The Goal of Critical ThinkingMany researchers suggest that a key characteristic of critical thinking is the ability to recognize one’s own fallibility when evaluating and generating evidence — recognizing the danger of weighing evidence according to one’s own beliefs.  The expanding literature on informal reasoning emphasizes the importance of detaching one’s own beliefs from the process of argument evaluation (Kuhn, 2007; Stanovich & Stanovich, 2010).

The emphasis placed on unbiased reasoning processes has led researchers to highlight the importance of decontextualized reasoning.  For example (Stanovich & Stanovich, 2010, p. 196):

Kelley (1990) argues that “the ability to step back from our train of thought . . . . is a virtue because it is the only way to check the results of our thinking, the only way to avoid jumping to conclusions, the only way to stay in touch with the facts” (p. 6). Neimark (1987) lumps the concepts of decentering and decontextualizing under the umbrella term detachment. She terms one component of detachment depersonalizing: being able to adopt perspectives other than one’s own. This aspect of detachment is closely analogous to Piaget’s (1926) concept of decentration.”

Various tasks in the heuristics and biases branch of the reasoning literature involve some type of decontextualized reasoning (Kahneman, 2003; Stanovich, 2003).  These tasks are designed to see whether reasoning processes can function without interference from the context (prior opinions, beliefs, vividness effects).

In a series of studies, Klaczynski and colleagues (Klaczynski & Lavallee, 2005; Klaczynski & Robinson, 2000; Stanovich & Stanovich, 2010) presented individuals with flawed hypothetical experiments leading to conclusions that were either consistent or inconsistent with their prior positions and opinions. The study participants then critiqued the flaws in the experiments.  More flaws were found when the experiment’s conclusions were inconsistent with the participants’ prior opinions than when the experiment’s conclusions were consistent with their prior opinions and beliefs.

In the education field, educators often pay lip service to the idea of teaching “critical thinking.”  But, when asked to define “critical thinking,” answers are often weak and sometimes so ambiguous they are virtually worthless.  Common responses to the critical thinking questions includes, “teaching them how to think,” “teaching them formal logic,” or “teaching them how to solve problems.”  They already know how to think, logic is only a portion of what is needed to increase critical thinking, and teaching them how to solve problems is an ambiguous answer that is context specific.

Stanovich argues, “that the superordinate goal we are actually trying to foster is that of rationality” (Stanovich, 2010, p.198). Ultimately, educators are concerned with rational thought in both the epistemic sense and the practical sense.  Certain thinking dispositions are valued because they help us base our beliefs on available evidence and assist us in achieving our goals.

Understanding Rationality

Rationality is concerned with two key things: what is true and what to do (Manktelow, 2004).  In order for our beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence.  In order for our actions to be rational they must be conducive to obtaining our goals.

Cognitive scientists generally identify two types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic (Stanovich, 2009). Instrumental rationality can be defined as adopting appropriate goals, and behaving in a manner that optimizes one’s ability to achieve goals. Epistemic rationality can be defined as holding beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. This type of rationality is concerned with how well our beliefs map onto the structure of the world.   Epistemic rationality is sometimes called evidential rationality or theoretical rationality. Instrumental and epistemic rationality are related.  In order to optimize rationality one needs adequate knowledge in the domains of logic, scientific thinking, and probabilistic thinking.   A wide variety of cognitive skills fall within these broad domains of knowledge.

In order for educators to successfully teach critical thinking/rational thinking it is imperative that they understand what critical thinking actually is and why it matters.  What are the goals of critical thinking?  How can critical thinking be assessed?  Does my curriculum contain information regarding scientific and probabilistic thinking?

Critical thinking is about what is true and what to do.


Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgment and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 58, 697–720.

Klaczynski, P. A., & Robinson, B. (2000). Personal theories, intellectual ability, and epistemological beliefs: Adult age differences in everyday reasoning tasks. Psychology and Aging, 15, 400 – 416.

Klaczynski, P. A., & Lavallee, K. L. (2005). Domain-specific c identity, epistemic regulation, and intellectual ability as predictors of belief-based reasoning: A dual-process perspective. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 92, 1–24.

Kuhn, D., & Udell, W. (2007). Coordinating own and other perspectives in argument. Thinking & Reasoning, 13, 90–104.

Manktelow, K. I. (2004). Reasoning and rationality: The pure and the practical. In K. I. Manktelow & M. C. Chung (Eds.), Psychology of reasoning: Theoretical and historical perspectives (pp. 157-177). Hove, England: Psychology Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (2003). The fundamental computational biases of human cognition: Heuristics that (sometimes) impair decision making and problem solving. In J. E. Davidson & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), The psychology of problem solving (pp. 291–342). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Stanovich, K. E., & Stanovich, P. J. (2010).  A framework for critical thinking, rational thinking, and intelligence. In D. Preiss & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Innovations in educational psychology: Perspectives on learning, teaching and human development (pp. 195-237).  New York: Springer.

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.


    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Jan 2011
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Hale, J. (2011). Critical Thinking: What is True and What to Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from


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