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Reading Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards Heuer (1999)
In this final piece covering Heuer’s seminal work on intelligence analysis, Myth Composer is going to share with readers how they can read the news like a CIA analyst reads their intelligence reports.
The News is Going to be Wrong
With the Internet people can access a great number of sources just like analysts. With this great access comes the probability of interacting with conspiracy theories that not only exist on forums and conversations, but can be sponsored by the media. Conspiracy theories become probable explanations since they are the product of causal explanations and filled with bias. “Intelligence analysts are more exposed than most people to hard evidence of real plots, coups, and conspiracies in the international arena. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—most intelligence analysts are not especially prone to what are generally regarded as conspiracy theories. Although analysts may not exhibit this bias in such extreme form, the bias presumably does influence analytical judgments in myriad little ways” (Heuer, Chapter 11). When you dissect causal explanations you will find out that it doesn’t lift the veil to complexities you should seek out to analyze. “In examining causal relationships, analysts generally construct causal explanations that are somehow commensurate with the magnitude of their effects and that attribute events to human purposes or predictable forces rather than to human weakness, confusion, or unintended consequences” (Heuer, Chapter 11). But these explanations do not put front and center the plain fact that “most human-source information is secondhand at best” (Heuer, Chapter 10). We can never place our complete faith and trust in the news delivered to us by journalists, they are usually the last person to hear anything.
Even within the executive and legislative branches of government there is “miscommunication between analysts and policymakers” (Heuer, Chapter 12). We always have to keep in mind, that “there is only a very selective subset of the overall mass of data to which one has been subjected that one takes as facts and judges to be relevant to the question at issue” (Heuer, Chapter 2). While journalists carry only a piece of information they will treat it as being enough to write an in-depth analysis. And this is when context and interpretation cross paths. “The significance of information is always a joint function of the nature of the information and the context in which it is interpreted” (Heuer, Chapter 4). This context is “provided by the analyst in the form of a set of assumptions and concerning human and organizational behavior. These preconceptions are critical determinants of which information is considered relevant and how it is interpreted” (Heuer, Chapter 4). Always be willing to examine the context of information delivered to you via your phone, feed, and “trusted” news source. Is there one political party or individual that benefits from that news story you are reading? And then how is it being interpreted by the journalist?
Your Expectations for the News
Readers tend to “perceive what they expect to perceive” (Heuer, Chapter 2). We may believe that we are only preparing ourselves to read the news with the want to learn more about an ongoing conflict. But we need to take into account our own expectation of what we think we will see. For example, if you are going to watch the news about an ongoing conflict, you may want to learn more about it, but your expectation to see only more violence and a hopeless end will overpower what you want to see. While watching the ongoing conflict, you aren’t going to feed your true desire to learn more since your expectation has superseded that. Our “expectations have many diverse sources, including past experience, professional training, and cultural and organizational norms. All these influences predispose [readers] to pay particular attention to certain kinds of information and to organize and interpret this information in certain ways” (Heuer, Chapter 2).
We are only going to watch the news with our expectations and look for headlines that support what we believe. What people read, hear or see first for the first time has tremendous influence on their expectations on the updates for a particular news story. “Patterns of expectations tell [readers], subconsciously, what to look for, what is important, and how to interpret what is seen. These patterns form a mindset that predisposes [readers] to think in certain ways. A mindset is akin to a screen or lens through which one perceives the world” (Heuer, Chapter 2). This sets readers at a disadvantage because they will be less capable to include newer and better information when it is available to their point of view (Heuer, Chapter 2). We have to remember that “new information is assimilated to existing images” (Heuer, Chapter 2).
Don’t Cite History to Support Your Claims
We might wish to depend on our own experiences, but that isn’t a sufficient enough basis to guide your next decision. This results from you receiving almost no check and balances from your friends and family who may have the same beliefs as you. And if you are able to predict or not predict what happens, you can never use that as a guide since it is clearly undependable. Encourage yourself to think and test your past predictions. “To do this, analysts must either remember (or be able to refer to) their past estimates or must reconstruct their past estimates on the basis of what they remember having known about the situation at the time the estimates were made” (Heuer, Chapter 13).
If you think you were right about something before, be hesitant to give yourself too much praise. Many people will overestimate how they were able to predict something went in the direction they predicted (Heuer, Chapter 13). One solid example would be a political election. People may be able to rely on their past predictions and guesses. These estimations do not take into account the many other elements at play. Always keep in mind that you should “give little weight to anecdotes and personal case histories unless they are known to be typical, and perhaps no weight at all if aggregate data based on a more valid sample can be obtained” (Heuer, Chapter 10).
This is Your Bias
We can easily point out the biases of others but we need to accept our own biases as well “a reader’s interpretation of the conclusions will be biased in favor of consistency with what the reader already believes. This may be one reason why many intelligence consumers say they do not learn much from intelligence reports” (Heuer, Chapter 12). This results from our own cognitive bias which is made up of “subconscious mental procedures for processing information” and not “emotional or intellectual” predispositions (Heuer, Chapter 9). And it is difficult to to combat your cognitive bias since they “are similar to optical illusions in that the error remains compelling even when one is fully aware of its nature. Awareness of the bias, by itself, does not produce a more accurate perception. Cognitive biases, therefore, are, exceedingly difficult to overcome” (Heuer, Chapter 9).
