Thinking critically about critical thinking

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Colonel (Retired) Stephen J. Gerras, Ph.D.

Professor of Behavioral Sciences

Department of Command, Leadership, & Management

U.S. Army War College
August 2008

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.



“Technological advances alone do not constitute change. The most dramatic advances in military operations over history have been borne of ideas – ideas about warfighting, organization and doctrine. The Army’s most critical asset will not be technology; it will be critical thinking.”1

AUSA Torchbearer National Security Report, March 2005

“Most Army schools open with the standard bromide: We are not going to teach you what to think…we are going to teach you how to think. They rarely do.”2

BG David A. Fastabend and Robert H. Simpson, February 2004

In the post Cold War security environment many senior leaders in the Army and throughout the Department of Defense have asserted a need to develop better critical thinking skills.3 The requirement for better critical thinkers stems from a realization that the complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity characteristic of the current environment mandates a need to refrain from Cold-War thinking methodologies and assumptions. As the epigraphs (above) suggest, there is a large gap between the Army’s desire to develop critical thinking skills and what actually happens. This gap is due not only to a general lack of understanding of what critical thinking is, but also a lack of education by both faculty and Army leadership on how to develop critical thinkers.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the concept of critical thinking and then make suggestions for how the Army can close the gap between the need to develop critical thinkers and what is actually happening. This paper is not just for Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) organizations; rather, it is to serve leaders throughout the Army in their efforts to develop their own critical thinking skills, while creating a climate that develops the same skills in their subordinates. This document is a user’s guide to critical thinking. Most of the contexts, examples, and recommendations are Army-centric, although everything in this paper is applicable to all military services and governmental organizations.

One of the main impediments to the robust understanding and use of critical thinking, both inside and outside the military, centers on a lack of a common definition. No one discipline owns the construct. Most of the material about critical thinking derives from philosophy, education, and psychology.4 There are, however, competing schools of thought on what critical thinking is and how to best develop it. In most cases a multidisciplinary assessment of a topic leads to a richer body of research, however, in the case of critical thinking it seems to have led to competing and incomplete views of the topic. My goal is not to evaluate various views of critical thinking. Instead, I hope to provide a guide with which to enhance an individual’s critical thinking skills.

As a starting point, I will use Diane Halpern’s broad definition of critical thinking as a foundation: “Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed.”5 In essence, critical thinking is about improving one’s judgment. Whether we are evaluating the information on a power point slide in a Pentagon briefing, reading a newspaper article, or participating in a discussion with an Iraqi mayor, critical thinking is the deliberate, conscious, and appropriate application of reflective skepticism. Some Army leaders refer to the “critical” in critical thinking as mere fault finding with either a conclusion or the process by which a conclusion was reached. Fault finding is not what critical thinking entails. The word “critical” really has to do with purposeful, reflective and careful evaluation of information as a way to improve one’s judgment.

The question is, “How do we develop these judgment skills in Army leaders?” One way is to teach logic and reasoning skills that are typically the focus of philosophy. Another way is to emphasize questioning and self-reflection skills that are usually the focus of education and psychology.6 Additionally, there are generally two schools of thought on how to develop critical thinking skills: context-free and context-dependent. Context-free development focuses upon teaching critical thinking skills irrespective of any specific subject. Context-dependent development centers on teaching the same skills but with a particular field of study. Based on my experience at the War College, I think the best way to teach critical thinking skills to military leaders is to provide context-dependent skill development that incorporates both the critical reasoning contributions of philosophy with the questioning and self-reflection focus from the fields of education and psychology.

Therefore, I argue that critical thinking skills are best developed by: (1) providing knowledge from a multidisciplinary perspective about critical thinking skills, (2) practicing the application of these skills in a context-dependent setting under the purview of a facilitator or knowledgeable leader, and (3) creating a healthy environment, in both TRADOC schools and organizational units, that encourages and motivates a desire to routinely apply critical thinking skills to important issues. The next section of this paper describes a general model that serves as a starting point for developing a lexicon, context, and mental template for the development and application of critical thinking for developing strategic leaders.

