Why social relationships are important

The article How to Find a Career with a Bright Outlook discusses the fact that income isn't the key factor in career happiness.  What about life happiness?  What's more important, health, money, or relationships?  Let's see what the evidence shows.This article is focused on the evidence, while another article I wrote takes a more philosophical approach to the same subject.

Let's start with the big picture

Wouldn't it be interesting to follow a group of men all their lives and interview them every two years to determine how their choices affect them? That was the objective of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, also known as the Grant-Glueck study, the longest-running longitudinal study of adult life ever conducted. Two hundred sixty-eight Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 and 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston were selected for the study. Researchers gathered data about their physical and mental health, occupational satisfaction, retirement experience, and marital quality.

Of those who rated themselves the happiest, which factor(s) contributed the most?  The unequivocal answer is, "warm relationships."  Incredibly, this ultimately contributed not only to the happiness but also to the income of these fortunate people.  The 58 men who scored the highest on measurements of “warm relationships” earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually between ages 55 and 60) than the 31 men who scored lowest.  In contrast, IQ had almost no relationship with maximum income.

According to Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development:

It's not just the number of friends you have, and it's not whether or not you're in a committed relationship. It's the quality of your close relationships that matters. ... The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

George E. Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004, put it even more plainly: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

This was the case among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants. The men's relationships at age 47 were better predictors of late-life adjustment than any other variable, except adaptations.These adaptations will be covered in a future article.

Absolutely necessary for maximum happiness

The first known study of very happy people was conducted by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman.  They wanted to see, not just what makes people happy, but what people require to be very happy.  They surveyed 222 undergraduate students and compared the upper 10% of consistently very happy people with average and very unhappy people.Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very Happy People. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81–84. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00415  Here's what they concluded:

The very happy people were highly social, and had stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy groups. ... We do not know if rich social lives caused happiness, or if happiness caused rich social lives, or if both were caused by some third variable. It is interesting, however, that social relationships form a necessary but not sufficient condition for high happiness—that is, they do not guarantee high happiness, but it does not appear to occur without them.

What the World Happiness Report said

The very first World Happiness Report (PDF here), touched on this subject.  The report, published in 2012, was commissioned for the United Nations Conference on Happiness.  It acknowledged the need for nations to provide their citizens with a minimum of economic prosperity.  But beyond this, focusing on economic prosperity brings diminishing returns:

Except in the very poorest countries happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with income. ... The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Incremental gains in income in a rich country may be much less beneficial to the population than steps to ensure the vibrancy of local communities or better mental health.

The report connects life satisfaction with an interesting ingredient: trust.  Life satisfaction is up in many countries in recent years, but in others, such as the U.S. and U.K., it has not increased despite their prosperity.  The report cites income inequality and a decline in the quality of human relationships as contributing factors.  According to the report, this decline can be measured by:

  • Increased solitude
  • Communication difficulties
  • Fear
  • Distrust
  • Family infidelity
  • Reduced social engagement

The reduced role of religion in the lives of many has left a vacuum:

Of all types of social life, close personal relationships with loved adults explain the greatest variation in happiness. Traditionally, external support for family life was provided largely through faith communities. But in secular societies all social organizations and institutions, including those managed by the state, have important roles to play.

Materialism hurts happiness

I also examined a study that collected data from surveys taken in South Korea.Lee, M.-A., & Kawachi, I. (2019). The keys to happiness: Associations between personal values regarding core life domains and happiness in South Korea. PLOS ONE, 14(1), e0209821. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209821   This country is of interest because it is a non-Western society but it has strong religious values.  The authors of the study referenced the Schwartz theory of human values.  They also referred to another longitudinal study that demonstrates "prioritizing family over work and leisure results in higher life satisfaction."Masuda, A. D., & Sortheix, F. M. (2011). Work-Family Values, Priority Goals and Life Satisfaction: A Seven Year Follow-up of MBA Students. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(6), 1131–1144. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9310-6

The authors of this study also refer to two recent studies that demonstrate that people who value time more than money are happier.Hershfield, H. E., Mogilner, C., & Barnea, U. (2016). People Who Choose Time Over Money Are Happier. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(7), 697–706. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550616649239 and Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Valuing time over money is associated with greater social connection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(8), 2549–2565. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518791322

The paper concludes:

Those prioritizing social relationships, including family, friends, and neighbors," were among the happiest, while "those who prioritized extrinsic achievements (money, power, educational attainment, work, and leisure) as well as health were least likely to be happy.

They offer this explanation: Materialistic people are more likely to compare themselves with others. A higher level of social comparison can lead to heightened frustration and dissatisfaction with individual achievements. Extrinsic goals, such as power, money, and status, carry the risk of making it harder for people to achieve and be satisfied with their goals.

The study also found that those who prioritize religion or spirituality were the happiest of all. However, this was not an absolute conclusion.

All theories of human values include social relationships

Speaking of values, Anastasia Aldelina Lijadi conducted a survey of leading theories of human values to determine the answer to the question, "What are universally accepted human values that define ‘a good life’?"This project was connected with the development of the Years of Good Life (YoGL) indicator of human well-being and development.  She and her team concluded:

Looking at the literature review of the human values theories covering a time frame of fifty years, we notice that the value of survival or being alive is claimed to be the primary value in several theories; and the values of fulfillment of basic needs, positive social relationships, and subjective well-being are included in all reviewed theories.

