Professional Development

11 Principles Of Critical Thinking  

Our blog “25 In-Demand Jobs That Require Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills” highlighted examples of critical thinking skills employers are seeking. Job applicants who are well versed in the principles of critical thinking, and are able to expertly describe those skills on their résumés and during job interviews bring added value to any organization.

What are the main principles of critical thinking?

Back in 1994, professor Larry Larson at Ohio State University, gave his students added insight on the principles of critical thinking.

“Don’t mistake ignorance for perspective,” he advised. “Gather complete information.” In fact, lack of thoroughness in critical thinking is “one of the most important and violated principles.”

So, if critical thinking requires facts, “erroneous conclusions often stem from inadequate factual knowledge.”

Professor Larson’s 11 principles of critical thinking are listed below:

1. Understanding and defining all terms

2. Gathering the most complete information

3. Questioning the source of facts

4. Questioning the ways and methods by which the facts were gathered or derived

5. Looking for hidden assumptions and biases

6. Understanding your own biases and values

7. Using thought stopping techniques

8. Questioning conclusions based on the available information

9. Never expecting all of the answers

10. Examining the big picture

11. Examining multiple causes and effect

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Principles of critical thinking explained:

1. Understanding and defining all terms

Understanding and agreement on the definition of terms is one key to gathering factual information. Each organization has its own culture and, frequently, its special jargon. When the critical thinker encounters an unfamiliar term, the fact finding stops until the thinker arrives at a complete and unambiguous understanding of the term and any associated modifiers or contextual meanings.

2. Gathering the most complete information

The critical thinker must have both a starting and ending point for information gathering. The starting point has to be narrow enough to avoid information overload. Likewise, the end point has to meet an essential criterion of the word “complete.” That is, the information must consist of all relevant and appropriate data. The results of the fact gathering must form a solid foundation for higher order critical thinking.

3. Questioning the source of facts

The explosion of information on the worldwide web is both a blessing and a curse for researchers. For example, a Google search for the phrase “how to improve employee performance” will return over 540 million results in less than one second.

To make it to the top of the list, the websites, articles, white papers, and other linked data had to pass Google’s search algorithm. The Google search looks for structure and good web design—not authenticity or reliability. Even a so-called “neutral” source like Consumer Reports might rate a product or service based on the preference or bias of its editorial board.

So, always question the source of your facts. Is it a primary source or based on hearsay? Is there some hidden cultural or political agenda that fed its conclusions?

The blessing is that there is no shortage of information on any subject. The curse is that the validity of the information must pass the scrutiny of a human with experience and critical thinking skills.

4. Questioning the ways and methods by which the facts were gathered or derived

Besides questioning the source of facts, the critical thinker must investigate and evaluate how the facts in a source were gathered or derived.

Were the findings based on reputable survey methods? What primary sources did the source reference, and did those primary sources have a good academic or professional standing? When a colleague begins a sentence with “According to…” the critical thinker says “Please show me.”

5. Looking for hidden assumptions and biases

Imagine a critical thinking brainstorming session at the The Flat Earth Society. The basic assumption that the earth is a flat disk undoubtedly led to the society’s conclusion that gravity does not exist; objects simply fall. End of discussion. While the Flat Earth Society example is extreme, it does illustrate how unquestioned assumptions can mire critical thinking into a morass of inaccurate findings.

We discussed how confirmation bias and the halo effect can also influence judgment in our blog “5 creative and critical thinking examples in the Workplace.”

6. Understanding your own biases and values

Self-knowledge is an important element of critical thinking. Biases and values are ingredients in both our psychological makeup and how we think. Biases are prejudices and values that can be skewed based on bias.

The value of critical thinking is that anyone can think critically about the way they think. It is one of those few tautologies that make complete sense. Critical thinkers recognize their bias and values and throughout their lives strive to shed bias in favor of positive values.

7. Using thought stopping techniques

If you understand your biases and values, you’ll recognize the warning signs of anxiety and resentment when faced with challenging and dysfunctional thoughts. Thought stopping is a cognitive skill that employs techniques of distraction to stop the negative thoughts and direct them to a more positive (or neutral) orientation.

8. Questioning conclusions based on the available information

Conclusions are only as good as the available information. Why, for example, does the Flat Earth Society conclude that the earth is not a sphere? They look up and see the Sun. The Sun, they say, moves in circles around the North Pole, behaving like a spotlight.

It is, therefore, possible to come up with off-beat conclusions, as long as the “available information” matches a preconceived notion. Says one Boston University academic: “Flat-Earthers seem to have a very low standard of evidence for what they want to believe…”

The same applies when we come to either unexpected or counterintuitive conclusions in critical thinking. Our standards of evidence must be high and past the test of objectivity and validity.

9. Never expect all of the answers

To get all the answers, you must ask all the possible questions. Likewise, you must ask the right—or critical—questions, for example:

  • What facts or elements of a problem or challenge am I taking for granted?
  • Does cause A result in outcome B?
  • What if outcome B is really a cause?
  • What do independent researchers have to say about my assumptions and conclusions?
  • Have I stopped looking for answers because of time constraints or burnout?

10. Examining multiple causes and effects

If problems and people were simple, most events, behaviors, and phenomena would result from a single cause. The APA Dictionary of Psychology has a more realistic view. It is known as multiple causation. Most events rarely result from a single cause. Rather, our problems are a result of multiple causes “working in complex combinations.”

So, even if only one causal factor appears to have contributed to a particular outcome, there are other factors that need to be identified and attended to.

Say that your organization is losing productivity because of chronic absenteeism. A critical thinking approach would look at all the factors surrounding employee absences: illness, malingering, working conditions, quality of supervision, employee compensation, etc.

The fact gathering and resulting analysis would be based on documented and verifiable attendance records as well as seasonal and other trends. The absenteeism might be the obvious cause of lowered productivity, but what are the multiple causes of absenteeism?

11. Examining the big picture

The most effective critical thinkers don’t get swamped in detail. What big-picture thinking allows you to do is:

  • grasp abstract concepts, ideas and possibilities
  • emphasize the rules and constraints of the existing system at work
  • look at all players—customers, employees, investors, as well as competitors
  • anticipate future social, economic, and technological trends (Think “COVID-19”)

So as a critical thinking strategy, big picture thinking looks at the entirety of a concept, rather than each individual detail. This enables you to see possibilities over a timespan that exceeds the duration of the problem at hand. The resulting solutions can be breathtaking in the scope—because you looked at the big picture.

Let’s Recap

Hone your critical thinking skills, and employers will be eager to hire you. Critical thinking skills involve the gathering and evaluating of information in a complete and thorough manner, adhering to the following principles:

  • You must fully understand and define the terms you are working with.
  • You must gather facts that are the rock-solid foundation of your critical thinking.
  • Your research must take into account the validity of the facts you gather.
  • Survey methods involved in your research must be valid.
  • Hidden assumptions and biases can lead to wrong conclusions.
  • Understand your own biases and values, and don’t let them interfere with logical thought.
  • Use thought stopping to overcome skewed values and bias.
  • Always question your conclusions and reexamine the information that led to those conclusions.
  • Your critical thinking will never result in all the available answers, because you don’t know all the questions.
  • Be aware that most problems, situations, and events have more than one cause, and sometimes multiple effects.
  • Becoming a big-picture thinker can broaden your horizons and effectiveness as a critical thinker.

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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