Critical Thinking and Myanmar

Last week I travelled to Myanmar as part of a US Track 2 negotiation team to discuss weapons of mass destruction with a group of senior retired Myanmarese officers. Prior to my departure I also taught a seminar to my students on critical thinking. It was a pretty eclectic week, and as I flew home it occurred to me that my trip to Yangon, Myanmar had expanded my understanding of critical thinking and its importance.

If you look for a definition of “critical thinking,” you may very likely find the following:

“Critical thinking is the ability to effectively receive information, evaluate the information, recall prior information, assimilate information by comparing differences and determining cause and effect, and evaluating the information to make decisions and solve problems”. It is closely related to the scientific method in our approach to problem solving and has been identified as a crucial aspect of any education.

One of the challenges of “critical thinking” is avoiding “groupthink.” This is a concept developed by Irving Janus in his book, Victims of Groupthink. Janus argued that “groupthink” occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment.” The symptoms of “groupthink” include:

  • Collective rationalization

  • Illusion of invulnerability

  • Belief in inherent morality

  • Stereotyped views of out-groups

  • Direct pressure on dissenters

  • Self-censorship

  • Illusion of unanimity

  • Self-appointed ‘mindguards’

When we arrived in Yangon, we delivered a series of presentations about American concerns that were focused on weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, etc. Frankly, I expected our counterparts to express a similar concern about these critical issues. A retired Myanmar general then gave a very long summary of his concerns that included: climate change, deforestation, poor health conditions, illegal mining, excessive fishing, human smuggling, illegal drugs, counterfeiting, etc. It suddenly dawned on me that perhaps we had fallen victim to at least a variation of groupthink. We clearly believed in the inherent morality of our arguments and assumed that unanimity existed on what was really important.

This suggests a cultural aspect to groupthink that is important as we become a much more global society. The Josephson Institute has identified “Six Pillars of Character” that may frame how we perceive problems in our respective societies: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. These provide a framework or lenses through which we consider critical issues, but our individual definitions of even these concepts may vary. Consequently, my Myanmar friends saw the world differently Not better, not worse, but differently. If I am to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink, I have to respect that, be willing to listen carefully, and consider other examples in our increasingly smaller world.