4 min read

Critical thinking and executive functions

Whether it’s jobs of the future or limiting irrationality that we’re after: if we want to teach critical thinking, it’s really useful to break the concept down into its cognitive components. Identification of those components has the potential to inspire new ways to foster critical minds. In a recent paper, the role of executive function in critical thinking was explored using both behavioral and neural measures (Li et al., 2021).

What the authors did was see whether critical thinking skills could be predicted by performance on cognitive tasks that tested executive function. To further analyze executive function, they followed the Miyake-Friedman model (Miyake et al., 2000), which separates executive function into:

  • Updating: the maintenance and change of information in working memory as new information comes in
  • Inhibition: the suppression of pre-potent responses (e.g. intuitive judgments)
  • Shifting: flexibily shifting between tasks, operations and mental sets

Critical thinking was operationalized as performance on the California Critical Thinking Skills Tests (CCTST). The CCTST (Facione & Facione, 1992) is often used as the gold standard of assessing critical thinking ability. It has been used to rate the efficacy of interventions and to explore traits that may predict critical thinking. Roughly speaking, the test does this by assessing reasoning capacity, albeit in a quite fine-grained way. While metacognitive or creative skills may be used during the CCTST, the test does not try to score them.

To figure out whether updating, inhibition or shifting specifically could significantly predict CCTST scores, Li et al. also measured participants’ fluid intelligence — how well an individual can address and solve novel problems — and thinking dispositions — basically, how keen someone is on thinking — both of which have been suggested to affect critical thinking ability (Butler, Pentoney & Bong, 2017; Heijltjes et al., 2014). Then, while correcting for these two factors, they looked at the influence of the three components of executive function.

As it turned out, fluid intelligence was the most important factor predicting the CCTST score, but updating and inhibition also helped explain test scores, albeit to a limited extent. For shifting, no such result was found and thinking dispositions also did not seem to matter. A follow-up EEG experiment replicated these relations and added some (somewhat noisy) neural measures.

What to make of these results? The predictive value of fluid intelligence comes as no surprise — in fact, it is operationalized as a set of reasoning tests (Raven & Court, 1998) so one would expect it to correlate with CCTST scores. The role of updating makes sense from the reasoning perspective, too — while working on a problem, one must be able to selectively add new information to (or remove irrelevant information from) the maintenance of working memory. Inhibition, finally, can be understood as the suppression of intuitive judgments (such as those found in motivated reasoning). It makes sense that such a process matters for performance on the CCTST.

Whether fluid intelligence can be trained is a controversial topic. Fluid intelligence is the aspect of intelligence that has mostly been affected by the so-called Flynn effect, the phenomenon that sees a steady rise of average intelligence through the decades (Dickens & Flynn, 2001), which suggest it may be susceptible to direct change. However, there are no known effective interventions at this date.

Can executive functions be trained? A meta-analysis of working memory trainings did not show improvement in reasoning skills (Melby-Lervåg, Redick & Hulme, 2016), but one that zoomed into cognitive training for pre-schoolers did and showed the effect is largest for developmentally-at-risk children, such as children diagnosed with ADHD or those with a background of low socio-economic status (Scionti et al., 2020). So while there is some malleability of working memory, this may not be useful for the adult population. Training inhibitory control, however, may be more promising and has been suggested to improve reasoning skills (Maraver, Bajo, & Gomez-Ariza, 2016).

Taken together, these findings suggest that cognitive training aimed at the executive function components updating and inhibition may improve critical thinking, at least as it’s operationalized in the CCTST. The most promising route for adults would then be to train inhibitory control, for example via Stroop-like tasks, conflict resolution tasks or stop-signal tasks.

Of course, it may very well be that training executive functions is neither the most effective or most efficient way to boost critical thinking. The influence of updating and inhibition on CCTST scores was not great and it’s still unclear to what extent cognitive training can boost executive functions. Still, it’s good to consider a critical thinking intervention that is different from argumentative mapping or playing chess.


Butler, H. A., Pentoney, C., & Bong, M. P. (2017). Predicting real-world outcomes: Critical thinking ability is a better predictor of life decisions than intelligence. Thinking Skills and Creativity25, 38-46.

Dickens, W. T., & Flynn, J. R. (2001). Heritability estimates versus large environmental effects: the IQ paradox resolved. Psychological review108(2), 346.

Facione, P. A., & Facione, N. C. (1992). The California critical thinking skills test. California Academic Press.

Heijltjes, A., Van Gog, T., Leppink, J., & Paas, F. (2014). Improving critical thinking: Effects of dispositions and instructions on economics students’ reasoning skills. Learning and Instruction29, 31-42.

Li, S., Ren, X., Schweizer, K., Brinthaupt, T. M., & Wang, T. (2021). Executive functions as predictors of critical thinking: Behavioral and neural evidence. Learning and Instruction71, 101376.

Maraver, M. J., Bajo, M. T., & Gomez-Ariza, C. J. (2016). Training on working memory and inhibitory control in young adults. Frontiers in human neuroscience10, 588.

Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T. S., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working memory training does not improve performance on measures of intelligence or other measures of “far transfer” evidence from a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science11(4), 512-534.

Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., Howerter, A., & Wager, T. D. (2000). The unity and diversity of executive functions and their contributions to complex “frontal lobe” tasks: A latent variable analysis. Cognitive psychology41(1), 49-100.

Raven, J. C., & John Hugh Court. (1998). Raven’s progressive matrices and vocabulary scales (Vol. 759). Oxford, England: Oxford pyschologists Press.

Scionti, N., Cavallero, M., Zogmaister, C., & Marzocchi, G. M. (2020). Is cognitive training effective for improving executive functions in preschoolers? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology10, 2812.