What is Critical Thinking and How is it Different from Problem Solving?

critical thinking and problem solving

What is Critical Thinking and How is it Different from Problem Solving?

Critical thinking and problem solving are two intellectual skills that are often talked about together.

Both involve using logic, analysis, and judgment to address a matter at hand. But some key differences in how these thought processes work are important to understand.

In this post, I’ll break down a simple definition of each, talk about their key elements, and most importantly highlight the differences between critical thinking vs. problem solving.

Understanding these distinctions can help sharpen your ability to carry out both processes more effectively.

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking refers to the objective analysis and evaluation of information or an issue to reach a logical judgment about what to believe or how to act. It implies using logic, reasoning, and evidence rather than assumptions, biases, or flawed arguments.

The goal of critical thinking is to determine the authenticity, accuracy, merit, feasibility, or worthiness of something. It enables drawing sound conclusions rooted in a careful, impartial examination of facts rather than emotions or opinions.

Key Aspects of Critical Thinking

Some key skills and mindsets required for effective critical thinking include:

  • Open-mindedness: Being willing to examine new ideas or opposing perspectives without prejudgment
  • Objectivity: Examining an issue fairly based solely on facts and evidence rather than emotions or prejudices
  • Attention to detail: Noticing and analyzing the subtle intricacies and nuances of an argument or set of facts
  • Logical reasoning: Making judgments based on clear, valid linking of facts that show why one should accept the judgment as true or justified
  • Rational skepticism: Questioning and validating the accuracy or merit of claims, data, or beliefs using sound methods

Critical thinking enables breaking down complex issues to focus attention on each element, understanding causal relationships between elements, uncovering assumptions or flaws in reasoning, and ultimately reaching credible, justifiable conclusions.

What is Problem Solving?

Problem solving refers to the process of working through the details of a challenge or hindrance to reach a solution or determine the best course of action. It usually implies applying specialized knowledge or expertise to address a specific matter.

The goal is to methodically think through how to transform the current problematic state into a desired fixed state by identifying potential solutions, evaluating their feasibility, and ultimately selecting the best course of action.

Key Aspects of Problem Solving

Major aspects of competent problem solving include:

  • Defining the problem: Clearly articulating the challenge, obstacles, components, expectations, and goals
  • Researching and analyzing: Gathering all relevant data, context, and constraints that impact the matter
  • Identifying alternatives: Brainstorming possible options, routes, or strategies to address the issue
  • Evaluating options: Using criteria like efficiency, likelihood of success, required resources, impacts, and so on to determine the merit of each option
  • Selecting approach: Choosing what appears to be the best course of action based on facts, analysis, resources, and context
  • Executing solution: Applying the chosen approach fully to resolve the defined problem

Problem solving relies on critical thinking applied to a well-defined situation using domain expertise and strategic decision making to drive resolution.

Overlaps Between Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

There are certainly overlaps between using critical thinking skills and carrying out a problem solving process, including:

  • Both require gathering thorough, accurate information relevant to the matter
  • Each relies on objective analysis of the issue rather than assumptions or opinions
  • They involve breaking down complex matters into components to study interrelationships
  • Strong foundational logic, reasoning, questioning, and decision making capabilities strengthen both
  • Credibility, practicality, and precision are important to conclusions and chosen actions

So critical thinking and problem solving complement each other in many regards. Employing sound critical thinking strengthens one’s ability to work through problem solving steps. Diligently applying problem solving methodology relies heavily on consistently utilizing critical thinking abilities.

Key Differences Between Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

However, there are some notable ways critical thinking and problem solving differ:

1. Goals and outcomes

Critical thinking aims to form a credible judgment regarding the authenticity or value of information, whereas problem solving focuses on finding practical solutions and definitive plans of action around a specific challenge.

So critical thinking helps determine what to believe while problem solving drives what to do.

2. Scope and constraints

Critical thinking involves open-ended examination and critique that can be applied to virtually any topic or situational elements. Problem solving tends to have defined constraints and criteria tied to domain-specific expertise to yield viable solutions.

Critical thinking deals with abstract ideals; problem solving must align to concrete realities.

3. Approach

While both processes are systematic, critical thinking follows the evidence to uncover truth or faults wherever they lead, while problem solving requires more linear strategies that target resolution within certain limitations.

