Analytical Thinking and Critical Thinking
Some people assume that analytical thinking and critical thinking are one in the same. However, that is incorrect. Although there are similarities, there are distinct differences between the two.
Analytical thinkingis the mental process of breaking down complex information or comprehensive data into fundamental parts or basic principles.
Critical thinkingis the mental process of carefully evaluating information and determining how to interpret it in order to make a sound judgment.
Differences between Analytical Thinking and Critical Thinking
A basic difference between analytical thinking and critical thinking is analytical thinking involves breaking down complex information into smaller parts while critical thinking involves taking outside knowledge into account while evaluating information. Basically, analytical thinking seeks to review and breakdown the information gathered while critical thinking looks to make a holistic judgment using various sources of information including a person’s own existing knowledge.
Analytical thinking is more linear and step-by-step breakdown of information. On the other hand, critical thinking is more holistic as it seeks to assess, question, verify, infer, interpret, and formulate.
Analytical thinking can be thought of as a step in the critical thinking process. When you have a complex problem to solve, you would want to use your analytical skills before your critical thinking skills. Critical thinking does involve breaking down information into parts and analyzing the parts in a logical, step-by-step manner. However, it also involves taking other information to make a judgment or formulate innovative solutions.
Additionally, with analytical thinking, you use facts within the information gathered to support your conclusion. Conversely, with critical thinking, you make a judgment based on your opinion formed by evaluating various sources of information including your own knowledge and experiences.
Analytical Thinking and Critical Thinking
About Analytical Thinking
Analytical thinking uses a step-by-step method to analyze a problem or situation by breaking it down into smaller parts in order to come to a conclusion.
With analytical thinking, you make conclusions by breaking down complex information into smaller parts and analyzing the parts. You look for patterns and trends as well a cause and effect within the information in order to find connections between the parts. In the end, you make draw a conclusion based on the available facts.
Steps for Analytical Thinking
Analytical thinking begins by gathering all relevant information. You then break up large, complex data into smaller, more manageable sizes. You then examine each sub-part to understand its components and relationship to the larger more complex data. You compare sets of data from different sources by looking at the information through different points of view with the objective to understand how it connects to other information. You search for patterns, trends, and cause and effect. Finally, you draw appropriate conclusions from the information in order to arrive at appropriate solutions.
Analytical thinking involves:
- Gathering relevant information
- Focusing on facts and evidence
- Examining chunks of data or information
- Identifying key issues
- Using logic and reasoning to process information
- Separating more complex information into simpler parts
- Sub-dividing information into manageable sizes
- Finding patterns and recognizing trends
- Identify cause and effect
- Understanding connections and relationships
- Eliminating extraneous information
- Organizing Information
- Drawing appropriate conclusions
About Critical Thinking
Critical thinking employs logic and reasoning to come to a conclusion about how best to perceive and interpret information in order to make sound judgments.
With critical thinking, you make conclusions regarding your unique perception of the information. You look into other pieces of data that could be relevant. Then you combine your new information with your existing knowledge of the world in order to make the most accurate assessment. Essentially, you reflect upon information in order to form a sound judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense. Ultimately, you make reasoned judgments that are logical and well thought out by assessing the evidence that supports a specific theory or conclusion.
Steps for Critical Thinking
Critical thinking involves gathering all relevant information, then evaluating the information to determine how it should be best interpreted. You evaluate information by asking questions, assessing value, and making inferences. You then formulate ideas and theories based on the evaluation. You consider outside information rather than sticking strictly with the information presented. You then consider alternative possibilities before reaching a well-reasoned conclusion. Finally, you test your conclusions in an attempt to verify if evidence supports your conclusions and make your judgment.
Critical thinking involves:
- Gathering relevant information
- Evaluating information
- Asking questions
- Assessing bias or unsubstantiated assumptions
- Making inferences from the information and filling in gaps
- Using abstract ideas to interpret information
- Formulating ideas
- Weighing opinions
- Reaching well-reasoned conclusions
- Considering alternative possibilities
- Testing conclusions
- Verifying if evidence/argument support the conclusions
Last Monday, I engaged in a public conversation with comedienne Ilana Glazer on the topic of “Intuition” at the Rubin Museum in New York City. For 45 minutes, we discussed the role of intuition on stage and in everyday life. Afterward came the Q&A session. Although the audience tossed a number of thought-provoking questions our way, one stands out—perhaps because I’m not satisfied with the response I gave at the time.