Can we measure the effects of social relationships on happiness?

I found an often-cited statistic that comes from a chapter in the book Mental Health in Black America.Murray, C. B., & Peacock, M. J. (1996). A model-free approach to the study of subjective wellbeing. In H. W. Neighbors & J. S. Jackson (Eds.), Mental Health in Black America, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 14-26.  Researchers Carolyn Murray and Jean Peacock identified the following as the core factors in a happy life:

  • Degree of family closeness
  • Amount of family contact
  • Number of friends they could call on
  • Relationships with co-workers and neighbors

A book that cited this chapter is frequently quoted as saying: "Together these features explain about 70 percent of personal happiness."The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It, by David Niven  I don't believe this is an actual quote from Mental Health in Black America, however.  At the time of this writing, I do not have access to the book so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this number, but it sounds reasonable.

Other benefits

While looking for evidence of the benefits of strong social relationships, I came across a gold mine in the form of a paper written by Shelley E. Taylor of the UCLA Dept. of Psychology.Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social Support: A Review. In Oxford Handbooks Online. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342819.013.0009   Shelley defines "social support" as:

The perception or experience that one is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations. ... Social support may come from a partner, relatives, friends, coworkers, social and community ties, and even a devoted pet.

This paper cites numerous studies to back up all of the following claims about social support.  According to the cited research, social support:

  • Reduces psychological distress such as depression or anxiety during times of stress.
  • Helps the individual adapt to chronically stressful conditions, including coronary artery disease, diabetes, HIV, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney disease, childhood leukemia, and stroke.
  • Protects older adults from cognitive decline, and those recently widowed from heart disease.
  • Helps reduce psychological distress in response to traumatic events, such as 9/11.
  • Contributes to physical health and longevity.
  • Predicted an average increase in longevity of 2.8 years for women and 2.3 years for men, and these differences remained after controlling for socioeconomic status, health status at the beginning of the study, and health habits.
  • Has an effect size similar to smoking, blood pressure, lipids, obesity, and physical activity, and is, in some cases, a stronger predictor of longevity and health than well-established risk factors.
  • Helps people avoid becoming ill altogether. 
  • Reduces the time it takes to recover from illness.
  • Leads to fewer complications during pregnancy and childbirth, less susceptibility to herpes attacks among infected individuals, lower rates of myocardial infarction among individuals with diagnosed disease, a reduced likelihood of mortality from myocardial infarction, faster recovery from coronary artery disease surgery, better diabetes control, better compliance and longer survival in patients with end-stage renal disease, and less pain among arthritis patients.
  • Has consistently been associated with a lower risk of early death.

The most helpful social relationships

The benefits of having strong social connections cannot be overstated, but relationships are not without their downsides.  We cherish our close relationships with family and romantic partners, but there is great value in having many friends and relatives who are not so close to us.  Shelley makes the following keen observation:

People who belong to dense social networks of friends or family who are highly interactive may find themselves overwhelmed by the advice and interference that is available to them in times of stress. As comedian George Burns noted, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

In addition, Shelley points out that it is increasingly evident that much of the benefit of social support is due to the knowledge that it is available, even when it isn't used.

A 2019 study on social behavior and happiness agrees with this assessment, saying:

Our results show that spending time with one’s family is related to momentary happiness, but more so for extended family members (e.g., a cousin) than direct ones such as siblings, romantic partners, and children.Quoidbach, J., Taquet, M., Desseilles, M., de Montjoye, Y.-A., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Happiness and Social Behavior. Psychological Science, 30(8), 1111–1122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619849666 

A rebuttal

In the spirit of critical thinking, I try to find the other side of the story whenever possible.  Although it isn't easy to find arguments to the contrary, I did find one. Richard Lucas tends to advocate a measured approach.  While acknowledging that "social relationships influence well-being," he and his colleagues assert that "much of the existing evidence does not show what it has been claimed to show."Lucas, R. E., Dyrenforth, P. S., & Diener, E. (2008). Four myths about subjective well-being. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(5), 2001–2015. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00140.x 

The paper says:

The size of these effects is not commensurate with claims that social relationships are a particularly strong predictor of well-being. Correlations between the number of friends, frequency of contact, marital status, and actual social activity are generally small, between 0.10 and 0.20. In fact, many of these effect sizes are smaller than those for other variables often interpreted as unimportant (e.g., income).

Apparently, they object to the conclusions of the studies I have referenced in this article because they use self-reporting to determine well-being.  Social science is full of complexities that don't lend themselves to easy answers.

The bottom line

Social relationships, specifically relationships with individuals we may not see often, but whom we trust to support us, are directly related to happiness.  Future articles will discuss how we can take action to build and strengthen this support network.

How to find a career with a bright outlook

The last article discussed how to stay motivated to do work over which you already have a high degree of control.  However, how can you get there in the first place?

