Critical Thinking in Decision Making

critical thinking in decision makingCritical thinking is often talked about as a stand-alone activity. Like some other individual activities, thinking critically may just feel good. Yet, critical thinking seems most useful when it aids other cognitive processes, such as applying critical thinking in decision making.

Anne Helsdingen from the Open University of the Netherlands and her colleagues studied an interesting issue about critical thinking in decision making. They wanted to know whether teaching critical thinking skills can improve judgment and decision making in general.

Helsdingen and her team define critical thinking as reasoned thinking with a purpose. They also describe some core critical thinking skills and abilities, such as being able to:

  • Appreciate that your own opinions may be wrong
  • Accept statements as true even when they conflict with your own views
  • Temporarily adopt an initial position with which you disagree, and then reason from that starting point

A challenge, according to these researchers, is how to teach skills for critical thinking in decision making so that they transfer to new decision making problems. Transfer means being able to apply what you have learned to new tasks or new situations.

To tackle this problem, they start with a useful cognitive model of how decisions are made. Numerous researchers have worked with similar versions of the model of the years. One version is called “explanation-based decision making,” or the “story model.”

The idea is that people encounter situations. When they do, they recognize important parts of the situation from past experience. They then create a story (or explanation) about what’s going on and what will happen. They make decisions based on their story, and how things have turned out in similar stories past.

A problem with making decisions this way is that our stories tend to be less complete than we think – a failure of metacognition. We also overlook inconsistent details because we’re sucked in by the good story. According to Helsdingen, we might improve our intuitive approach by bringing critical thinking in the decision making process.

The researchers tested a method for including critical thinking in decision making. First, they explained the story model of decision making. Then, they prompted the learners to reflect on their story and thinking critically about it. Some of the questions they included to prompt critical thinking were:

  • Do you have all the necessary information?
  • Is there any conflict in the evidence?
  • The devil’s advocate tells you that your story is wrong. Make up an alternative story. Is it more plausible than the original?

The students in the study read through cases about crimes that had been committed. Their job was to decide on the priority of each case for the police. They got feedback, so they could learn what makes cases more important in police work.

Some of the students received the critical thinking skills training while making these decisions. Others did not.

How well they made these crime decisions was not the most important thing, though. The main thing was how well they would do in a different situation after learning about critical thinking in decision making. That is, would their new skills transfer?

The researchers tested for transfer by having the students make different decisions about traffic offenses. The overall results suggested that the training on how to include critical thinking in decision making was effective. The benefits did transfer to the new decision making task.

As you come across decisions that you need to make, pay some attention to the stories you are telling yourself in the process. Use some of the ideas above and other critical thinking skills to improve your story and decision. Writing is also a good strategy for how to make a decision. It may seem like a bit of extra work at first, but with practice will become more natural for your future decisions.

Image Credit: Critical thinking asylum

Helsdingen, A., van Gog, T., & van Merriënboer, J. (2011). The effects of practice schedule and critical thinking prompts on learning and transfer of a complex judgment task. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103 (2), 383-398 DOI: 10.1037/a0022370


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About Winston Sieck

Dr. Winston Sieck is a cognitive psychologist. He serves as president of Global Cognition and director of Thinker Academy.


  1. Anne Kreitzberg says

    Thanks for sharing this research and the ‘story’. We are often asked whether you can learn to be a better critical thinker – I wouldn’t be teaching it if I didn’t believe it to be the case! But it helps to have research to support this belief.

    Our work is focused on critical thinking in organizational, workplace settings with all sorts of employees, including managers and executives. My experience is pretty similar to that you gave in the case; in the moment, on a particular case, the ‘decision’ may not be improved.

    As the researchers and you point out, the proof is in the pudding. Can people learn and apply simple critical thinking techniques, consistently and effectively, and, does this lead to better outcomes?

    We find that it can be overwhelming to try to teach too much at a clip. We boil it down to simple questions, job aids, and worksheets that can help people – especially people working on teams – to establish a common vocabulary, and create an environment that reinforces critical thinking rather than viewing it as generating conflict and controversy.

  2. Eric Hulett says

    I am interested in teaching critical thinking skills to Law Enforcement, specifically to a group of people age 14 to 18 who are interested in pursuing a Law Enforcement Career (The Police Explorer Program) but then later to already established officers.

    A law enforcement officer (LEO) is called upon to make decisions and wield power which effect others lives, and they are often required to do this on the spot, with a limited amount of time and information available. They make these decisions every day and I am looking for ways to sharpen their skills and help them make the best decisions possible with the information they have on hand.

    I couldn’t help but notice that this study happened to be centered on LEO scenarios. I was wondering if I could adapt this study to a class for young people. Any thoughts?

    Also, how could I get the specifics of this study, to include the specific scenarios used?


    • Winston Sieck says

      That sounds really interesting, Eric. I contacted Anne Helsdingen on your behalf, and shared your contact information with her.

      • Peter Duncan says

        For the last five years I have taught CT to serving LEOs, although only slowly at first; it is a sharp departure from traditional police training.
        While new theories come out on how to fix a profession currently under enormous pressure, many of them have been around for 10 or 20 years whereas CT has been developed over at least 25 centuries.
        I would be happy to share my work and experiences to to hear of others’ work too.


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