How critical thinking can help the youth avoid conflict and antagonism

September 5, 2022

Group work during Intergative Complexity (IC) session in University of Malakand

Pakistan’s education system is marred by rote learning and tutorially instilled conformity which stifles critical thinking. The system generally promotes black and white perspectives about complex issues pertaining to society, economy, culture, and politics. This not only limits the students’ worldview but also creates psychological barriers against the integration and appreciation of ideas, thoughts, and information that does not align with the society’s dominant value systems.

Approached from a peacebuilding perspective, the encounter between artificially imposed monolithic models of thinking and a world characterised by multi-layered complexities often leads to reinforcement of established ways of thinking in intense and sometimes violent ways. This concern has gained increased ascendancy in the current political and social climate, marked by increasing polarisation and resurgence of political and social groups with regressive agendas and formidable rhetoric to mobilise support, especially among youth.

This especially holds true in universities and institutions of higher learning where regressive value systems and myopic world views are often promoted by organized groups to influence students and recruit them for political ends. The situation calls for an overhaul of the educational system in Pakistan by promoting state-of-the-art learning techniques that encourage appreciation of diversity and capacitate students to critically analyse information before making decisions.

To this end, UNDP Pakistan with support from the Australian High Commission (AHC) led an initiative “Integrative Complexity Workshops” to promote critical thinking in institutes of higher learning in Pakistan. The pilot, tested to help reduce young people’s vulnerability to black and white thinking, was held with university students in Swat and Malakand.


Integrative complexity is one's ability to differentiate and integrate multiple perspectives or dimensions on an issue. It allows one to understand an issue by integrating different elements from various points of view while considering an issue. This helps one in overcoming black and white thinking and empathising with others' thoughts and world views about a particular issues while developing one's own understanding of the same.


The workshops involved the application of cutting-edge psychology tools, developed in collaboration with the University of Cambridge UK, to measure the extent to which university students in Swat and Malakand were vulnerable to polarised thinking. The research involved a counterfactual methodology with a control group and a treatment group for comparison. Data was collected at the initial baseline and end line stages to assess the extent to which young people were able to overcome a monolithic understanding of the world after the intervention.

Following the establishment of a baseline, a total of 347 students (182 men and 165 women), doing their masters degrees from universities in Swat and Malakand, participated in the critical thinking workshops that allowed them to empathize with alternative world views and ways of thinking through role-play and playful exploration of various topics pertaining to peace, security, and social cohesion. The role playing exercises included simple group activities in which students divided into cohorts with opposing views about peace and conflict or traditional and scientific knowledge. They held informed debates with each other and attempted to come to an empathetic understanding of the others’ point of view.

More advanced role playing exercises involved students playing the roles of historical figures like Henry VIII and Abraham Lincoln. The participants were encouraged to draw commonalities between historical developments in England and the United States with prevalent scenarios in Pakistan, and think critically about the role of religion in society or the importance of leadership during political crises.


“I never identified myself with people who take drugs. But after attending these sessions, I want to spend some time with them to try to understand how they become addicted and what I can do for them; being intolerant will not solve the problem,” shares a student from the University of Swat.


Exercises like these helped in strengthening the students’ capacities to reflect on and integrate multiple perspectives in their thinking and decision-making. It involves developing empathy for others’ points of view by understanding the conduct or behaviour of people belonging to different religious, ethnic, or economic backgrounds from oneself as rational responses to their own social, political, and economic contexts.


Women students dressed as Catholic Clergy in the IC session on Henry VIII

Students doing IC group work


While the overall results of the exercise have been positive, a worrying aspect of the trainings was the baseline results which showed that the majority of students fell below the fifth percentile in terms of their baseline logical reasoning, indicating compromised ability for logical reasoning.

The graph below (Figure 1) provides an overview of the Integrative Complexity (IC) results obtained from the University of Malakand in the pre and post workshop stages. The findings show that the intervention group of students was able to overcome binary or monolithic ways of thinking and critically analyse diverse ways of comprehending information before making a decision.


Figure 1: Integrative Complexity results obtained from the University of Malakand in the pre & post workshop stages


While there have been significant improvements in terms of enhanced IC of the intervention group after participation in the workshops, the overall score of both control and IC group participants indicates logically impaired thinking as evident in the percentile ranks and categories table (Table 1) given below.


Table 1: Integrative Complexity ranking scale


This was an overall trend as the 42 students from the control group also did not fare well in terms of critical and logical thinking capabilities. In this regard, the low IC percentage of university students was similar to the data collected from radicalized young people undergoing rehabilitation through Government run reintegration and rehabilitation camps.

This implies that an uncritical acceptance of information is a key feature of mainstream youth as well as young people involved in anti-social activities, implying that the former is also vulnerable to involvement in violence and conflict if exploited by extremist actors with command over political rhetoric.

The experiment points to a need for the Government of Pakistan to invest in innovative methods to promote critical thinking among youth. This is especially crucial in the current scenario where youth encounter fake news and misinformation through digital and social media platforms while lacking the ability to critically analyse this information. This susceptibility poses serious threats to social cohesion and community resilience especially if the information paints a black and white view of the world and targets vulnerable social, ethnic, or political groups.

While it is impossible to control the information shared, the experiment shows that young people can be taught how to think and process information—making rationally informed and empathetic decisions.


“By participating in these sessions, I learned the importance of transcending rigid thinking about important matters. For instance, Quran is in language that we do not understand. In the session, I learned that when we do not understand our book, it is easy for other people to manipulate us by using the Quran as reference. This is why we should read the Quran in Urdu or Pashto,” shares a student from the University of Malakand


The pilot is a replicable blueprint for adoption by policymakers and educationists in Pakistan. It will help in institutionalizing an empirical methodology that can equip young people with the right tools to process politically charged or socially sensitive information and make informed decisions to avoid possible conflict and antagonism.

We took our findings to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) after which UNDP and Social Welfare Accademics and Training for Pakistan (SWAaT) are now working to roll out these trainings in four more educational institutions across Pakistan. The trainings will focus on countering young people’s vulnerability to being exploited by hate speech and extremist content online.


Dr Feriha Peracha
Dr. Peracha has worked as a consultant with UNDP. As a trained psychologist, she has developed and conducted workshops in universities to enhance critical thinking skills, empathy and social intelligence. She is also the CEO of SWAaT for Pakistan.

Hamza Hasan
Hamza Hasan works with UNDP's Youth Empowerment Programme as a Senior Social Inclusion Officer. He is a Cultural Anthropologist with experience of promoting and facilitating meaningful participation of vulnerable groups in the development process through research, strategic programme development, and inclusive project implementation

Edited by:

Ayesha Babar (Communications Analyst & Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan)
Tabindah Anwar (Communications Associate, UNDP Pakistan)