You've probably heard people repeat the tired line, "Follow your passion!"  But this advice only works for a very small number of people.  It leaves the rest of us feeling inadequate because we don't have a passion for something that we are good at and pays well.

However, "follow your passion" may be better advice than "follow the money."  We all know people who end up miserable despite earning high sums.  Studies show that, above around $50,000, income has no relationship with day-to-day happiness.Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489–16493. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1011492107 as discussed at https://80000hours.org/career-guide/job-satisfaction/ 

How, then, can we stack the odds in our favor of having a career that will make us happy?

We use science, that's how.

What you need to get from a career

Let's start with a meta-study of 48 studies involving 15,000 nurses.BLEGEN, M. A. (1993). Nurses' Job Satisfaction. Nursing Research, 42(1), 36???41. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006199-199301000-00007   According to the authors, what factor has the strongest association with job satisfaction?  Try to answer without looking.

That's right, stress, with a correlation of (-.609).  Of course, many factors contribute to stress, including some of the following.  Let's see what other factors they found:

  • Organizational commitment (.526) (That is, the worker's feeling of attachment to the organization)
  • Communication with supervisor (.446)
  • Autonomy (.419)
  • Recognition (.415)
  • Routinization (-.412) (That is, how routine the work is)
  • Communication with peers (.358)
  • Fairness (.295)
  • Locus of control (-.283)

Note that some of these are social factors: communication with supervisors, recognition, and communication with peers, and fairness.  To a degree, these depend on the company culture and to another degree on the coworkers we happen to end up working with.

Are there factors that can be built into the job itself?  According to Job Characteristics Theory (JCT), there are.  

Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman developed the JCT based on earlier research into worker motivations, especially intrinsic motivations.According to Oldham, when a person is well matched to a job, they do not have to be coerced into doing the job well; rather, they will try to do well because it is within their nature. The research uncovered similarities between games, enjoyable pastimes, and engaging work.

To expand on the description of a game in my last article:

  • Both games and engaging work involve clear goals or tasks with a definite outcome.
  • Both involve a high degree of autonomy; that is, having the belief that one's own efforts, actions, and decisions determine the results.
  • Both involve variety in the tasks and skills required.
  • Both involve frequent, unambiguous feedback.

In addition to the above, engaging work often has a substantial impact on the lives of other people.

Oldham and Hackman developed the following formula:

Motivating Potential Score (MPS) = (Skill variety + Task identity + Task significance)/3 X Autonomy X Feedback

In other words, autonomy and feedback are the most important factors and the other three have an additive effect, that is, a deficit in one can be made up for in the other two factors.  In turn, these factors lead to three "critical psychological states" that affect the worker's motivation:

  • Experienced Meaningfulness of the Work: The degree to which a jobholder experiences their work as intrinsically meaningful and is able to convey their contribution to others and/or the external environment.
  • Experienced Responsibility for Outcome of the Work: The degree to which a worker feels accountable and responsible for the results of their work.
  • Knowledge of Results of the Work Activities: This is the extent to which the jobholder knows how well they are doing.

A diagram showing relationships between core job characteristics, critical psychological states, and outcomes

According to Charl J. Jacobs, the JCM is one of the most widely researched models in the history of Industrial Psychology, and by 1987 more than 200 studies had examined and tested the model.Jacobs, C. (2014). Once More: Testing The Job Characteristics Model.  Benefits of this model include:

  1. This model addresses one of the most important work-related issues: people and productivity.
  2. It is easy to understand.
  3. It can be applied practically anywhere, including education, hospitals, and even penal facilities.

Jacobs undertook to provide a "final verdict" on the JC model.  His conclusion:

The original propositions of Hackman and Oldham (1980) hold true. All the job characteristics load onto the psychological states, as previously believed. In addition, autonomy also loads onto experienced meaningfulness. Feedback was found to be the powerhouse state and loaded quite strongly onto all three psychological states. All of the psychological states predicted the outcomes as originally prescribed by the model. Only knowledge of results did not predict internal motivation.I also looked at another, more recent, study with similar findings: Bogicevic-Milikic, B., & Cuckovic, M. (2019). How to increase job satisfaction and organisational commitment in the ICT sector through job design. Ekonomski Anali, 64(222), 81–116. https://doi.org/10.2298/eka1922081b

Jacobs suggested a revised formula for calculating the MPS:

MPS = Skill Variety (.15) + Task Identity (.10) + Task Significance (.10) + Autonomy (.30) + Feedback (.35) 

From the evidence, we can logically conclude that the most important factors for satisfying employment are autonomy, and useful feedback from superiors and coworkers.  Other important but less significant factors include variety, seeing the outcome of your efforts, and feeling that your work benefits others.

How to go about finding this kind of employment

You're probably looking for the most lucrative jobs in fields that both interest you and have a demand for your skills.  Now you have a few more criteria to use to narrow down your search.

You've likely heard the saying, it's not what you know, it's who you know.  Of course, both are important, but having a good network of people will help.  Additionally, the methods outlined in the last article can help you find a job as well as help you stay motivated at work.  Let's see how they apply.

First, start with why

Consider how your existing identity and values relate to the type of job you want.  Use the WOOP method to help you keep momentum in your job search.