A Critical Thinking Model

This paper provides a model and accompanying terminology to inform the military community of a way to look at critical thinking. Whether in a lunchtime conversation with a friend about democracy in the Middle East, or developing courses of action in Iraq within the structure of the military decision making process (MDMP) a well-developed critical thinker will mentally ensure his thought process is not proceeding down the road without due application of reflective skepticism. Renowned critical thinking experts Paul and Elder assert:

A well-cultivated critical thinker raises vital questions and problems, gathers and assesses relevant information, and can effectively interpret it; comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards; thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems. 7
The model offered here is a derivative of the Paul and Elder model, with significant additions and clarifications centered in the ‘evaluation of information’ element. The elements of the model are:







Picture yourself as a Brigade Combat Team (BCT) commander recently deployed to Iraq. Your predecessor informs you that in your Area of Operations over the past two months the number of civilians killed from improvised explosive devices/vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs/VBIEDs) is twice the average of any sector in the country. He advises that his brigade has increased their vigilance and number of patrols in susceptible areas, but due to unit redeployment challenges, they have not really done much differently to improve the situation. As the brigade commander, you direct your staff to present some options for reducing the number of civilian deaths.

As the brigade commander thinks about how to reduce civilian deaths, he will be much more effective if he reasons within the framework of some critical thinking model. The critical thinking model presented is not meant to be a completely sequential process. As mentioned earlier, it is a derivative of the elements of reasoning presented by Paul and Elder.8 Although the model starts with the element CLARIFY CONCERN, the model is not necessarily linear. It is more important that critical thinkers process information and reason within the vocabulary of the model, than it is that they rigorously adhere to the model in any lock-step systematic pattern. This point will be made clearer later.

Critical thinking is purposeful, directed thought. It is not easy, as it requires explicit mental energy. The great majority of the decisions and issues we face throughout the day do not require critical thinking. The route we drive to work, what clothes we wear to a party, and what book to read on Saturday are examples of decisions or concerns that do not normally require critical thinking and can be made in an “automatic” mode of cognitive thought. What is an “automatic” mode of cognitive thought? If you have ever driven down the Interstate at 70 miles per hour and at some point recognized that you are not quite sure where you are or do not actually remember driving the last five miles it is probably because your mind is in a kind of automatic processing mode. Most people have had this experience. How is it that our brains will permit us to operate a 5000 pound vehicle, moving at 70 miles per hour, within several feet of large tractor trailers moving equally fast? The explanation is that over time, driving even at a high rate of speed has become an “automatic” routine. To conserve mental energy our brains tend to reduce focus, especially with seemingly routine activities. Unfortunately, most decision makers make judgments on significant issues using an “automatic” mode as opposed to taking the time and investing the energy for a more “controlled” thought process.9 Exercising controlled thought involves the deliberate use of elements of critical thinking. Examples of when critical thinking are probably called for include assessing a Power Point presentation on courses of action for an upcoming military operation, preparing to meet with an Iraqi governor to discuss joint security issues, and proposing to your future spouse. Knowing when to reign back on automatic processing in order to conduct a conscious assessment of the parameters of the situation is more art than a science. But it is almost certainly safe to say that “if you’re in doubt as to whether to conduct critical thinking on an issue, you probably ought to apply critical thinking.” The main point is that most routine decisions that we make on a day-to-day basis do not involve critical thinking; however, once you become familiar with the concepts and terminology of critical thinking, you should habitually ask yourself whether the issue being considered warrants the application of critical thinking methodology.

The model portrayed in Figure 1 will be discussed in detail throughout the remainder of the paper. There are, however, some points that require highlighting. First, the clouds in the center, POINT OF VIEW, ASSUMPTIONS, and INFERENCES, are meant to demonstrate that this is generally a non-linear model. Your ASSUMPTIONS, for instance, will affect whether you perceive an issue to be worthy of critical thinking and your POINT OF VIEW will impact how you define the boundaries of the issues. Although there are arrows going from CLARIFY CONCERN to EVALUATE INFORMATION (implying linearity), there is also a reciprocal arrow going in the reverse direction to suggest that as you are EVALUATING INFORMATION, you may end up redefining the concern. If, for example, you are seeking to CLARIFY CONCERN regarding some inappropriate behavior by your teenage son or daughter, the EVALUATION OF INFORMATION may indicate that the “real” issue has to do more with the nature of the relationship between you and your child than the actual behavior prompting initial concern. The non-linear nature of the model will be more evident as you read about the components.

The model starts with an individual perceiving some stimulus. As mentioned before, we oftentimes respond to the stimulus by defaulting to our known view of the world, which is an “automatic” response. In most cases, the automatic mode is appropriate and the perceiver should proceed to make a decision, use judgment, etc. However, if the topic is complex, has important implications, or there is a chance that strong personal views on the issue might lead to biased reasoning, then thinking critically about the issue makes good sense.

A critical element, and often the first step, in critical thinking methodology is to CLARIFY the CONCERN. For anyone familiar with the Paul and Elder model, this element is an aggregation of their elements: Purpose and Central Problem.10 This is not as straightforward as it seems.



