by pre-formed capabilities of binding and interpreting specific forms as certain Gestalts. The strong reliance of perception on top-down processing is the essential key for assuring reliable perceptual abilities in a world full of ambiguity and incompleteness. If we read a text from an old facsimile where some of the letters have vanished or bleached out over the years, where coffee stains have covered partial information and where decay processes have turned the originally white paper into a yellowish crumbly substance, we might be very successful in reading the fragments of the text, because our perceptual system interpolates and (re-)constructs (see Figure ​ Figure2). 2 ). If we know or understand the general meaning of the target text, we will even read over some passages that do not exist at all: we fill the gaps through our knowledge—we change the meaning towards what we expect.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is fnhum-08-00566-g0002.jpg

Demonstration of top-down processing when reading the statement “The Grand Illussion” under highly challenging conditions (at least challenging for automatic character recognition) .

A famous example which is often cited and shown in this realm is the so-called man-rat-illusion where an ambiguous sketch drawing is presented whose content is not clearly decipherable, but switches from showing a man to showing a rat—another popular example of this kind is the bistable picture where the interpretation flips from an old woman to a young woman an v.v. (see Figure ​ Figure3)—most 3 )—most people interpret this example as a fascinating illusion demonstrating humans’ capability of switching from one meaning to another, but the example also demonstrates an even more intriguing process: what we will perceive at first glance is mainly guided through the specific activation of our semantic network. If we have been exposed to a picture of a man before, or if we think of a man or have heard the word “man”, the chance is strongly increased that our perceptual system interprets the ambiguous pattern towards a depiction of a man—if the prior experiences were more associated with a rat, a mouse or another animal of such a kind, we will, in contrast, tend to interpret the ambiguous pattern more as a rat.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is fnhum-08-00566-g0003.jpg

The young-old-woman illusion (also known as the My Wife and My Mother-In-Law illusion) already popular in Germany in the 19th century when having been frequently depicted on postcards . Boring ( 1930 ) was the first who presented this illusion in a scientific context (image on the right) calling it a “new” illusion (concretely, “a new ambiguous figure”) although it was very probably taken from an already displayed image of the 19th century within an A and P Condensed Milk advertisement (Lingelbach, 2014 ).

So, we can literally say that we perceive what we know—if we have no prior knowledge of certain things we can even overlook important details in a pattern because we have no strong association with something meaningful. The intimate processing between sensory inputs and our semantic networks enables us to recognize familiar objects within a few milliseconds, even if they show the complexity of human faces (Locher et al., 1993 ; Willis and Todorov, 2006 ; Carbon, 2011b ).

Top-down processes are powerful in schematizing and easing-up perceptual processes in the sense of compressing the “big data” of the sensory inputs towards tiny data packages with pre-categorized labels on such schematized “icons” (Carbon, 2008 ). Top-down processes, however, are also susceptible to characteristic fallacies or illusions due to their guided, model-based nature: When we have only a brief time slot for a snapshot of a complex scene, the scene is (if we have associations with the general meaning of the inspected scene at all) so simplified that specific details get lost in favor of the processing and interpretation of the general meaning of the whole scene.

Biederman ( 1981 ) impressively demonstrated this by exposing participants to a sketch drawing of a typical street scene where typical objects are placed in a prototypical setting, with the exception that a visible hydrant in the foreground was not positioned on the pavement besides a car but unusually directly on the car. When people were exposed to such a scene for only 150 ms, followed by a scrambled backward mask, they “re-arranged” the setting by top-down processes based on their knowledge of hydrants and their typical positions on pavements. In this specific case, people have indeed been deceived, because they report a scene which was in accordance with their knowledge but not with the assessment of the presented scene—but for everyday actions this seems unproblematic. Although you might indeed lose the link to the fine-detailed structure of a specific entity when strongly relying on top-down processes, such an endeavor works quite brilliantly in most cases as it is a best guess estimation or approximation—it works particularly well when we are running out of resources, e.g., when we are in a specific mode of being pressed for time and/or you are engaged in a series of other cognitive processes. Actually, such a mode is the standard mode in everyday life. However, even if we had the time and no other processes needed to be executed, we would not be able to adequately process the big data of the sensory input.