Add the what

Create a process for finding your dream job.  Remember, this includes:

  • Establishing standard practices: decide how many leads you will pursue each day
  • Frequent feedback
  • Rapid adaptation
  • Not trying to take on too much at once

Just as in a regular job, feedback is crucial here.  How can you get regular, actionable feedback?

Find people who are already experienced in the field(s) you are considering.  Interview them.  According to Ramit Sethi:

It’s not unusual to learn years of hidden insights in one interview. You’ll also start building relationships with people in that career field. ...Almost every time my students have followed this process they’re the first ones to get job offers when positions open up.

Sethi also offers some useful suggestions for those who don't know for sure what fields they want to consider.

In addition, you can use surrogation to help you decide if you will like the job you are considering.  That is, ask them questions about their job, such as how much feedback and autonomy it provides, to help you determine if you would enjoy the job.  Heck, ask them how much they enjoy their work.

Also, through interviews or other research, you can learn about what kinds of challenges you would have to deal with in a given field.  Why not look for a smaller-sized challenge that is similar to what you would do on the job?  Try to complete a project or solve a problem that you can then use to show a future potential employer that you are capable of doing something like that for them.  Make sure it involves small steps and can be rapidly adapted as you see the results of your efforts.

Don't forget the how

Establish a system for monitoring your job search success.  Keep careful records, and look back at your previous successes and failures.  Above all, keep track of everyone you have spoken to.  And look for ways to improve the quality of every step of the process.

It's a process, not an end in itself

I hope these suggestions will help you to find a satisfying job.  But at some point, you may decide you're not enjoying your work.  No problem!  You will be better prepared to try another career path that may be more rewarding.  As much as possible, try to adopt these principles in every facet of your life.  The end result will certainly be satisfying.


How to keep yourself motivated

What do you call something that includes a goal, rules, obstacles, feedback, and voluntary participation?Here's where this definition comes from, and here's where you can find an example illustrating the five points.

A game!

How hard is it to stay motivated to play a game?  Finding the motivation to stop playing is sometimes the greatest challenge in video games.

We can learn the secrets to staying motivated at work from games.  To find our motivation we also need to ask three questions: Why, what, and how?

Start with why

This is the most fundamental component of motivation.  To maximize the chances of success, make sure the goal harmonizes with the following:

Hugo M. Kerr of UC Berkeley developed the "3C" model of motivation.  According to this model, the metaphor of “head”, “heart” and “hand” represent the three components: explicit (self-attributed) motives, implicit (unconscious) motives, and perceived abilities.Kehr, H. M. (2014). Das 3K-Modell der Motivation. In J. Felfe (Ed.), Psychologie für das Personalmanagement: Vol. 27. Trends der psychologischen Führungsforschung. Neue Konzepte, Methoden und Erkenntnisse (pp. 103–116). Göttingen: Hogrefe.  

It's easy to see why abilities are crucial to motivation.  Not being able to keep up with the challenge of a game can make one lose interest.  If you can't keep up with the demands of a challenging work project, you may be discouraged or even fail entirely.

Expectancy theory also includes ability as one of the key factors.  Furthermore, the ability to achieve the desired results and sufficient control over the outcome are important.  Finally, the person must have a high degree of confidence that the reward will follow the desired outcome and believe the reward will be worth the effort.For evidence that supports this theory, see Barba-Sánchez, V., & Atienza-Sahuquillo, C. (2017). Entrepreneurial motivation and self-employment: evidence from expectancy theory. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, 13(4), 1097–1115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11365-017-0441-z and Cohen-Chen, S., & Van Zomeren, M. (2018). Yes we can? Group efficacy beliefs predict collective action, but only when hope is high. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 77, 50–59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.03.016

Another factor that determines success is adequate preparation.  A 2016 paper about the impact of human behavior on planning commented:

There is a growing body of evidence that implementation intentions that are formed after engaging in mental contrasting are more meaningful (more integrative) and more effective for reaching goals than forming implementation intentions alone.Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Oettingen, G. (2016). Pragmatic Prospection: How and Why People Think about the Future. Review of General Psychology, 20(1), 3–16. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000060

In other words, when people use the WOOP method of anticipating obstacles and planning for them, as discussed in this article, they are much more likely to succeed.  Also, certain qualities such as persistence and willingness to take risks, hallmarks of a well-rounded person, increase the likelihood of success.

Planning is most successful when regrets and other negative emotions are anticipated.  Using visualization can be a powerful tool in this process.

Additionally, social factors affect motivation.  Feeling that one's efforts will help others can be very motivating.  Social norms are also powerful motivators, for better or for worse.  

Note that so far, we've introduced three of the elements of satisfying gameplay to our recipe for sustained motivation: goals, obstacles, and voluntary participation. We'll include the other two below.

Now decide what

According to the 2016 paper quoted above, "A plan has a narrative structure in that one step leads to the next, with an ending envisioned. The steps are designed to cause a desired outcome." In other words, you need to create a process.  In the authors' experience, neither vague plans nor highly specific ones prove to be helpful. Plans that were moderately specific produced the best results, since they were more flexible.