Impact of

Biases and




Make Decision/

Clarify position/

Use judgment











Stimulus requiring





Figure 1 A Critical Thinking Model
The problem or issue needs to be identified and clarified up front, yet consistently revisited as other elements of the model are considered. The term ‘concern’ is preferred over the term ‘problem’ because a critical thinker must be proactive as well as reactive. In many cases, the critical thinker will encounter information that causes him to identify related or subsequent issues that should be addressed. A critical thinker ensures that he has considered the complexities of the problem at hand and focused his mental energy appropriately. An assessment needs to determine whether the concern has unidentified root causes or unaddressed sub-components. A critical thinker must ensure that the problem or issue is not framed in a way that unduly limits response options. A phrase often asked by leaders that exemplifies their attempt to CLARIFY the CONCERN is, “what are we trying to accomplish here (e.g., at a meeting, during a situation, etc.)?”

In the case of the new brigade commander in Iraq, a cursory attempt at concern clarification would probably conclude the concern is that the average number of civilians killed over the last two months is much higher than anywhere else in country. From a critical thinking perspective, however, the brigade commander should also be asking questions like, “Where are the data coming from? Are there other motivations for the people presenting the data that may be improperly framing the issue? Is there a more systemic issue or problem that has caused this increase in deaths that needs to be addressed before we focus on the IED/VBIED attacks?” As an example, at a War College presentation by a General Officer returning from Iraq, the General described a situation in which his command, in an effort to identify the root causes of attacks in their area of operation, eventually figured out that there was a strong inverse correlation between functioning civil infrastructure such as electrical power, sewer, and water service and the number of attacks in that sector. As a result, in an effort to improve stability, the unit focused on civil infrastructure improvement as well as offensive military operations.

Additionally, as mentioned earlier, as the brigade commander thinks about the other elements in the model (e.g., ASSUMPTIONS, INFERENCES, EVALUATION OF INFORMATION), he needs to revisit the CLARIFY CONCERN step to ensure that the correct issue is being addressed. For instance, while conducting an evaluation of information, the brigade commander might realize that while the average number of deaths has increased in the last two months, this high average is driven by only two significant attacks when VBIEDs exploded near buses. In fact, the actual number of attacks had decreased significantly. This evaluation of information from a critical thinking standpoint might lead to a re-labeling the concern from “how to reduce the average number of civilian deaths in the AO” to “how to reduce the number of VBIED attacks in populated areas or how to protect the civilian population from terrorist attack.” Each has a unique answer. For complex questions, we want to limit the scope of a problem to be addressed – or, at least, to be very deliberate that we are scoping correctly.

Another element of the critical thinking model is POINT OF VIEW. Paul and Elder posit that, “Whenever we reason, we must reason within some point of view or frame of reference. Critical thinkers strive to adopt a point of view that is fair to others, even to opposing points of view.”11 Assessing an issue from alternative points of view is sometimes difficult for War College students. By the time an accomplished lieutenant colonel or colonel has reached this level, they are sometimes inclined to believe that they have figured out how the world works, and, moreover, that their view is correct. Many would argue that our General Officer community is prone to the same myopia. Good critical thinkers, however, do their best to recognize their own point of view, and to consider and even understand and empathize with the view of others on an issue. Empathy is not a characteristic of “soft leaders;” rather, it is a characteristic of smart, thoughtful, and reflective leaders. The more an infantry battalion commander can put himself in the shoes of the town mayor, the greater the likelihood that his decisions will be successful from not only a U.S. standpoint, but from an Iraqi or Afghanistan perspective as well. This congruence will enable long-term solutions and build respect and trust that is absolutely critical in the contemporary operating environment. Noted leadership developer Bruce Avolio asserts, “Leadership development is fundamentally a shift in perspective…The shift occurs when you stop to reflect on an opponent’s view to fully understand how he or she can believe the position he or she has taken and then refused to move from that position.”12

As we attempt to empathize with the viewpoint of others our own self awareness becomes increasingly important. Leaders need to be self-aware of the egocentric tendencies that are probably the most significant barrier to effective critical thinking.13 Egocentrism is a tendency to regard oneself and one’s own opinions or interests as most important. Military officers, for instance, are typically very successful individuals who have a wide range of interests. From academics to sports, leadership jobs to hobbies, a typical officer has in most cases been hand-picked for military commissioning and advancement based on a track record of success. Therefore, typical military leaders have exceptional confidence with respect to both who they are and the validity, accuracy, and correctness of their views. This confidence is a critical ingredient in making them effective leaders who motivate, guide, and care for America’s sons and daughters. This enhanced confidence only increases as rank and responsibility progress because the senior leaders have been continuously rewarded for their judgment and decision-making. Unfortunately, as we see at the War College on a daily basis, this constant positive reinforcement, in the form of promotion and selection for key billets, in some cases encourages an absolutist frame of reference within an overly narrow point of view. As mentioned earlier, seasoned faculty will assert that some War College students routinely think that they have figured out how the world works and they are exceedingly confident that their view is correct. This egocentric leaning tends to insulate leaders with regard to their actual thinking processes and often presents a significant obstacle to empathizing with and considering the viewpoint of others. In previous years War College students have had a negative emotional response to this assertion. It is important to highlight that I am not claiming that egoism (extreme selfishness or self-importance) underlies strategic leader thought, but that egocentrism (believing your mental models of the world are the correct ones) is a natural phenomenon, is routinely found in War College students (and faculty), and is a barrier to good thinking.

