2 July 2018

The Role of Contradiction in Triggering Critical Thinking

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By Dr. Adrian Wolfberg,

U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA


Military officers entering professional military education institutions, especially at the senior level of lieutenant colonel or colonel (or equivalent), have typically spent twenty years or more mastering their tradecraft. They understand their world as an expert does based on facts and frameworks shaped by their experience. Their intellectual comfort level with their professional skills and abilities generates cognitive and emotional confidence in the certainty of their world. An important value of these senior service war colleges is they provide a vantage point into the highest levels of policymaking and strategy formation. This view is something most lack from experience, because it requires closeness to a political world typically centered around a nation’s highest elected leader and its centers of power.

Such a world is infused by ambiguity, contradictions, and competing agendas. It is exactly in such a world where critical thinking is a necessary competency. Informed by Bonn (2005) and Halpern (2014), I define critical thinking as the possession of three characteristics: (1) having the disposition to willingly and consciously think critically; (2) that thinking critically involves the capability to use cognitive skills such as awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process, reflection, reasoning, and questioning; and (3) having the need to make a decision under conditions in which judgment is required because a lack of clarity exists due to ambiguity, uncertainty, and/or contradictory information (Wolfberg, 2017b). Critical thinking is especially important as military officers advance into the ranks of general officer where they will interact and make decisions at the strategic-level.

I define the strategic-level as (1) a context in which decisions and/or actions directly impact national policy and/or contribute to the long-term success of a nation’s goals; and/or (2) a context in which potential or actual long-term consequences of decisions or actions contribute to the decision space of more senior decision-makers who do have a direct impact to national policy or its goals. In this way, the strategic-level includes not only the decision space at the national-level, but also the decision space at the tactical and operational levels provided such decision spaces have demonstrable strategic consequences.

Within this broad connection between strategic-level decision-making and critical thinking, the question I addressed for the Innovation Methodologies for Defense Challenges (IMDC) conference (30 Jan – 01 Feb, 2018) was, how could critical thinking be employed in an academic environment, such as a senior service war college, where most students lack actual experience at the strategic-level?

I conducted a qualitative study in 2016, whose results have provided insights into answering this question. The study, “When Generals Consume Intelligence: The Problems that Arise and How They Solve Them,” was published in 2017 by the journal Intelligence and National Security (Wolfberg, 2017b). For the study, I interviewed 21 American 3- and 4-star Army combat arms general officers who commanded the largest military formations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The purpose of my study was to focus on the process of consuming strategic intelligence (information that most generals have little experience processing), not the outcome of decisions based on strategic intelligence.

What initially motivated me to engage in this study was a white paper written in 2012 by then Chairman of the Joint Staff, General Martin Dempsey, who listed a variety of topics that war colleges should strengthen, including intelligence (Dempsey, 2012). By 2015, the education of only the most senior general officers included strategic intelligence. This led me to ask, what do senior general officers need to know regarding strategic intelligence?

I soon discovered my question had rarely been asked. Only one previous empirical study had examined how senior general officers processed strategic intelligence; that study used historical documents from World War II, whose purpose was to reanalyze operational decisions using data from the 1970’s public release of Ultra intelligence—the British capability of code-breaking German encrypted radio and teleprinter communications during World War II (Deutsch, 1988).

However, what scholars have asked was, what happens when senior civilian policymakers get exposed to strategic intelligence? For that demographic, research had shown that when faced with information that contradicted a policymaker’s view of the world, policymakers either reject or distort the new information (Wolfberg, 2017b). Informed by Festinger (1957) and Poole and van de Ven (1989), I define contradiction as the conscious recognition that new situations, events, or information mean something opposite to an individual’s preexisting worldview (Wolfberg, 2017b).

What I found from my study, to my surprise, was that for these senior general officers leading the largest formations in combat zones, they did something completely opposite to how civilian policymakers react when faced with contradictions. When these commanding generals were faced with contradictions from national security strategic intelligence, typically from the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency, they resolved the contradictions instead of rejecting or distorting them.

Contradictions emerged for these generals for one of three reasons: intelligence sources presented a different view of the world; intelligence analysts presented a different view of the world; and differences in intelligence agency cultures made it hard to figure out reality.

