Thursday, July 11, 2013

Comments on Richards Heuer's "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis"

Comments on Richards Heuer's "Psychology of Intelligence Analysis"

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis - Richards J. Heuer, Jr.

"What Heuer examines so clearly and effectively is how the human thought process builds its own models through which we process information. This is not a phenomenon unique to intelligence; as Heuer’s research demonstrates, it is part of the natural functioning of the human cognitive process, and it has been demonstrated across a broad range of fields ranging from medicine to stock market analysis." (p. ix) 

The common element is the need and the ability to "make judgments based on incomplete and ambiguous information..." (p. 2). 

The terms "ability" and "judgement" are in want of further elaboration. 


Chapter 1: Thinking About Thinking

"A central focus of this book is to illuminate the role of the observer in determining what is observed and how it is interpreted." (p. 4)

"Before obtaining a license to practice, psychoanalysts are required to undergo psychoanalysis themselves in order to become more aware of how their own personality interacts with and conditions their observations of others. The practice of psychoanalysis has not been so successful that its procedures should be emulated by the intelligence and foreign policy community. But the analogy highlights an interesting point: Intelligence analysts must understand themselves before they can understand others. Training is needed to (a) increase self-awareness concerning generic problems in how people perceive and make analytical judgments concerning foreign events, and (b) provide guidance and practice in overcoming these problems." (p. 4) 

These are very interesting analogy and point: "self-awareness" and "self-understanding" (of your own background, motivation, personality and reactions set and their impacts and influence on "analytical judgements" as a tool and a factor in improving their "objectivity", quality and "correctness" or veracity and hopefully diminishing the influence of various emotional, cognitive and logical biases. The question remains what are or should be the criteria for evaluating the outcome, "objectivity", quality and "correctness" of these judgements. 

This quote also brings up the issue of general usefulness (or not usefulness) of various psychodynamic theories and practices in the light of their very questionable therapeutic "success"  and a lack of true scientific basis. 

"It is simply assumed, incorrectly, that analysts know how to analyze." (p. 5)
This statement can be applied to any type of "analysts", be them "psychoanalysts" or stock traders. It also, and probably inevitably, brings us to the general issue of what "analysis" really is, to philosophical and epistemological aspects of it. The nature and the unique tool sets of any analytical activity is determined by its pragmatic scope; there are many very different analyses which are defined by practical needs for them. 

"The disadvantage of a mind-set is that it can color and control our perception to the extent that an experienced specialist may be among the last to see what is really happening when events take a new and unexpected turn. When faced with a major paradigm shift, analysts who know the most about a subject have the most to unlearn." (p. 5)

This is also very interesting, important and correct point and observation. It is similar to the cognitive (and also emotional and other) difficulties in reevaluating and changing the initial or established diagnostic impressions in clinical medical practice, when the new data sets are accumulated. The true extent, impact and significance of this general problem probably is not known by us very well and it comes up mostly in medical malpractice situations. 

"Major paradigm shifts" definitely present challenges to their adherents, who are invested into them cognitively, emotionally and professionally. T. Kuhn, describing "paradigm shifts" in science, observed that most of the adherents of old paradigms do not really change their views, they continue to stick with the old paradigms and simply die with them

"If analysts’ understanding of events is greatly influenced by the mind-set or mental model through which they perceive those events, should there not be more research to explore and document the impact of different mental models?" (p. 5-6) 

Most definitely, it should be more research in this area. 

"The reaction of the Intelligence Community to many problems is to collect more information, even though analysts in many cases already have more information than they can digest." 
The so called "principle of parsimony (Occam's razor)" might be applicable in these situations. 

Chapter 2: Perception: Why Can’t We See What Is There To Be Seen?

"Moreover, the circumstances under which intelligence analysis is conducted are precisely the circumstances in which accurate perception tends to be most difficult." (p. 7) 
"Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses." (p. 7) 

"We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive." (p. 8)

Perceptions, simple and complex (not just simple sensory - this is what is usually meant by perceptions in psychiatry and psychology, but complex, mental, "informational", so to speak, perceptions; which are completely different phenomena by their nature) are processed in "gestalts": patterns, perceptual mini-concepts, perceptual frameworks, perceptual mini-paradigms, if you will; which include the perceptual mental set and expectations: "...what people in general and analysts in particular perceive, and how readily they perceive it, are strongly influenced by their past experience, education, cultural values, and role requirements, as well as by the stimuli recorded by their receptor organs." (p. 8) 

"Expectations have many diverse sources, including past experience, professional training, and cultural and organizational norms." (p. 9) 

"Perception is also influenced by the context in which it occurs. Different circumstances evoke different sets of expectations." (p. 9) 

The role and purpose of these perceptual gestalts or perceptual mini-paradigms (just like for any paradigm as a conceptual framework in general), besides the inherent phenomenon of "mental economy" (organisation of mental processes in a most efficient way) is to provide us with the complete perceptual picture, to compensate and to fill out for missing perceptual elements and parts (this process is based on perceptual mental set, previous experiences and expectations) , for no perception is absolutely and entirely complete in its process. The role of a paradigm in general as a cognitive device is to compensate the lack of exact, precise, detailed and complete knowledge by adding the unifying, all-encompassing and cementing element of belief  into this complex cognitive system, and belief becomes its affective, emotional component. That is why people hold on to their paradigms or belief systems so tenaciously: they are strongly invested into them affectively, emotionally. In other words, if we do not know something exactly, very often we simply believe that we do, rather than to face the unknown. 