Maybe an example will help highlight the subtle, yet important, influence of egocentric thinking. In an recent “advice to readers” type column in the newspaper a 16-year-old girl wrote a letter saying that she was in love and wanted to know if a 16-year-old can actually be in love. In response to this column’s response to the girl that stated she should wait a few years before committing to marriage, an 86-year-old man wrote back and said that he had met his wife when he was 16 and that they had been happily married for 70 years. He therefore asserted that the girl should ignore the advice columnist’s response to “wait a few years.” This is a great example of the impact of egocentric thinking. As you can probably infer, the 86-year-old man provided his advice in good faith and probably thinks it is the best advice since it is what he did. His advice is not based on any egotistic tendencies or feelings of self-importance. However, a quick review of the poverty and quality-of-life statistics for girls who get married at 16 will quickly show that, on average, this girl would be making a drastic mistake to get married at age 16. This elderly man let his egocentric tendencies get in the way of good critical thinking (e.g., evaluating the information and understanding the high risks of a teenage marriage).

Paul and Elder describe several egocentric tendencies that are relatively common in military culture. Egocentric memory is a natural tendency to forget information that does not support our line of thinking. Egocentric myopia refers to thinking within an overly narrow point of view. Egocentric righteousness describes a tendency to feel superior based on the belief that one has actually figured out how the world works. Egocentric blindness is the natural tendency not to notice facts and evidence that contradict what we believe or value. 14 In an interesting study from the 1960s related to egocentric blindness researchers provided smokers and nonsmokers a taped speech that discussed the strong relationship between smoking and cancer. As the subjects listened to the taped speech a large amount of static was present in the audio recording. The subjects in the experiment could reduce the static by pressing a button, at which time the message became easier to understand. The results showed that smokers were less likely to press the button to reduce static than nonsmokers. The greater the amount of cigarettes smoked, the less the static was removed by the subjects. Similarly, nonsmokers did not reduce the static as much as a smoker when the message in the tape conveyed that smoking was not hazardous to your health. This experiment supports the assertion that individuals tend to ignore information that is in dissonance with already held beliefs. As you progress through your War College year, be sensitized to the tendency to ignore, or not listen to, ideas that are in opposition to your own. Challenge yourself to “push the static reduction button” when you are presented information that is contrary to the opinions you have developed throughout your life.15

Fortunately, just as egocentrism can prevent us from appreciating the underlying thinking processes that guide our behavior, critical thinking, especially in the form of appreciating multiple points of view, can help us learn to explicitly recognize that our point of view is always incomplete and sometimes blatantly self-serving and wrong.16

As critical thinkers assess the point of view of someone presenting information to them, they not only need to be aware of their egocentric tendencies, and attempt to empathize with the various other relevant points of view, they also need to apply some measures of critical reasoning to the assessment. As an example, when a senior commander is presented with recommendations for a courts-martial by a subordinate unit, it is probably smart to evaluate who the recommender is, ask yourself what biases they bring to the issue (based on past statements or previous recommendations), ask yourself if there are any factors that might interfere with the accuracy of this person’s judgment, and also probably query the environment to see if there is evidence from any other source that corroborates this person’s statements or recommendations.17 This assessment protocol would apply to any information source, whether that source is face-to-face, in written text, or via the public media.

