5 Barriers to Critical Thinking: What holds us back from thinking critically in day-to-day situations?

5 Barriers to Critical Thinking: What holds us back from thinking critically in day-to-day situations?

by Евгений Волков -
Number of replies: 0

5 Barriers to Critical Thinking

What holds us back from thinking critically in day-to-day situations?


Posted Jan 18, 2019

Quite often, discussion of Critical Thinking (CT) revolves around tips for what you or your students should be doing to enhance CT ability. However, it seems that there’s substantially less discussion of what you ‘shouldn’t be doing’; that is, barriers to CT. About a year ago, I posted 5 Tips for Critical Thinking to this blog and after thinking about it in terms of what not to do, along with more modern conceptualisations of CT (see Dwyer, 2017), I’ve compiled a list of five major barriers to CT. Of course, these are not the only barriers to CT; rather, they are five that may have the most impact on how one applies CT.  

1. Trusting Your Gut

Trust your gut is a piece of advice often thrown around in the context of being in doubt. The concept of using intuitive judgment is actually the last thing you want to be doing if critical thinking is your goal. In the past, intuitive judgment has been described as ‘the absence of analysis’ (Hamm, 1988); and automatic cognitive processing which generally lacks effort, intention, awareness or voluntary control—usually experienced as perceptions or feelings (Kahneman, 2011; Lieberman, 2003). Given that intuitive judgment operates automatically and cannot be voluntarily ‘turned off’, associated errors and unsupported biases are difficult to prevent, largely because reflective judgment has not been consulted. Even when errors appear obvious in hindsight, they can only be prevented through the careful, self-regulated monitoring and control afforded by reflective judgment. Such errors and flawed reasoning include cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Going with your gut—experienced as perceptions or feelings, generally leads the thinker to favour perspectives consistent with their own personal biases and experiences or those of their group. 

2. Lack of Knowledge

CT skills are key components of what CT is and, in order to conduct it, one must know how to use these skills. Not knowing the skills of CT—analysis, evaluation and inference (i.e. what they are or how to use them) is, of course, a major barrier to its application. However, consideration of ‘Lack of Knowledge’ does not end with knowledge of CT skills. Let’s say you know what analysis, evaluation and inference are, as well as how to apply them. The question then becomes, Are you knowledgeable in the topic area you have been asked to apply the CT? If not, intellectual honesty and reflective judgment should be engaged to allow you to consider the nature, limits and certainty of what knowledge you do have, so that you can evaluate what is required of you to gain the knowledge necessary to make a critically thought out judgment. However, the barrier here may not necessarily be a lack of topic knowledge, but perhaps rather, believing that you have the requisite knowledge to make a critically thought out judgment when this is not the case or lacking the willingness to gain additional, relevant topic knowledge.

3. Lack of Willingness

In addition to skills, disposition towards thinking is also key to CT. Disposition towards thinking refers to the extent to which an individual is willing or inclined to perform a given thinking skill; and is essential for understandinghow we think and how we can make our thinking better, in both academic settings and everyday circumstances (Norris, 1992; Siegel, 1999; Valenzuela, Nieto, & Saiz, 2011; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). Dispositions can’t be taught, per se, but they do play a large role in determining whether or not CT will be performed. Simply, it doesn’t matter how skilled one is at analysis, evaluation and inference - if they’re not willing to think critically, CT is not likely occur.

