If you were to memorize every fact in the textbook, you might still miss
its essentials. Much as sports announcers often say that the statistics of
a game don't begin to indicate the contribution of a certain player, so, too, the facts conveyed by a college textbook
often represent only a small part of its message. Thus, even if you forget
many pieces of information within a year or two, you may retain something
far more valuable from your introductory course in psychology.
What is there beyond the facts? Psychology and other disciplines have certain
methods for defining, uncovering, and interpreting facts; they have certain
ways of thinking. More generally, psychology and other fields of study rely on the ability to think critically--to evaluate claims, ideas, and evidence. Learning these ways of thinking
enriches your ability to understand the world long after you may have forgotten
specific pieces of information.
At its simplest, thinking critically means evaluating information rather than merely accepting it because
it is endorsed by some authority or because it flatters your prejudices.
In 1986, for example, a U.S. government commission declared that pornography
is dangerous; it linked pornography and crime. You might be inclined to accept this conclusion because of
the authority behind the commission or because you find pornography repugnant.
But if you think critically, neither reason will be sufficient. At a minimum,
you will ask why the commission came to that conclusion. What was their evidence? Even beyond asking
for the reasons behind a conclusion, however, critical thinking requires
the ability to evaluate those reasons. (The reasons for the commission's conclusions regarding pornography can be faulted on several grounds; they are evaluated in Chapter 14 of the
text.) Is the argument logical? What is the source of the evidence that backs
up the argument? If it's an experiment, were the experimental methods sound? Learning how to ask and answer questions like these is a first step in becoming skillful at critical
Throughout the text, the authors' discussions provide examples of critical thinking, illustrating how to examine
the assumptions underlying an assertion, to evaluate evidence for an assertion,
and to draw reasonable conclusions. In addition, each chapter of the textbook includes a section, labeled "Thinking Critically," that is devoted to critical thinking about one specific topic or assertion.
In each case, the section examines the issue by considering five questions:
What am I being asked to believe or accept?
What evidence is available to support the assertion?
Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence?
What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives?
What conclusions are most reasonable?
These questions represent steps that you can apply in thinking about most
assertions, as the textbook explains. You can think critically without using these specific steps,
but they constitute one useful model for critical thinking. Take time to
consider the "Thinking Critically" sections, not only for their content, but also as a model of a way of thinking.
For further practice at critical thinking, do the Critical Thinking exercises
in each chapter of the Study Guide. These will help you understand the importance of the five critical thinking
questions and how to apply them. When you come across an issue of particular interest in your reading of the text, try applying these
five steps to the discussion. No textbook can examine every issue in depth;
if some of the steps are not fully explored in the text, try doing further
research to follow these steps yourself. Or take a very specific assertion implicit in the discussion and
explore it further by applying the five steps to that assertion. Most of
all, as you read, remember to think critically. Throughout the text, the
authors have tried to stimulate your own thinking. Just as they examine the flaws in existing research and
acknowledge the many psychological questions that remain unanswered, so too
should you probe what the authors have written and ask your own questions
Applying the authors' model of critical thinking during the course should bring you at least four
benefits. First, it should reinforce the habit of thinking critically. Are
you going to buy brand X based on the endorsement of Kelly Ripa or Tiger
Woods? Will you take melatonin because others claim it is good for you? We hope this course will help you
strengthen the habit of questioning claims and evaluating arguments for yourself.
Second, the practice gained by applying the text's model of critical thinking should sharpen your critical-thinking skills. These skills can help you in every phase of life--whether you are weighing a politician's promises or the advantages of taking a new job, or searching for a new
car or a way to reorganize a department. Third, going through this sequence of steps should lead you to a better understanding of the material and
to wiser conclusions. Finally, thinking critically is likely to improve your
memory of the material. As discussed in Chapter 6 of the textbook, organizing
and thinking about information makes that information easier to remember.