The whole idea of this top-down processing with schematized perception stems from F. C. Bartlett’s pioneering series of experiments in a variety of domains (Bartlett, 1932 ). Bartlett already showed that we do not read the full information from a visual display or a narrative, but that we rely on schemata reflecting the essence of things, stories, and situations being strongly shaped by prior knowledge and its specific activation (see for a critical reflection of Bartlett’s method Carbon and Albrecht, 2012 ).

Perception as a grand illusion

Reconstructing human psychological reality.

There is clearly an enormous gap between the big data provided by the external world and our strictly limited capacity to process them. The gap widens even further when taking into account that we not only have to process the data but ultimately have to make clear sense of the core of the given situation. The goal is to make one (and only one) decision based on the unambiguous interpretation of this situation in order to execute an appropriate action. This very teleological way of processing needs inhibitory capabilities for competing interpretations to strictly favor one single interpretation which enables fast action without quarrelling about alternatives. In order to realize such a clear interpretation of a situation, we need a mental model of the external world which is very clear and without ambiguities and indeterminacies. Ideally, such a model is a kind of caricature of physical reality: If there is an object to be quickly detected, the figure-ground contrast, e.g., should be intensified. If we need to identify the borders of an object under unfavorable viewing conditions, it is helpful to enhance the transitions from one border to another, for instance. If we want to easily diagnose the ripeness of a fruit desired for eating, it is most helpful when color saturation is amplified for familiar kinds of fruits. Our perceptual system has exactly such capabilities of intensifying, enhancing and amplifying—the result is the generation of schematic, prototypical, sketch-like perceptions and representations. Any metaphor for perception as a kind of tool which makes photos is fully misleading because perception is much more than blueprinting: it is a cognitive process aiming at reconstructing any scene at its core.

All these “intelligent perceptual processes” can most easily be demonstrated by perceptual illusions: For instance, when we look at the inner horizontal bar of Figure ​ Figure4, 4 , we observe a continuous shift from light to dark gray and from left to right, although there is no physical change in the gray value—in fact only one gray value is used for creating this region. The illusion is induced by the distribution of the peripheral gray values which indeed show a continuous shift of gray levels, although in a reverse direction. The phenomenon of simultaneous contrast helps us to make the contrast clearer; helping us to identify figure-ground relations more easily, more quickly and more securely.

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Demonstration of the simultaneous contrast, an optical illusion already described as phenomenon 200 years ago by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and provided in high quality and with an intense effect by McCourt ( 1982 ): the inner horizontal bar is physically filled with the same gray value all over, nevertheless, the periphery with its continuous change of gray from darker to lighter values from left to right induce the perception of a reverse continuous change of gray values . The first one who showed the effect in a staircase of grades of gray was probably Ewald Hering (see Hering, 1907 ; pp. I. Teil, XII. Kap. Tafel II), who also proposed the theory of opponent color processing.

A similar principle of intensifying given physical relations by the perceptual system is now known as the Chevreul-Mach bands (see Figure ​ Figure5), 5 ), independently introduced by chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul (see Chevreul, 1839 ) and by physicist and philosopher Ernst Waldfried Josef Wenzel Mach (Mach, 1865 ). Via the process of lateral inhibition, luminance changes from one bar to another are exaggerated, specifically at the edges of the bars. This helps to differentiate between the different areas and to trigger edge-detection of the bars.

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Chevreul-Mach bands. Demonstration of contrast exaggeration by lateral inhibition: although every bar is filled with one solid level of gray, we perceive narrow bands at the edges with increased contrast which does not reflect the physical reality of solid gray bars.

Constructing human psychological reality

This reconstructive capability is impressive and helps us to get rid of ambiguous or indeterminate percepts. However, the power of perception is even more intriguing when we look at a related phenomenon. When we analyze perceptual illusions where entities or relations are not only enhanced in their recognizability but even entirely constructed without a physical correspondence, then we can quite rightly speak of the “active construction” of human psychological reality. A very prominent example is the Kanizsa triangle (Figure ​ (Figure6) 6 ) where we clearly perceive illusory contours and related Gestalts—actually, none of them exists at all in a physical sense. The illusion is so strong that we have the feeling of being able to grasp even the whole configuration.