One of the themes that came out in the discussion was the need to find a balance between intuitive and analytical thinking. (This is a position I argued in my blog post “Are You an Intuitive or Analytical Thinker?") Our intuitions have been finely honed over evolutionary history for making quick decisions in the social realm. Within seconds, we know whether we like some or not, whether we trust them or not. We’re also remarkably good at predicting each other’s behavior in the moment.
Beyond the social realm, however, our intuitions often lead us astray—and often in predictable ways. And that’s where analytical thinking becomes important. Even if our rapid-response intuitive system is wrong, our slower, more effortful analytical system can bring us to the best decision.
And so we come to the question from the audience: “If you could only have one mode of thinking in your life—intuitive or analytical—which would you choose?”
I, the analytical scientist, quickly responded: “Of course you need both.”
But Ilana, the intuitive actress, was willing to play along with the hypothetical situation. Of course she chose intuition, as she couldn’t engage in her profession without it.
And I agreed it was the best choice in her situation. I also added that most people lead their lives solely on the basis of their intuitions, sometimes doing well and sometimes making disastrous choices. But then I said something that I now regret.
“If we were living on the savannahs of Africa engaged in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, all we would need is our intuitions to guide us,” I said. “But our modern society is so far removed from the environment we are adapted for that we can no longer depend on intuition alone.”
It’s true that we live today in an environment vastly different from that in which we evolved. And this fact accounts in large part for why our intuitions so often lead us astray in modern life. That is, our intuitions are evolved for a stone-age hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
But that doesn’t mean analytical thinking is a modern invention. Quite to the contrary, hunter-gatherers display remarkable feats of analytical thinking. As Louis Liebenberg describes in his 2013 book The Origin of Science, persistence hunters in the Kalahari Desert engage in a process remarkably similar to the scientific method when stalking their prey.
Persistence hunting is done without any projectile weapons. Instead, you run your prey to exhaustion and then finish it off with a knife. You see, four-legged animals can run fast but only for short distances, whereas humans run slow but can continue at that pace for hours.
Persistence hunters spot a likely prey, say a wounded gazelle, and chase after it. Of course the gazelle quickly leaps out of sight, but it leaves behind a trail of footprints. Furthermore, persistence hunters put themselves inside the mind of their prey and ask: “If I were being chased by humans, where would I go?” The team gathers data, debating and evaluating it, before heading off in the likely direction at a leisurely jog. When they find their prey cooling off under the shade of a tree, they once again take chase. This process is repeated until the animal collapses of heat exhaustion. Then all you have to do is slit its throat and carry it home.
The whole point is that even our hunter-gatherer ancestors relied on both intuitive and analytical reasoning. In the social realm, the fast thinking of intuition serves us quite well. But when it comes to important decisions outside that realm, intuitions will lead us astray and only a slow analytical process will lead us to good decisions. This is the lesson we need to take from our hunter-gatherer cousins, who presumably maintain the lifestyle of our ancestors.
This brings us back to the question of which is more important, intuitive or analytical thinking. In the Star Trek universe, the Vulcans have no emotions and are totally rational creatures. Yet if this were truly the case, Mr. Spock wouldn’t be able to order lunch in the ship’s galley, let alone interact successfully with his crewmates, because our day-to-day social decisions have no rational solution and we have only our intuitions to guide us.
On the other hand, the craziness of the current election season shows us only too clearly the lows to which we humans can sink when we chuck rational thought out the window and rely solely on our intuitions. I can hear our hunter-gatherer ancestors calling from their graves: “Take the time to think analytically, would you?”
Liebenberg, L. (2013). The origin of science: On the evolutionary roots of science and its implications for self-education and citizen science. Capetown, South Africa: CyberTracker.
David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).