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Chapter Review
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Thinking Critically
Psychology Today
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Textbook Site for:
Social Psychology , Sixth Edition
Sharon S. Brehm - Indiana University
Saul Kassin - Williams College
Steven Fein - Williams College

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 thinking.

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:

  1. What am I being asked to believe or accept?

  2. What evidence is available to support the assertion?

  3. Are there alternative ways of interpreting the evidence?

  4. What additional evidence would help to evaluate the alternatives?

  5. 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 about it.

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.