Critical thinking navigates concepts; problem solving maps to procedures.

4. Mindset

Critical thinking demands absolute impartiality regardless of personal feelings or individual perspectives. Problem solving requires combining analytics with intuition and insight to imagine innovative solutions.

Critical thinking avoids biases; problem solving blends logic and creativity.

In summary, critical thinking is about understanding in an open-ended way while problem solving drives action within constraints. Both require careful, skillful analysis but differ in their ultimate aims.

Critical ThinkingProblem Solving
GoalForm credible judgments about information/beliefsIdentify practical solutions to specific challenges
ScopeOpen-ended; can critique any topic or issueDefined constraints tied to domain expertise
ApproachFollow evidence wherever it leadsMore linear strategies targeting resolution
MindsetImpartial perspective, avoid biasesBlend analytics with intuition and insight
OutcomesIncreased understanding and discernmentAction plans and next steps
ToolsReasoning, questioning assumptions, identifying flawsAnalyzing data, evaluating alternatives, selecting optimal choice
ApplicationsAssessing arguments, challenging assumptionsImproving processes, overcoming obstacles
Critical thinking vs problem solving

Developing Strong Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Abilities

Sharpening one’s critical thinking and problem solving capabilities requires effort but allows tackling all kinds of intellectual and practical challenges much more effectively.

Some improvement tips include:

For critical thinking:

  • Read extensively to gather more evidence and perspectives
  • Question interpretations, conclusions, and beliefs rather than accepting them at face value
  • Analyze arguments carefully to identify flawed reasoning as well as strengths
  • Debate issues without ego interfering, being willing to change positions based on facts
  • Break down complex topics to focus deep examination on each facet

For problem solving:

  • Methodically move through defining, researching, ideating, and selecting solution elements
  • Learn processes or analytical approaches common to the domain of the problem
  • Unpack where intuition complements analytics rather than contradicts when evaluating options
  • Consider constraints realistically throughout but avoid limiting ideation prematurely
  • Outline clear action plans once a solution is selected

Building skills in both areas takes patience but enables tackling all kinds of intellectual and practical challenges with greater confidence and competence.

Q&A on Critical Thinking vs Problem Solving

Q: When might someone use critical thinking more heavily than problem solving or vice versa?

A: Critical thinking would feature more when critiquing a belief, argument, or ideology in an open-ended way rather than targeting a definite resolution. Problem solving has greater emphasis when addressing domain-specific challenges that require practical action or работа within certain limitations.

Q: Which skill is more valuable in a professional context?

A: Both are tremendously valuable. Critical thinking enables better assessing options, weighing evidence, and avoiding pitfalls in reasoning that could lead to low-quality decisions or outcomes. Problem solving skills allow driving to an optimal, concrete solution within the constraints and tradeoffs of a business scenario.

Q: Which approach helps more with personal growth and development?

A: Critical thinking can catalyze profound personal growth because questioning assumptions, unconscious biases, and norms allows people to shape more authentic perspectives and beliefs. Problem solving also aids personal development by building confidence in one’s ability to methodically address challenges using facts and insights.

Q: If resources only allowed focus on one set of skills, which would have the most universal value?

A: Developing strong critical thinking abilities would likely have the most far-reaching, universal benefits since it can then be applied to scrutinize and optimize such a vast array of beliefs, communications, processes, and systems. But a reasonable case can also be made for mastering problem solving as those skills directly map to identifiable challenges and tangible solutions.


  • Critical thinking aims to assess the truth, merit, or worthiness of information or beliefs through objective analysis and evidence-based reasoning to reach credible judgments.
  • Problem solving involves methodically working through how to transition from a current problematic state to a desired fixed state by evaluating and then selecting feasible solutions aligned to domain-specific constraints.
  • While complementary in using careful evaluation to drive conclusions, critical thinking is open-ended, abstract, and unconstrained while problem solving must map to concrete realities and limitations to yield actionable solutions.
  • Advancing skills in both areas rely on cultivating strong logic, questioning, creativity, and decision making capabilities with critical thinking more universal and problem solving more context-specific.

Focusing on sharpening one’s mastery of critical thinking and problem solving prepares one to handle all kinds of intellectual and practical challenges with greater wisdom and effectiveness.

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