Keys to success here include:

  • Establishing standard practices (the rules of the game)
  • Frequent feedback
  • Rapid adaptation
  • Not trying to take on too much at once
  • Enjoying the process

Smart, self-motivated people recognize that having a rewarding goal in mind isn't enough in most cases.  They learn to enjoy and benefit from the process itself:

  • Lessons learned along the way
  • The chance to try new methods of doing things
  • Personal growth

Start as small as possible and aim for a rapid product cycle with frequent opportunities for feedback from customers.  Not only does this reduce risk, it reduces the chance that you will become overly invested in unproductive ideas and strategies.  Once you've found something that works, you can start to scale it up.

Don't abandon the process too soon if it doesn't seem to be working.  Productivity guru James Clear writes, "Most of the mistakes that people assume are Failures of Vision [the why] are actually Failures of Strategy [the what]."  Consider the example of Edison and the lightbulb.  He realized his vision only after trying unsuccessfully one thousand times.

Failure is your friend.  Plan for it.  Embrace it.  Fail small, fail often, and win big.

The how

Start with a vision, create a process, and carefully develop your tactics.  This is the execution stage.  Clear offers the following advice for this stage:

  • Build robust systems
  • Measure carefully
  • Don't overlook the details

Remember the rules and feedback from our game analogy?  They apply here too.  Record each step in the process and measure the outcomes.  Make adjustments as needed to keep the process running smoothly.

Play it in reverse

Do you struggle to stay motivated?  Then look at your how, your what, and your why, in that order.  View rules and obstacles as allies rather than adversaries.  Try to keep your original vision in mind as well as you did the day you started.  Maximize feedback as much as possible every step of the way.

Above all things, try to enjoy the process. But if you've followed all the advice in this article, maybe it's time to reconsider.  After all, you have more than one possible future self.

Critical thinking skills and dispositions

In the article What Critical Thinking Means, I discussed the fact that even the experts don't agree on the definition of critical thinking (CT).  It is largely domain-specific, meaning that most CT relies on specialized knowledge.  However, there are general skills that can apply to all fields of knowledge.  Before we discuss those, let's use a quick analogy to understand how CT fits into education.

Consider the following "facts":

  • The memory of a goldfish only lasts three seconds.
  • You sense different tastes on different parts of your tongue.
  • Seasons are warmer or hotter depending on the distance of the earth from the sun.

Many of us have been taught these "facts" at some point or another, and they sound logical.  However, science does not support these ideas.I thought about linking to sources to disprove these statements, but decided against it.  DuckDuckGo is your friend.  Or Google. Now consider this fact: Twelve divided by six is two.  Is this true?  It is unlikely that you would doubt this statement because you have learned how to verify it.  You know how to compute the number based on a mathematical formula.  In fact, you may be able to think of several ways to verify the statement.

Math well illustrates the relationship between knowledge and skills.  To reason on mathematical principles, we need a degree of knowledge, yet the principles enable us to verify the accuracy of new knowledge as we learn it.

Essentially, CT is like math formulas for thinking in general.  While it may not enable us to detect every error we encounter, It will make us smarter information consumers.  Let's consider twelve CT skills that can help us in most situations.

Twelve general CT skills

Basic skills


This is the most fundamental of all CT skills since you can't think about something you haven't observed. Practice seeing things with a critical eye.  How does what you are seeing differ from what you've seen before?

Identifying assumptions

An assumption is a statement that is accepted as true.  Some people say, "Never assume anything!"  But this is foolish because we have to accept some things as true without proof.  Otherwise, we would be paralyzed by spending our entire lives trying to prove every little thing.  From the moment we begin learning from our parents, we generally accept what we are told.  It is only when we don't trust the person telling us that we doubt what they say.Nearly every statement in this paragraph is an assertion. "This is foolish" is an inference.  I offer all of these statements without proof because I am hoping you will see that my arguments are reasonable.  If you accept what I am saying, you are making assumptions.

Another word for assumption is belief. A true critical thinker realizes that any belief they hold, no matter how firmly they believe it, could be wrong, at least partially.  Furthermore, they know this applies to anything they learn from someone else.

Identifying inferences

An inference is something that is held to be true based on something else.  While assumptions are accepted as true without reference to evidence, inferences rely on the underlying assumptions as well as certain logic.  Both need to be considered when evaluating an inference. 

If you see two cars stopped at a traffic light and the driver of the back one is honking and waving, you can infer that the person wants the other car to move.  But there may be other, less obvious explanations.  Consider what those might be.

Identifying implications

Implications are hidden assumptions that are implicit in the stated information.  A skilled critical thinker learns to unpack complex statements that contain implications.

If someone says, "The police officer slyly entrapped the criminal," we can infer two things.  The obvious part is that a police officer entrapped a criminal.  It is also clear that the speaker views the police officer's actions as unethical.  Finally, the use of the word "criminal" implies that the person the police officer entrapped is guilty.

Identifying biases

There are many cognitive biases that affect our thinking every day.  This fact is well known to a critical thinker.  The two most common biases to watch for are self-serving thinking and oversimplification.  Our brains are skewed toward self-preservation, so we often think and express ourselves in self-serving ways without even realizing it.  Also, to make sense of the constant flood of information, the brain creates shortcuts that alter the information. 