4. Misunderstanding of Truth

Truth-seeking is one such disposition towards thinking, which refers to: a desire for knowledge; to seek and offer both reasons and objections in an effort to inform and to be well-informed; a willingness to challenge popular beliefs and social norms by asking questions (of oneself and others); to be honest and objective about pursuing the truth even if the findings do not support one’s self-interest or pre-conceived beliefs or opinions; and to change one’s mind about an idea as a result of the desire for truth (Dwyer, 2017). Though this is something for which many of us strive or even just assume we do, the truth is that we all succumb to unwarranted assumptions from time to time; that is, beliefs presumed to be true without adequate justification. For example, we might make a judgment based on an unsubstantiated stereotype or a common sense/belief statement that has no empirical evidence to justify it. When using CT, it’s important to distinguish facts from beliefs and, also, to dig a little deeper by evaluating ‘facts’ with respect to how much empirical support they have to validate them as fact (see The Dirtiest Word in Critical Thinking: 'Proof' and its Burden). Furthermore, sometimes the truth doesn’t suit people; and so, they might choose to ignore it or try and manipulate knowledge or understanding to accommodate their bias. For example, some people may engage in wishful thinking, in which they believe something is true because they wish it to be; and some might engage in relativistic thinking, in which, for them, the truth is subjective or just a matter of opinion.

5. Closed-mindedness

In one of my previous posts, I lay out 5 Tips for Critical Thinking – one of which is to Play Devil’s Advocate, which refers to the 'consideration of alternatives'. There’s always more than one way to do or think about something – why not engage such consideration? The willingness to play 'Devil’s Advocate' implies a sensibility consistent with open-mindedness (i.e. an inclination to be cognitively flexible and avoid rigidity in thinking; tolerate divergent or conflicting views and treat all viewpoints alike, prior to subsequent analysis and evaluation; to detach from one’s own beliefs and consider, seriously, points of view other to one’s own without bias or self-interest; to be open to feedback by accepting positive feedback and to not reject criticism or constructive feedback without thoughtful consideration; amend existing knowledge in light of new ideas and experiences; and to explore such new, alternative or ‘unusual’ ideas).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, closed-mindedness is a significant barrier to CT. By this stage, you have probably identified the inherent nature of bias in our thinking. The first step of CT is always going to be to evaluate this bias. However, one’s bias may be so strong that it leads them to become closed-minded and renders them unwilling to consider any other perspectives. Another way in which someone might be closed-minded is through having properly researched and critically thought about a topic and then deciding that this perspective will never change, as if their knowledge will never need to adapt. However, critical thinkers know that knowledge can change and adapt. An example I’ve used in the past is quite relevant here – growing up, I was taught that there were nine planets in our solar system; however, based on further research, our knowledge of planets has been amended to now only consider eight of those as planets.  

Being open-minded is a valuable disposition, but so is scepticism (i.e. the inclination to challenge ideas; to withhold judgment before engaging all the evidence or when the evidence and reasons are insufficient; to take a position and be able to change position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient; and to look at findings from various perspectives). However, one can be both open-minded and sceptical. It is closed-mindedness that is the barrier to CT, so please note that closed-mindedness and scepticism are distinct dispositions.


Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J. & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43-52. 

Hamm, R. M. (1988). Clinical intuition and clinical analysis: expertise and the cognitive continuum. In J. Dowie & A. Elstein (Eds.), Professional judgment: A reader in clinical decision making, 78–105. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. Penguin: Great Britain.

Lieberman, M. D. (2003). Reflexive and reflective judgment processes: A social cognitive neuroscience approach. Social Judgments: Implicit and Explicit Processes, 5, 44–67.

Norris, S. P. (Ed.). (1992). The generalizability of critical thinking: Multiple perspectives on an educational ideal. New York: Teachers College Press.

Siegel, H. (1999). What (good) are thinking dispositions? Educational Theory, 49, 2, 207–221.

Valenzuela, J., Nieto, A. M., & Saiz, C. (2011). Critical thinking motivational scale: A contribution to the study of relationship between critical thinking and motivation. Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 9, 2, 823–848.


There are many other layers to trusting our guts than the
one correctly identified in this article.

One small example among many. While many entrepreneurs fail by trusting their guts, many others accomplish great things against all odds and all by trusting their guts.

So there is more to this story.