See gestalts theory of perception - GS.

Heuer's definition of a "mind-set": 
"Patterns of expectations tell analysts, subconsciously, what to look for, what is important, and how to interpret what is seen. These patterns form a mind-set that predisposes analysts to think in certain ways. A mind-set is akin to a screen or lens through which one perceives the world."
Heuer's "mind-sets" might be defined more accurately (arguably) as "perceptual mental sets". 

"Actually, mind-sets are neither good nor bad; they are unavoidable." (p. 10)

"Analysts do not achieve objective analysis by avoiding preconceptions; that would be ignorance or self-delusion. Objectivity is achieved by making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible so that they can be challenged by others and analysts can, themselves, examine their validity." (p. 10)

I think that the more exact way of putting it would be that "making basic assumptions and reasoning as explicit as possible" does not achieve objectivity itself but is simply an attempt at achieving it. Objectivity itself might be an ever elusive goal and, which is more, might be in principle, inherently antithetical to the nature and purposes of intelligence analysis. 

Characteristics of Heuer's "mind-sets: 

They are relatively stable and adhere to initial impressions: "mind-sets tend to be quick to form but resistant to change." (p. 10) 

New data sets tend to be "auxillary", additional to already existing and perceptually established sets: "new information is assimilated to existing images", "... gradual, evolutionary change often goes unnoticed." (p. 11) 

In other words, in order for newly added information to acquire proper significance and value, it might take a "paradigm change or shift" (of various magnitudes and hierarchies), it has to be evaluated properly within a new conceptual framework or by a new evaluator who uses this framework without preexisting misconceptions and biases that come with the old paradigm. 
"A fresh perspective is sometimes useful; past experience can handicap as well as aid analysis." (p. 11) 

The ambiguity of newly added information contributes to its "additional, auxillary" character and probably to some depreciation of its true significance and value because this ambiguity does not allow the new information to fit easily into existing conceptual framework and might require a new one, a new paradigm, a new thinking or a new thinker (which are the same) in order for it to be appreciated fully or more correctly. 

"This tendency to assimilate new data into pre-existing images is greater “the more ambiguous the information, the more confident the actor is of the validity of his image, and the greater his commitment to the established view.” (p. 11-12) 

One might recall an old and trite adage: what we see or able to see depends on our points of view. 

"One of the more difficult mental feats is to take a familiar body of data and reorganize it visually or mentally to perceive it from a different perspective. Yet this is what intelligence analysts are constantly required to do. In order to understand international interactions, analysts must understand the situation as it appears to each of the opposing forces, and constantly shift back and forth from one perspective to the other as they try to fathom how each side interprets an ongoing series of interactions." (p. 13)

The more points of view we have, the fuller and more comprehensive is the picture. 

"Initial exposure to blurred or ambiguous stimuli interferes with accurate perception even after more and better information becomes available" (p. 13): the first impression is the strongest and might skew the evaluation of the newly acquired and better information.

Heuer cites the results of a psychological experiment: "In other words, the greater the initial blur, the clearer the picture had to be before people could recognize it. Second, the longer people were exposed to a blurred picture, the clearer the picture had to be before they could recognize it." (p. 14) 

"The early but incorrect impression tends to persist because the amount of information necessary to invalidate a hypothesis is considerably greater than the amount of information required to make an initial interpretation." (p. 14) 

Refutation of the preformed or preexisting "perceptual hypothesis" might require not only the greater amount of information but also the newer and better ways of processing it, a new "perceptual paradigm", a new perceptual framework. However the qualitative paradigmatic switch will require the adequate, sufficient and convincing quantitative accumulation of the new data.

Implications for Intelligence Analysis

"Comprehending the nature of perception has significant implications for understanding the nature and limitations of intelligence analysis. The circumstances under which accurate perception is most difficult are exactly the circumstances under which intelligence analysis is generally conducted—dealing with highly ambiguous situations on the basis of information that is processed incrementally under pressure for early judgment. This is a recipe for inaccurate perception." (p. 14)

"Intelligence seeks to illuminate the unknown. Almost by definition, intelligence analysis deals with highly ambiguous situations. As previously noted, the greater the ambiguity of the stimuli, the greater the impact of expectations and pre-existing images on the perception of that stimuli. Thus, despite maximum striving for objectivity, the intelligence analyst’s own preconceptions are likely to exert a greater impact on the analytical product than in other fields where an analyst is working with less ambiguous and less discordant information." (p. 14) 

"Once an observer thinks he or she knows what is happening, this perception tends to resist change. New data received incrementally can be fit easily into an analyst’s previous image. This perceptual bias is reinforced by organizational pressures favoring consistent interpretation; once the analyst is committed in writing, both the analyst and the organization have a vested interest in maintaining the original assessment." (p. 16) 

We might call this observation and phenomenon "institutional perceptual bias".

"Given the difficulties inherent in the human processing of complex information", Heuer recommends: 
  • to "clearly delineate ... assumptions and chains of inference and that specify the degree and source of uncertainty involved in the conclusions."
  • to "re-examine key problems from the ground up in order to avoid the pitfalls of the incremental  approach."  
  • to "expose and elaborate alternative points of view." 
  • to "define a set of realistic expectations as a standard against which to judge analytical performance." 
(p. 16)

My conclusions: always doubt, always be ready for change, always consider the alternative ways of looking at things.  


Links and References

Intelligence analysis - W

analytic epistemology - GS

Epistemology (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

international political behavior

history of intelligence 


First Published: 7.10.13      Last Update: 7.13.13