An understanding of cognitive biases and practice in recognizing them are excellent general CT skills. We should also develop the habit of asking, how does the person giving me this information stand to benefit if I accept it?  We will also benefit from examining our own reasons for our beliefs. 

Other common thinking errors include circular reasoning and confusing correlation with causation.

Use of questions

Questions are the foundation of the critical thinking process.  Examples:

  • Who stands to benefit from this information?  In what ways?
  • Who is an authority on this subject?  What do I need to ask them?
  • What are the strengths of this argument?  Weaknesses? 
  • Where can I find other perspectives on this subject?
  • Where does this apply?  Where does it not apply?
  • When has this concept appeared before?
  • When will this information no longer be relevant?
  • Why is this information relevant?
  • How can I verify this information?
  • How can I apply what I am learning?

Higher skills


Analysis refers to approaching problems systematically, to breaking elements down into their components and examining how they function separately and together.  


While analysis refers to breaking things down, synthesis refers to putting things together. It is the process of combining parts in new and different ways.In fact, this article is based on an analysis of several different sources of information regarding CT skills, including the Delphi Report.  In turn, I synthesized the information I gathered to create this article.


As my last article showed, comparing things is a particularly useful method for improving understanding.

Teachers often explain general concepts using examples. A teacher can help the students understand the general principle if he or she explains how it applies to each example. But as two studies mentioned in the last article demonstrated, when the examples are compared to each other, students learn to transfer the principle to other, less related situations.

I also referenced a study that examined the effects of teaching students to analyze, synthesize, and compare. In this process, they learned to adapt experimental methods, and they produced better explanations of the limitations of their models.

Prediction and testing

This is another form of comparison, involving comparing predicted outcomes with actual outcomes.

Evaluating arguments

This can be done in several ways:

  • Identifying inconsistencies and errors in reasoning
  • Determining the strengths and validity of an argument
  • Learning to identify weaknesses in arguments or evidence
  • Understanding whether a text is mostly about observations or measurements, mostly about ideas or theories, or a mix of the two
  • Analyzing whether observations about a particular case can be generalized
  • Determining whether statistics and probabilities are correctly analyzed

Metacognitive skills

These include: 

  • Learning more about our own beliefs and biases
  • Self-reflection, understanding our own thoughts and feelings.

Critical thinking dispositions

Many critical thinking experts believe that CT is a set of skills.  Others think it also includes dispositions, or propensities.  That is, a person with a CT disposition is inclined to apply CT in most situations they encounter.  How do people become habitual critical thinkers? What are some of the dispositions that contribute to this?


This may be the most important quality of a critical thinker.  A curious person isn't satisfied just to learn information.  They want to understand the hows and whys.  A curious person never believes they know it all.


No matter how authoritative something sounds, it could be wrong.  No matter how sure you are that you are right, you could still be wrong.  A person with a CT disposition wants to hear as many perspectives as possible, including those that disagree with their own.

Intellectual humility 

Humility is like open-mindedness in that a humble person is receptive to another's viewpoint. They see their own positive attributes accurately but they are also willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings.  A true critical thinker is willing to adopt a new viewpoint even if:

  • It goes against their own previously held convictions and long-cherished beliefs.
  • It is against their own self-interest.

Respect for others

A person with a CT disposition:

  • Respects the viewpoints of others
  • Can debate ideas while showing respect to the other person
  • Views others with compassion and empathy, even when disagreeing with them

Intellectual courage

A true critical thinker is willing to challenge the status quo.  They don't adhere to traditional methods simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.  Being confident in their own views, they are not threatened by those of others.  However, they are also able to defend their own views when necessary.


CT is unlike making intuitive judgments because it takes sustained effort. Seeking relevant information requires diligence. Filtering and separating out appropriate information can be a lengthy process.


For those who consider critical thinking to be a self-directed activity, this quality is necessary.  It includes:

  • Self-observation - monitoring one's performance systematically, including keeping records
  • Self-judgment - systematically comparing performance with a standard or goal
  • Self-reaction - taking measures to keep oneself moving toward the goal

 A good start

There you have it, twelve CT skills and seven dispositions. To the extent that you cultivate these in your own life, you will benefit.  Future articles will expand and apply the principles discussed here.

Can critical thinking be taught?

The answer is yes, but answering the question, How? is much more difficult.

But first, let's ask: Why would you want to learn critical thinking (CT)?

According to one source, critical thinking gives you at least 20 advantages, more than 15 skills and abilities, and is necessary for more than ten aspects of a desirable life.  At least, that's how many they listed off.  Here are some examples of the claims:

  • Critical thinkers are masters of efficiency.
  • A critical thinker remains calm and knows when he is right.
  • CT improves the way we express our ideas.
  • It keeps us from becoming narrow-minded.
  • It helps us consider others' perspectives and reach conclusions based on facts, not feelings.
  • It helps people think 'outside the box.'
  • It teaches us to withhold personal judgments and biases.
  • It's necessary to live a meaningful life.
  • It creates good citizens who are informed about proper governance and overcome biases and prejudice.
  • It creates people who are the voice of reason in times of panic.