There is certainly more to this story - intuitive judgment, or ‘trusting your gut’ is our default decision-making system. Each and every day is filled with thousands of potential decisions – from deciding what to wear or what kind of coffee to drink. Such decisions, however, do not require critical thinking. Intuitive judgment is an evolutionary advantage; it helps us stave off decision fatigue (i.e. the decreased accuracy and/or quality of processing in decision-making or self-regulation as a result of the amount of previous engagement with problem-situations that required decisions or judgments; Baumeister, 2003) and it serves us well most of the time. However, because of intuitive judgment’s tendency to satisfice (Simon, 1957; that is, to conclude with a solution or answer that is ‘good enough’), why would you risk going with your gut and not critically thinking about it?

If you care about the decision, think critically about it. It may even turn out to be the case that what you conclude from your critical thinking is actually consistent with what your intuitive judgment said in the first place. With respect to the example regarding success, this could very well be the case of a kind of availability cascade, in that we hear many examples of people who have succeeded as a result of going with their gut simply because it’s a more interesting story than those who have failed. The big question is how many people succeeded by going with their gut (without engaging critical thinking) relative to those who have failed?


How do you know if you are truth seeking or just fooling yourself? Where is that information to be found? In a book? Which book? How do I choose from all contradictory messages out there? He doesn't have the answer. Trouble with not listening to your gut is that you get fooled by people who only sound like they know what they are talking about, like this guy. You read all the wrong stuff in your quest to be better informed and end up knowing absolutely nothing of value. Willingness has nothing to do with it. Often the truth is something you are constantly running away from and hits you upside the head when you least expect it. It makes you feel quite the fool. You realize you have been chasing rainbows and unicorn farts when you thought you were being so clever. In the end there are no keys to better thinking. He suggests open mindedness is important, and the way to be open minded is to be, well, open minded. You have no way to get there unless you are already there. Not with pure thinking anyway. You might be able to get there if you address the emotional barriers that keep you imprisoned. But that's the important bit, freeing the emotions, not the thinking. That's why you listen to your gut. It's not infallible, but it's better than nothing.


Many thanks – some important issues here to consider. As I mentioned, I come from the perspective that dispositions, like open-mindedness, cannot be taught; however, in students willing to get better at critical thought and evaluation, open-mindedness can certainly develop over time. I agree that adaptation of emotional reaction is key to enhance thinking; however, going with your gut is not the solution – your gut, the intuitive judgment, is highly influenced by emotion. Some researchers even equate it with emotion. Reflective judgment on the other hand, requires more objective thought and is less likely to be influenced by emotion.
You ask, “How do you know if you are truth seeking or just fooling yourself?” - excellent question. If you are honest with yourself, you will first avoid a confirmation bias in your search - that is, search for all data on the topic, rather than just data that corroborates your ‘gut’. Second, search for the actual studies conducted on the topic or phenomenon, not someone’s interpretation of the findings. They’re out there - Google scholar is a very handy tool. Based on the data, make a decision. Ask yourself whether or not such interpretations can be made from the data. If one doesn’t understand the data, then they need to educate themselves as to how to conduct such analysis and interpretation; and if they don’t care enough to educate themselves, they at least need to have the intellectual honesty to admit that they don’t know. These are signs of critical thinkers. If they don’t do this, then they’re not thinking critically. Some of the smartest people I know admit their ignorance of particular topics all of the time.
The issue of willingness arises when you care about a decision enough that you say to yourself, I am going to look up that data, I am going to make an effort to interpret the data (and if I don’t understand the data, learn about analysing such data). Critical thinking takes effort, it is hard work. You need to be willing to do it. If you are not willing, you will not do it. Similarly, perseverance is an important disposition towards critical thinking – when the going gets tough, the tough get going…or thinking in this case. Woefully declaring, ‘I don’t know how to do this’ after having “read all the wrong stuff in your quest to be better informed and end up knowing absolutely nothing of value” is the opposite of perseverance. If you want to think critically about something, do the work; maintain intellectual honesty and humility; and stick with it!


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