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Demonstration of illusory contours which create the clear perception of Gestalts . The so-called Kanizsa triangle named after Gaetano Kanizsa (see Kanizsa, 1955 ), a very famous example of the long tradition of such figures displayed over centuries in architecture, fashion and ornamentation. We not only perceive two triangles, but even interpret the whole configuration as one with clear depth, with the solid white “triangle” in the foreground of another “triangle” which stands bottom up.

To detect and recognize such Gestalts is very important for us. Fortunately, we are not only equipped with a cognitive mechanism helping us to perceive such Gestalts, but we also feel rewarded when having recognized them as Gestalts despite indeterminate patterns (Muth et al., 2013 ): in the moment of the insight for a Gestalt the now determinate pattern gains liking (the so-called “Aesthetic-Aha-effect”, Muth and Carbon, 2013 ). The detection and recognition process adds affective value to the pattern which leads to the activation of even more cognitive energy to deal with it as it now means something to us.


Perceptual illusions can be seen, interpreted and used in two very different aspects: on the one hand, and this is the common property assigned to illusions, they are used to entertain people. They are a part of our everyday culture, they can kill time. On the other hand, they are often the starting point for creating insights. And insights, especially if they are based on personal experiences through elaborative processes actively, are perfect pre-conditions to increase understanding and to improve and optimize mental models (Carbon, 2010b ). We can even combine both aspects to create an attractive learning context: by drawing people’s attention via arousing and playful illusions, we generate attraction towards the phenomena underlying the illusions. If people get really interested, they will also invest sufficient time and cognitive energy to be able to solve an illusion or to get an idea of how the illusion works. If they arrive at a higher state of insight, they will benefit from understanding what kind of perceptual mechanism is underlying the phenomenon.

We can of course interpret perceptual illusions as malfunctions indicating the typical limits of our perceptual or cognitive system—this is probably the standard perspective on the whole area of illusions. In this view, our systems are fallible, slow, malfunctioning, and imperfect. We can, however, also interpret illusory perceptions as a sign of our incredible, highly complex and efficient capabilities of transforming sensory inputs into understanding and interpreting the current situation in a very fast way in order to generate adequate and goal-leading actions in good time (see Gregory, 2009 )—this view is not yet the standard one to be found in beginners’ text books and typical descriptions or non-scientific papers on illusions. By taking into account how perfectly we act in most everyday situations, we can experience the high “intelligence” of the perceptual system quite easily and intuitively. We might not own the most perfect system when we aim to reproduce the very details of a scene, but we can assess the core meaning of a complex scene.

Typical perceptual processes work so brilliantly that we can mostly act appropriately, and, very important for a biological system, we can act in response to the sensory inputs very fast—this has to be challenged by any technical, man-made system, and will always be the most important benchmark for artificial perceptual systems. Following the research and engineering program of bionics (Xie, 2012 ),where systems and processes of nature are transferred to technical products, we might be well-advised to orient our developments in the field of perception to the characteristic processing of biological perceptual systems, and their typical behavior when perceptual illusions are encountered.

Conflict of interest statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


This paper was strongly inspired by Richard L. Gregory’s talks, texts and theories which I particularly enjoyed during the first years of my research career. The outcome of these “perceptions” changed my “perception on reality” and so on “reality” as such. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers who put much effort in assisting me to improve a previous version of this paper. Last but not least I want to express my gratitude to Baingio Pinna, University of Sassari, who edited the whole Research Topic together with Adam Reeves, Northeastern University, USA.

1 There is an interesting update in technology for demonstrating this effect putting forward by one of the reviewers. If you use the 2nd camera of your smartphone (the one for shooting “selfies”) or your notebook camera and you look at your depicted eyes very closely, then the delay of building up the film sequence is seemingly a bit longer than the saccadic suppression yielding the interesting effect of perceiving your own eye movements directly. Note: I have tried it out and it worked, by the way best when using older models which might take longer for building up the images. You will perceive your eye movements particular clearly when executing relatively large saccades, e.g., from the left periphery to the right and back.

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