If you didn't meet with growing skepticism as you read down that list, you are probably thinking, I want this!  Where do I sign up for a class?

You can take a critical thinking course.  But don't expect to major in CT.  Just how much improvement in critical thinking can you expect to gain through education?

Kevin Possin, Professor Emeritus at Winona State University, has taught critical thinking courses.  He's also written a lot on the subject.  In a paper on this topic, Possin refers to what he considers to have been "the best effort at a basic-skills CT program to date," one that was based on the ideas of CT pioneer Robert Ennis.Possin, Kevin, "Commentary on "Why Not Teach Critical Thinking" by B. Hamby" (2016). OSSA Conference Archive. 60.  Referencing studies on the results of critical thinking improvement in college students, Possin remarked,

While these gains matched the gains it takes the average U.S. college graduate four years to achieve, they are still tragically meager.

He concludes the paper by saying that, while he doesn't recommend abandoning hope in the attempts to teach CT skills, he does recommend "lowering our expectations."

How, then, do the experts recommend learning CT?

The "consensus" of the experts

As my last article points out, there is anything but a consensus among all the recognized experts in CT on what CT actually includes.  However, the closest thing to a single consensus of experts came in the form of the "Delphi Report," published in 1990 with Dr. Peter A. Facione as the primary author.  Altogether 46 scholars in the field appended their names to the document, including Ennis, Lipman, and Paul, all mentioned in the last article.  The landmark paper makes 15 recommendations to educators for the increased use of CT instruction in all levels of education.

While acknowledging, "The experts harbor no illusions about the ease of designing appropriate instructional programs or assessment tools," the experts recommended that "minimum CT proficiency expectations should be set" for each level of education.  Sadly, this hasn't happened.  Frank Breslin, retired high-school teacher, wrote in Huffington Post

Apart from a few teachers who do train their students in critical thinking, most teachers do not for one simple reason — there is no time. State education departments mandate that so much material has to be covered that critical thinking cannot be taught, nor can the courses themselves be critically presented. In order to cover the curriculum, courses must be taught quickly, superficially, and uncritically, the infallible way of boring students.

What about university education?

A frequently cited 2016 meta-analysis set out to answer the question, Does College Teach Critical Thinking?Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2016). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 431–468. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315605917   

Noting that their findings align with those of earlier studies on the subject, they concluded, "We estimate an average gain of 0.55 SDs on the disposition toward critical thinking over 4 years of college.... It is worth noting that a 0.50 SD gain for the person who starts at the 50th percentile would lift him or her to the 69th percentile, no small improvement in our minds."

At last, here's some evidence that university education can provide a general improvement in critical thinking skills and dispositions.  But the study tends to raise more questions than answers.  For one, what is it about college education that promotes critical thinking?  It appears that no one knows for sure.  Does the increase happen mostly in the early stages of college? Do gains speed up in the later years?  No strong evidence was found either way.

What about trends over time?  The study tested the suggestion that college has become less effective at teaching critical thinking.  Their findings:

Holding other moderators constant, more recent studies provided significantly smaller effect sizes than older studies. Given an equal mix of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, the predicted 4-year gain is 1.22 SDs for a study published in 1963 [...], whereas the predicted gain is only 0.33 for a study published in 2011.

Are universities gradually failing in their efforts to promote critical thinking?  Or are students entering school at a higher level of CT ability than they were in years past?  These, too, are questions that remain unanswered.  In the US, college attendance went from 7 million in 1970 to 21 million in 2010.  Is it possible that higher numbers of less-prepared students attending college have diluted the numbers?  Have students become less willing or able to learn critical thinking skills over time?  There are no easy answers to these questions.

The study authors could not rule out the possibility that "critical thinking increases naturally with age and that some of the observed changes occur independently of college education."  Finally, how about the question of retention?  Do students retain CT skills long after college or learn to apply them in other contexts? The authors acknowledge:

Our search did not reveal any studies that followed up with college graduates to determine their levels of critical thinking skill or disposition later in life. If critical thinking skills are not practiced as frequently after graduation, they may diminish over time.

Are critical thinking skills transferable or are they domain-specific?

This is another pressing question.  Everyone knows each field of study requires specialized knowledge.  On the other hand, many people think of critical thinking skills as being broadly useful.As an example, the LinkedIn article cited at the top of this article confidently asserts, "Critical Thinking is a domain-general thinking skill." However, there is an increasing number of people who recognize CT as largely domain-specific.

The 2016 meta-study cited above refers to participants in one experiment who showed larger gains in domain-specific, but not domain-general, CT. They cite two other studies where psychology students each showed significant gains on a measure of psychological critical thinking but no significant gains on a test of general CT ability (The Watson Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal).  The authors conclude, "This finding suggests that changes in domain-specific critical thinking may be related to mastery of that domain."

