Critical Thinking in Modern Society

Jamie Hale

Critical thinking is important; most people agree with that statement. Research in cognitive science conceptualizes and measures (that is, operationalizes) critical thinking. There are myriad studies examining components of critical thinking (Stanovich, West, and Toplak 2016).

Educators often pay lip service to the idea of teaching “critical thinking.” But, when asked to define critical thinking, answers are often weak and ambiguous. Common responses to the defining critical thinking include: “teaching them how to think,” “teaching them formal logic,” “teaching them to be thinkers,” “teaching them how to think for themselves,” 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, independent thinking doesn’t necessarily imply critical thinking and teaching them how to solve problems are hard to measure assertions.

Stanovich argues “that the super-ordinate goal we are actually trying to foster is that of rationality” (Stanovich 2010, 198). Educators are concerned with critical thinking as it reflects rational thought, in both the epistemic sense and the practical, instrumental sense.Certain thinking dispositions and cognitive abilities are valued because they help us base our beliefs on available evidence and assist us in achieving our goals. Educators, science writers, and evidence based practitioners express to students, administrators, readers, clients, and patients the importance of critical thinking. Yet many of those expressing the importance of critical thinking don’t have a firm grip on rationality or critical thinking, or what it includes. Promoting critical thinking is important; promoting critical thinking through the lenses of cognitive science presents a clearer picture of exactly what critical thinking advocates are trying to promote. A key characteristic of science is precision, and critical thinking includes scientific thinking. A scientific concept is one derived from converging evidence; critical thinking demonstrates that type of convergence (evidence from various theoretical underpinnings and research). Critical thinking is a concept-complex (it involves various concepts, connections, and interactions). To reiterate, critical thinking is synonymous with rationality in the context of cognitive science.


Rational thinking is not synonymous with rationalizing thought. These phrases are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Rationalizing thought has an Aristotelian flavor, in that it involves putting forth reason for essentially any behavior or thought. Rationality is a weak concept, when conceptualized in this sense. Most people are rational, if rational means an ability to provide some form of a reason for their behavior or actions. Cognitive science provides a different conceptualization of rationality—one that is consistent and subject to testing.

Rationality is concerned with what is true and what to do (Manktelow 2004). In order for beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence. In order for actions to be rational they must maximize potential in attaining goals. I suspect everyone agrees that both of these requirements are important. 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 is 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; there is overlap.In order to optimize rationality one needs adequate knowledge in the domains of logic, scientific thinking, and probabilistic thinking. It is also essential that reflective processing (overriding fast thinking that leads to incorrect responses) occur at appropriate times. A wide variety of cognitive skills (cognitive style / thinking dispositions and cognitive ability) fall within these domains of knowledge. 

Components of critical thinking have been operationalized in a wide range of studies. In a 2012 study (Hale 2012), I presented students with questions derived from critical thinking tests. The critical thinking tasks were cover tasks; the primary concern of the study was expectation and food liking. In regards to the critical thinking tasks (three questions) the performances were not good. No one correctly answered all three of the problems, and many participants missed all three. Total percentage of correct answers was 19 percent. The tasks used were similar to the ones often used by Stanovich, Kahneman, and Frederick (Stanovich 2009; Kahneman 2011; Frederick 2005). The questions used on the test are presented here: Confused About Critical Thinking,

In 2016, a prototype for a comprehensive assessment of rationality was made public: CART (Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking). The assessment was constructed by the Stanovich, West, and Toplak Research Lab. CART assesses epistemic and instrumental rationality. The assessment involves twenty subtests. Stanovich discussing the importance of a comprehensive assessment of rationality (Interview with Stanovich, Hale 2016):

“Why does society need a comprehensive assessment of rational thinking?

