I Think, Therefore I Am: 10 Characteristics
of Critical Thinkers

Written by Rida Tahir on Aug 22, 2020 (7 minute read)

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think. (Albert Einstein)

With the advent of advanced technology and proliferation of social media, critical thinking has become a buzzword. But it’s not just another buzzword. Many people, when they hear the words “critical thinking”, think that it means something negative, in the sense of fault-finding and criticism. It does have negative overtones, but it’s not at all a negative characteristic. Critical thinking is a very important life skill, like problem-solving, decision-making and communication. It’s a pity that most of the schools don’t teach this skill; they teach us to memorize information and regurgitate it for assignments and exams, instead of teaching us how to think and apply the knowledge in our daily lives. That’s why we come out of school as good test-takers, instead of critical thinkers.

Without further ado, here are 10 characteristics of critical thinkers. Read each characteristic and before moving on to the next, ask yourself if you possess the characteristic:

  1. Critical thinkers question authority. They challenge ideas and conclusions of others, regardless of their position and status. They do not blindly follow authority figures (religious scholars, politicians, self-proclaimed experts, etc.). For example, a Mullah, a Priest or a Rabbi is not automatically right or justified in everything they say just because of the virtue of their position and social status. They are human beings; they can be wrong, they can lie, they can be corrupt and they are just as capable of committing all sorts of heinous crimes as everyone else.

    Think of the Holocaust. It didn’t happen because a group of evil people came together. It happened because one evil person in a position of power abused his power for his own ulterior motives and the rest of the people mindlessly followed him like sheep and were actually just being obedient to authority.

  2. Critical thinkers understand that people are not 100% right or wrong all the time. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes they are more right than wrong, sometimes they are more wrong than right. This applies to every single person on this planet, regardless of their position and authority. All the people we hold in high regard, such as Nelson Mandela, Quaid-e-Azam, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Einstein, Gandhi, Dalai Lama, etc., are human beings like the rest of us and just as capable of making wrong judgements, having faulty perceptions and holding opinions that may be more wrong than right.

  3. Critical thinkers are able to listen, genuinely and without bias, to the people they don’t see eye to eye with in most matters. They agree to disagree. They don’t impose their views and opinions on other people and they certainly don’t resort to personal attacks or character assassination when they hear views that are different than their own views. They discuss and present their arguments with logic (and respect) like adults. If the other person is adamant and not willing to listen or won’t agree no matter what, critical thinkers back off and move on with their lives because you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

  4. Critical thinkers think for themselves and avoid jumping to conclusions and rushing to judgement. They are skeptical; they question everything and take their time to examine and evaluate information before they form an opinion. They don’t believe everything they read or hear. They do not accept anything at face value; they ask for evidence. They are able to recognize rumors, fake news and hoaxes and they always make sure to verify the news or information before hitting the share button. They are able to identify biased news and opinions and can spot propaganda. They understand that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s why they don’t fall for outrageous or dramatic claims and believe that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, as emphasized by Carl Sagan. Oh, and they also don’t believe in conspiracy theories, superstitions and magical thinking.

  5. Critical thinkers challenge the status quo and do not blindly follow traditions. Status quo is a Latin phrase that means the current state of things. Most of the people are, by nature, followers, and are not interested in disrupting the status quo. That's why traditions like dowry are so prevalent; because most people don't question traditions and don't want to break old customs and traditions. Others, who are rich, famous or powerful, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, because if they disrupt the status quo or let their followers disrupt the status quo, they would lose their power, credibility and influence. But critical thinkers have the power and courage to challenge the status quo and to question and break traditions. They don’t follow the crowd and are courageous, because it takes courage to stand alone instead of following the crowd. The following quote says it all (commonly attributed to Albert Einstein):

    The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.
    Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.

    P.S: The critical thinker in me can’t help mentioning here that the quote above commonly attributed to Albert Einstein was probably written by Francis Phillip Wernig under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, according to quoteinvestigator.com.

  6. Critical thinkers are open-minded. They examine their own beliefs, attitudes and opinions to identify biases, assumptions and blind spots. They deliberately expose themselves to different perspectives and are flexible enough to consider alternative beliefs, ideas and opinions. They are willing to reconsider, adjust, correct and even discard their old beliefs, attitudes and opinions, in favor of new and better ones. They are tolerant and they respect diversity of beliefs and opinions. They do not breed hatred in their hearts towards people who hold different beliefs and opinions. They respect the differences even if they can’t appreciate them or agree with them.

  7. Critical thinkers understand that consensus doesn’t make something true. Consensus means generally accepted opinion. But consensus is just agreement; it’s not proof that something is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, etc. If a million people are surveyed and it turns out that a majority of them agree that aliens exist, would this be evidence of the existence of extra terrestrial life? Nope.

    If some of these people come forward and claim they were abducted by aliens, would this prove that aliens exist? Again, nope! Because this is anecdotal evidence and people can lie and fabricate stories. Anecdotal evidence does not qualify as scientific evidence IF it doesn’t lend itself to scientific scrutiny i.e. if scientists are unable to investigate and verify something using the scientific method, anecdotal evidence would hold practically no value, as is the case with people claiming to have been abducted by aliens.

  8. Critical thinkers understand the difference between correlation and causation. They understand that correlation is NOT causation. In other words, just because two things happen at the same time or one after another, one is not necessarily the cause of the other.

    Example: a black cat crossed your path in the morning and later you got hit by a truck. This, however, doesn’t mean the poor black cat is to blame. It was a coincidence that these two events happened one after another. It’s just superstition and confirmation bias and the two events have absolutely no connection whatsoever.

    Also, there are patterns everywhere and if you conduct a random survey asking people random questions, you will see patterns in the data; patterns that have no meaning. For example, you might find that people who married in their early 20s are the happiest and those who married in their late 20s or early 30s are less happy. But this would be evidence of correlation, not causation i.e. x (marriage in early 20s) happened before y (subsequent happiness levels) but x is not necessarily the cause of y. To prove that x caused y, you would have to investigate more and you might end up finding that even though x happened before y, there is no causal relationship between x and y at all.

  9. Critical thinkers are lifelong learners. They read a lot and have unquenchable thirst for knowledge. They are curious and have broad interests so they consume knowledge from all possible sources, be it books, articles, videos, movies, talk shows, newspapers, research articles, documentaries, podcasts, online courses, etc. This broadens their horizons and helps them gain a deeper understanding of the world, people and life in general. 

  10. Last, but not the least, critical thinkers are humble, not egotistical. They are comfortable with uncertainty and they don’t claim to know everything. They know that it’s okay not to have all the answers and they are not ashamed to admit it. They also know how important it is to ask questions, so they never shy away from asking questions and seeking the truth.

Based on the above characteristics, can you say you are a critical thinker?

I know I can (and it took years to get where I am), and hope that you can, too!