A third component of the model is ASSUMPTIONS. This is a concept that should be very familiar to a military officer. An assumption is something which is taken for granted.18 Within the scope of critical thinking, however, the concept of an assumption is somewhat different than that which we use to provide boundaries in the military decision making process. As critical thinkers, we need to be aware of the beliefs we hold to be true that have formed from what we have previously learned and no longer question.19 We typically process information based on assumptions about the way the world works that are ingrained in our psyche and typically operate below the level of consciousness. We have assumptions about fat people, late people, blonde women, and barking dogs. These are sometimes referred to as mental models or schemas. The brigade commander in Iraq makes inferences, forms opinions, and makes decisions that are largely rooted in his assumptions about cause-effect relationships with respect to the way the world works. He probably has assumptions about the way people should interact, about what a good leader looks like, about how a typical town should appear (in terms of organization and cleanliness), and about how responsible an individual is for what happens in his or her life. All of these assumptions and many more will affect his judgment with respect to possible courses of action for dealing with increased civilian casualties. The arrows in the model show that assumptions influence all aspects of the model: our Point of View, Inferences, whether we decide a problem is worthy of critical thinking, and many other components of our thought processes. The more in touch an individual is with his assumptions, the more effective a critical thinker he will be.

If our focal BCT commander, for example, assumes that the primary cause of most of the problems in Iraq is a lack of willingness by the populace to affect a solution, he will evaluate the efficacy of courses of action with this assumption in mind. He might not support any course of action that relies on the Iraqis. Whether or not this is an accurate assumption is, in fact, irrelevant. What matters is that the brigade commander implicitly draws upon his assumptions as part of the critical thinking process. More importantly, the brigade commander needs to create a command climate where subordinates feel they can surface and question assumptions they believe are relevant to the concern at hand. Peter Senge in his seminal book The Fifth Discipline highlights the importance of dialogue, as opposed to discussion, in a learning organization. He posits, “In dialogue, a group explores complex difficult issues from many points of view. Individuals suspend their assumptions but they communicate their assumptions freely.”20 In order to suspend assumptions, leaders must first be aware of them. This reflective self-inquiry, in relation to a specific concern, is extremely important in the critical thinking process, as is the creation of a climate in which individuals feel free to communicate their assumptions and to question others.

Another component of the critical thinking model that needs to be considered is INFERENCES. Critical thinkers need to be skilled at making sound inferences and at identifying when they and others are making inferences. An inference is a step of the mind, or an intellectual leap, by which one concludes that something is true in light of something else being true, or seeming to be true.21 Whereas an assumption is something we take for granted, an inference is an intellectual act in which we conclude something based on a perception as to how the facts and evidence of a situation fit together. If a soldier sees an Iraqi man approaching with his hands hidden behind his back, he may infer that the man is probably hiding a weapon and intends to do him harm. This inference is based on the assumption that Iraqi men who hide their arms when approaching are very likely dangerous and quite probably insurgents or terrorists.

Critical thinkers strive to become adept at making sound inferences.22 Ask yourself, “What are the key inferences made in this article, presentation, etc.?” Then ask yourself if the inferences are justified, logical and follow from the evidence. Remembering the earlier components of the model, obviously, inferences are heavily influenced by the Point of View and Assumptions we bring to the issue. This explains why two officers viewing the same power point slide, an information source, may come to completely different conclusions in terms of what the data means or represents. An interesting exercise I do at the War College to make this relationship more salient is to provide students brief information, and then ask them to identify their inferences and underlying assumptions. This exercise never fails to show that people make very different inferences from the same stimulus, and as would be imagined, these inferences are based on very diverse assumptions. Once these assumptions are identified, they, along with the inferences, can be questioned, examined, and discussed.

In terms of our brigade commander in Iraq it is easy to see the importance of inferences. As an example, if an Iraqi informant tells the brigade interpreter that the local police captain is aligned with the terrorists, the brigade commander may infer that this information is useless and therefore direct that no action be taken on the intelligence. In this case the commander’s underlying assumption that informants are untrustworthy and typically lie impacts his inference and subsequent directive. The brigade S-3, however, may have a different assumption about the efficacy of informant intel and might think the correct course of action will involve bringing the police captain in or at least putting him under observation. From a critical thinking perspective, both the commander and the S-3 should be aware that they are each making an inference based on an underlying assumption. They should question their underlying assumptions and ensure that other equally valid considerations have been entertained before drawing inferences from the available information.

Although many of the components of the critical thinking model derive from Paul and Elder’s work, the essential strength of this paper, and my view of critical thinking, focuses on how we evaluate information. This part of the paper is rooted in literature dealing with managerial decision-making and philosophy. The following sections are not meant to de-emphasize that, when evaluating information, critical thinkers need to assess the validity of concepts, policies, information, evidence, and data; rather, I suggest that this process needs to occur with the critical thinker alert to the impact of biases and logical fallacies described below. As a member of the War College faculty I am surprised at how often students are deceived by information. The next step in the model is: EVALUATION OF INFORMATION. In this section I will describe how military officers typically evaluate information and make decisions using the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). I will then discuss the shortcuts humans habitually take that often lead to decision making biases. Finally, I will overview many of the logical fallacies that undermine information evaluation.

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