And your bias isn’t only informed by yourself, “in any group of people, the bias will exist to a greater or lesser degree in most judgments made by most of the group” (Heuer, Chapter 9). Don’t ever think you know everything because “people are frequently led astray when the ease with which things come to mind is influenced by factors unrelated to their probability” (Heuer, Chapter 12). You may get into arguments with others using your own sources, but you must give your opponent’s information a fair review since you want to prevent yourself from always thinking you are correct. Always remember it is completely natural to want to confirm your own bias, “the mind strives instinctively for consistency” (Heuer, Chapter 5). It’s up to you to acknowledge that and investigate.
Refute Rather than Confirm Your Own Hypotheses
We will always love parading our own hypotheses but all it takes is one “single item of evidence” to refute it, so it’s best to test your own hypotheses before discussion (Heuer, Chapter 4). And we can do it! We have the capability to “adopt the conceptual strategy of seeking to refute rather than confirm hypotheses” (Heuer, Chapter 4). Do your own research in the issues that matter to you. Do not be entirely dependent on others to inform your opinion. It’s important for us to apply what we see in science: “The scientist seeks to disprove a hypothesis, not to confirm it. A hypothesis is accepted only when it cannot be rejected.” (Heuer, Chapter 11).
We need to use our time to “‘analyze rather than analogize.’” (Heuer, Chapter 4). “The most productive uses of comparative analysis are to suggest hypotheses and to highlight differences, not to draw conclusions” (Heuer, Chapter 4). Ask questions that are “designed to encourage and facilitate consideration of alternative interpretations” (Heuer, Chapter 7).
Wait, Assess, and Review
If you hear a new news story come out, wait a few days to check it out. Take each piece apart when you do: “it is far easier to work with each of the parts while still keeping the problem as a whole in view” (Heuer, Chapter 7). Your main objective is to approach the material with a level head, confront your own biases and review the information. Be mindful of whether your conclusions are confirmed to be right since we have the “ability to link the accuracy of a judgment with the particular configuration of variables” that we really have no influence over (Heuer, Chapter 5).
You Need to Ask Yourself the Right Questions
“When consumers of intelligence reports evaluate the quality of the intelligence product, they ask themselves the question: “How much did I learn from these reports that I did not already know?” In answering this question, there is a consistent tendency for most people to underestimate the contribution made by new information. This ‘I knew it all along’ bias causes consumers to undervalue the intelligence product” (Heuer, Chapter 13). “The question is not whether one’s prior assumptions and expectations influence analysis, but only whether this influence is made explicit or remains implicit” (Heuer, Chapter 4). What are your own expectations and assumptions when reading a news article? Are you implicit or explicit with yourself and others about your bias? Heuer wants readers to be able to go one layer deeper than they might be use too. He provides a mathematical shortcut to help sketch out that our best guesses may be flawed. What to ask yourself “Consumers should ask, ‘If this report had told me the opposite, would I have believed it?’” (Heuer, Chapter 13).
Don’t Accept Ambiguity
Many news reports are using ambiguity to have readers conclude incorrect conclusions. This makes the news ineffective since readers are producing an interpretation supporting their own beliefs. We have to be reasonable about the news we digest because seemingly “concrete words are easier to remember than abstract words, and words of all types are easier to recall than numbers” (Heuer, Chapter 10). While the mainstream media will depend on words, we want the evidence to review ourselves. And the emotional testimonials by guests on the media are doing nothing to help us understand a complex situation. Although, we have to keep in mind that personal appeals have greater impact on our thinking than “abstract information” (Heuer, Chapter 10).
How to Approach Social Media
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest do present a cool way for “gathering information, analyzing information, documenting evidence, and/or presenting conclusions” (Heuer, Chapter 6). But to deconstruct our mental ruts and attain better conclusions we will have to be “tapping [into] unusual sources of data, asking new questions, applying unusual analytic methods, and developing new types of products or new ways of fitting analysis” (Heuer, Chapter 6). And we are all capable of processing the news in other ways since “it is possible to learn to employ one’s innate talents more productively” (Heuer, Chapter 6).
Expect the Unexpected
Everyday the news gives us a watered down and summarized version of events going on around the world. But we have to be mindful of the unexpected events, the surprises that we may want to disregard because the “pattern of surprises may be the first clue that your understanding of what is happening requires some adjustment, is at best incomplete” (Heuer, Chapter 6). Always be willing to make that adjustment. You can always change your judgement, nothing chains you to that. “One should have an open mind and be influenced only by the facts rather than by preconceived notions!” (Heuer, Chapter 2).
Avoid these easy traps:
It’s hard work since most of your life has been about submitting to whatever you see on the news. Heuer knows that and states “Two things make it hard to change one’s mental model. The first is the nature of human perception and information-processing. The second is the difficulty, in many fields, of learning what truly is an accurate model” (Heuer, Chapter 5).
Heuer outlines the five conceptual models to be mindful of and to avoid (Heuer, Chapter 4):
- “Satisficing”—selecting the first identified alternative that appears “good enough” rather than examining all alternatives to determine which is “best.”
- Incrementalism—focusing on a narrow range of alternatives representing marginal change, without considering the need for dramatic change from an existing position.
- Consensus—opting for the alternative that will elicit the greatest agreement and support. Simply telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is one version of this.
- Reasoning by analogy—choosing the alternative that appears most likely to avoid some previous error or to duplicate a previous success. Relying on a set of principles or maxims that distinguish a “good” from a “bad” alternative.