Other studies in separate disciplines agree with these results. A study of knowledge encapsulationKnowledge encapsulation is a type of learning where, over time, experts tend to develop mental shortcuts that are more efficient than reasoning based on careful analysis.  An example is a physician who, as a med student, uses a set of symptoms to make a diagnosis, but as an intern might say, "This is sepsis." Thus: "The concept of sepsis is sufficient to explain all relevant signs and symptoms; it encapsulates, or stands for, the student's detailed pathophysiological explanation." Example and quote from Schmidt, H. G., & Rikers, R. M. J. P. (2007). How expertise develops in medicine: knowledge encapsulation and illness script formation. Medical Education, 0(0), 071116225013002-??? https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2007.02915.x tested cardiologists and neurologists in diagnosing cardiac cases.  As predicted, the cardiologists achieved a higher diagnostic accuracy.Rikers, R. M. J. P., Schmidt, H. G., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2002). On the Constraints of Encapsulated Knowledge: Clinical Case Representations by Medical Experts and Subexperts. Cognition and Instruction, 20(1), 27–45. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532690xci2001_2   This was despite the fact that the neurologists and cardiologists undoubtedly had similar levels of critical thinking skills.

Would you expect professional philosophers to have higher than average CT skills?  How well would they handle everyday judgments, such as being swayed by irrelevant features of problems like question order or wording?  According to a 2015 study, no better than average adults. The study found that "neither framing effects nor order effects appear to be reduced even by high levels of academic expertise."Schwitzgebel, E., & Cushman, F. (2015). Philosophers’ biased judgments persist despite training, expertise and reflection. Cognition, 141, 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.04.015 

Are there any generalized critical thinking skills?

There is evidence that some CT skills do transfer across domains, but the literature on broadly applicable CT skills is sparse.  First, consider some skills Possin considers to be widely transferable:

  • Using experimental evidence to provide evidence for or against a hypothesis in one area of science allows one to use that evidence in other disciplines too, especially in other sciences.
  • No matter what the subject is, denying the consequent is a relevant and valid argument, and learning how to recognize it is a valuable skill.Possin, K. (2014). Critique of the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal Test: The More You Know, the Lower Your Score. Informal Logic, 34(4), 393. https://doi.org/10.22329/il.v34i4.4141 
  • Understanding and using deductive argument forms correctly is a valuable CT skill.Possin, K. (2016)

Compare, compare

The following studies have been cited in academic works about the possibility of learning transferable CT skills.  As I pored over the abstrusely-written studies, I observed a commonality: they all have to do with using comparisons to help the students learn more productive thinking patterns.  Let's take a brief look at three of them.

One study set out to determine the best way to help students recognize patterns in one domain (piles of rocks) and generalize the category knowledge to a new domain.  Both groups were shown images and asked to determine whether or not they belonged in the same category (the categories were not spelled out).  Afterward, they were given feedback as to whether their guess was correct. Experiment participants were asked to type a description of the rocks, whereas control participants just tried to guess the similarities.  Later both groups were tested using a set of geometric shapes that looked very different from the rocks they were trained on.  Those who had done the comparisons scored much better on the task.  (As an example, some of the rock patterns contained a rock on top of another rock.  The experiment group was more likely to recognize geometric patterns where the same shape was repeated vertically because they recognized this type of repetition as a category feature.) The study authors considered this to be an instance of domain transferred learning.Kurtz, K. J., Boukrina, O., & Gentner, D. (2013). Comparison promotes learning and transfer of relational categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39(4), 1303–1310. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031847 

In another study, participants were given instruction about principles of negotiation.  (For example, two children want the same lemon but one actually only wants the fruit and the other only wants the peel.)  The participants are told the general principle, as well as two cases that both involved the principle.  Then both groups were asked questions about how the principle relates to each case. However, the experiment group was asked to compare the two cases to each other, while this was not mentioned to the control group. Each was then asked to participate in a face-to-face negotiation.  The group that did the comparison was much more likely to apply the principle in the new situation. The authors conclude:

Even when cases follow one after another, there is no guarantee that people will notice their commonalities. Introducing explicit comparison across multiple cases in professional training could lead to more effective learning and transfer.Loewenstein, J., Thompson, L., & Gentner, D. (1999). Analogical encoding facilitates knowledge transfer in negotiation. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6(4), 586–597. https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03212967 

The final example is slightly different in that there aren't two existing items being compared.  Instead, the experimental subjects were asked to try to synthesize what they knew or create something new, and then test the results and compare them with the original. The control group wasn't taught this method. Both groups analyzed and interpreted their results, but only the experimental group did the comparisons. As a result, those in the experiment group were better able to explain their reasoning than the control group.  They were also much more likely to offer creative ways to improve the experimental methods or to describe the limitations of the methods they used.  Tests a year later found they were continuing to use this method even though it had only been briefly taught.Holmes, N. G., Wieman, C. E., & Bonn, D. A. (2015). Teaching critical thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(36), 11199–11204. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1505329112 

Possin also cites a couple other studies that produced similar results.  It is evident that, while most critical thinking is apparently domain-specific, there are skills and thinking patterns that can be useful in a more general way. 

While I don't believe the evidence supports all the claims of the LinkedIn author cited at the top of the article, I do believe CT has many important benefits.  The next article will discuss skills and propensities that we can all develop.