The generals incorporated a three-part contradiction resolution strategy, summarized in Figure 1. The first part, I call, “self-learning,” where they decided to gain additional insight. They engaged in self-learning for three reasons: psychological, bureaucratic, and systemic. The second part is called “feedback from others.” They acquired feedback through their superiors, their senior intelligence officers, and junior intelligence officers. The third part is called “capacity building.” They built the intellectual capacity of those around them by fostering critical thinking in others, by modeling through dialogue, and by mentoring intelligence officers.

Figure 1: Contradiction Resolution Strategy (CRS)


This strategy was successful because the generals recognized contradictions and were willing to face them. In fact, they felt it was their responsibility for doing so.

As to self-learning, the theoretical reason that contradiction can trigger resolution is that we have a natural tendency to seek internal consistency (Festinger, 1957). We have a choice. We can resist change or be open to it. Critical thinking is the primary mechanism to resolve contradictions. Working through contradictions can provide breakthroughs in creative insights (Schumacher, 1977; Rothenberg, 1979; and Cameron & Quinn, 1988).

As to feedback, the theoretical reason that feedback extends self-learning is that others can help us in a change process (Alfieri et al., 2011) since we have bounded rationality limits to what we can know (March & Simon, 1958). It is by experience in the world and through others that we learn (Dewey, 1920, 1948). By watching and asking questions, dialogue becomes a mechanism for accessing such feedback (Schein, 2004).

As to building capacity, the theoretical reason is that reproducing and feeding forward knowledge, skills, and capabilities helps subordinates develop a consistent competency (Giddens, 1979; Vera & Crosan, 2004; and Argote & Miron-Spektor, 2011). The generals used dialogue as a mechanism to overcome organizational boundaries (such as power and hierarchy). They modeled asking questions.

While this theoretical background helps understand why the generals behaved the way they did, none of the individual pieces is new knowledge. What is new is the identification of a contradiction resolution strategy, as shown in Figure 1, one that was executed by a commanding combat arms general, and one used for the highest military purpose. Policymakers, on the other hand, typically want facts to fit policy so they most likely would not choose this three-part strategy (Hughes, 1969; Gray, 1999; and Jervis, 2010). But not all generals would either.

If senior military generals are able to use contradiction to trigger critical thinking, then seeking a pedagogical solution where less senior military officers—who attend senior service colleges, for example—can be exposed to contradiction seems like a worthwhile pursuit to trigger and experience a contradiction resolution strategy.

In conclusion, my goal has been to advance the catalytic effect of contradictions for professional military education and civilian equivalent use. To do so, contradictions must be present (possibly through case studies, simulations, or exercises, to name a few venues), and one has to attend to contradictions collectively to leverage cognitive and experiential diversity. This requires reducing information overload in the learning environment—either by design or self-determination—so that critical thinking can emerge into the foreground (Wolfberg, 2017a). What the commanding generals did was control their time and created the space they needed for critical thinking to emerge and engage. That control is not typically accessible by individuals subordinate to commanding generals. Allowing for that control in pedagogical settings would be a mandatory prerequisite for critical thinking to emerge and be practiced.


Adrian Wolfberg, Ph.D., is a Defense Intelligence Agency employee having just completed his rotational position as Chairman of Defense Intelligence, Department of National Security and Strategy, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA. He earned his Ph.D. in management from Case Western Reserve University. His research work concentrates on knowledge exchange between intelligence analysts and senior level decision-makers within the policy and operational arenas of national security and public safety. Adrian can be contacted at


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Cameron, K.S. & Quinn, R.E. (1988). Organizational paradox and transformation. In R.E. Quinn & K.S. Cameron (Eds.) Paradox and transformation: Toward a theory of change in organization and management: 12-18. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

Dempsey, M.E. (2012). Joint education. Unpublished white paper. Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense.

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Hughes, T.L. (1969, April). The fates of facts in the world of men. Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1921-1969), 63 (pp. 233-245).

Jervis, R. (2010). Why intelligence and policymakers clash. Political Science Quarterly, 125(2): 185-204.

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Wolfberg, A. (2017a). How information overload and equivocality affect law enforcement intelligence analysts: Implications for learning and knowledge production. Journal of Intelligence and Analysis, 23(1): 17-35.

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