To be globally rational in our modern society you must have the behavioral tendencies and knowledge bases that are assessed on the CART to a sufficient degree.Our society is sometimes benign, and maximal rationality is not always necessary, but sometimes—in important situations—our society is hostile. In such hostile situations, to achieve adequate degrees of instrumental rationality in our present society the skills assessed by the CART are essential.In Chapter 15 of The Rationality Quotient we include a table showing that rational thinking tendencies are linked to real-life decision making.In that table, for each of the paradigms and subtests of the CART, an association with a real-life outcome is indicated.The associations are of two types.Some studies represent investigations where a laboratory measure of a bias was used as a predictor of a real-world outcome. Others are reports of real-world analogues of biases that were originally discovered in the lab. Clearly more work remains to be done on tracing the exact nature of the connections—that is, whether they are causal. The sheer number of real-world connections, however, serves to highlight the importance of the rational thinking skills in our framework. Now that we have the CART, we could in theory begin to assess rationality as systematically as we do IQ.If not for professional inertia and psychologists’ investment in the IQ concept, we could choose tomorrow to more formally assess rational thinking skills, focus more on teaching them, and redesign our environment so that irrational thinking is not so costly. 

Whereas just thirty years ago we knew vastly more about intelligence than we knew about rational thinking, this imbalance has been redressed in the last few decades because of some remarkable work in behavioral decision theory, cognitive science, and related areas of psychology. In the past two decades cognitive scientists have developed laboratory tasks and real-life performance indicators to measure rational thinking tendencies such as sensible goal prioritization, reflectivity, and the proper calibration of evidence. People have been found to differ from each other on these indicators. These indicators are structured differently from the items used on intelligence tests. We have brought this work together by producing here the first comprehensive assessment measure for rational thinking, the CART.”

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. Questions that should be asked: What are the goals of critical thinking? How can critical thinking be tested? Does my curriculum contain information regarding scientific reasoning, logic, heuristic processing, and probabilistic thinking? 

Critical thinking is about what is true (epistemic rationality) and what to do (instrumental rationality).I recommend reading the works of Keith Stanovich, Daniel Kahneman, Richard West, Shane Frederick, and Jonathan Baron to name a few, in an effort to enhance critical thinking.

Rationality vs. Intelligence

Note that developing measures of rationality are a result of a plethora of research showing that intelligence and rationality are different concepts and are often weakly associated. Good thinking requires more than intelligence. Intelligence is important, but so is rationality (Stanovich 2009). Intelligence reflects reasoning abilities across a wide variety of domains (particularly novel ones) and processing speed. In addition, intelligence reflects general declarative knowledge acquired through acculturated learning. The type of cognitive skills required for rationality are not measured by intelligence tests and their proxies (GRE, SAT, standard IQ tests, etc.).

Society is complex, and requires complex thinking. Critical thinking is learnable; being a better critical thinker will assist humans in navigating the world much better, that is much better in the sense of making better judgments and better decisions, being more rational.


  • Frederick, S. 2005. Cognitive reflection and decision making. Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, 25–42.
  • Hale, J. 2012. “Expectations Do Not Always Influence Food Liking.” Online Theses and Dissertations. 129. Available online at
  • ———. 2016. Rationality Quotient: Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking. Knowledge Summit. Retrieved on July, 12 2018 from
  • Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Manktelow, K. I. 2004. Reasoning and rationality: The pure and the practical. In K. I. Manktelow and M. C. Chung (Eds.), Psychology of reasoning: Theoretical and historical perspectives (pp. 157–177). Hove, England: Psychology Press.
  • Stanovich, K. 2009.What Intelligence Tests Miss: the psychology of rational thought.London: YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS.
  • Stanovich, K. E., and P. J. Stanovich. 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, NY: Springer.
  • Stanovich, K., R. West, and M. Toplak. 2016. The Rationality Quotient: Toward A Test of Rational Thinking. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale is a college instructor, and he is associated with Eastern Kentucky University's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and Perception & Cognition Lab. He has published articles and books on a wide range of topics. Jamie is the director of and author of In Evidence We Trust: The need for science, rationality and statistics. His future articles will address models for improved scientific thinking, popular myths, and rationality in terms of cognitive science.