The primary task of an analyst is to help policymakers and other decision makers make good decisions based on the best available information and the most compelling logic. This task becomes more challenging when the recipient of the analysis bases his or her decisions on pre-established, often immutable world views or sees the world as a battle of “us versus them.” Below, I offer techniques to maintain objectivity when offering analytic insights to decision makers under common briefing scenarios.
Traditional Policy Support. Savvy policymakers who know how to use intelligence analysis will look to analysts as an unparalleled source of actionable information and analytic insight. An analyst who has developed a trusting relationship with a policymaker can employ several techniques to avoid politicization.
- The Rule of Three. When asked to make a recommendation, respond with three ways to approach the issue. Lay out the intelligence and logic that supports each approach and let the policymaker decide which makes the most sense.
- Critique Existing Options. If several policy options are under consideration, provide an analysis of the likelihood of success for each but emphasize the quality of your information and any key information gaps.
- Bring a Friend. Pre-brief a subordinate in the policymaker’s office and bring him or her with you. If the policymaker asks “What should I do?” or “What do you recommend?”, simply turn to the subordinate who probably has already anticipated the question and let him or her answer it.
Briefing Officials with Fixed Mindsets. When the client is more interested in imposing his or her view on the world, a successful analyst takes time to develop different strategies for communicating an apolitical analytic message.
- Broaden the context. When an official seeks intelligence to justify a position, frame the response in a broader context. Offer up the pros and the cons to enable the decision maker to act based on a fully-informed set of facts and analysis.
- Focus on strategic drivers. Generate “arms-length” strategic views of a situation, identifying key drivers and establishing an overarching framework for understanding the dynamics at play.
- Employ SATs. Rely more heavily on Structured Analytic Techniques—such as Indicators, Argument Mapping, Deception Detection, and Analysis of Competing Hypotheses*—that can demonstrate in a compelling way how the official can avoid becoming victim of a mental mindset or a cognitive trap.
Analysts should never refrain from providing hard-hitting, objective, and well-supported analysis, even when the message is likely to be poorly received. However, be mindful that challenging a decision maker’s views directly is inappropriate and almost always counterproductive.
Briefing “Novice” Decision makers. In recent years as political polarization has increased in the United States—and throughout much of the world—analysts have been challenged with learning how to support a different type of policymaker: highly partisan, transactional decision makers who rely heavily on non-traditional sources of information and do not understand the role and mission of law enforcement and the intelligence community. Providing support to this new breed of decision makers requires a reframing of the roles and responsibilities of the analyst.
- Redefine Your Primary Client. Intelligence communities need to expand the scope of their analytic support beyond the highest offices of leadership in their nations to a much broader array of decision makers and legislators.
- Establish Analytic Baselines. The primary mission becomes the need to establish a baseline description of what is happening in the world (and why) for the national security community writ large.
- Reset priorities. The traditional core functions of warning and counterintelligence remain critical, but additional attention is needed in two areas: 1) providing strategic perspective on global trends (such as climate change and cyber threats), and 2) ferreting out and actively countering the impact of digital disinformation.
- Protect Sources. In an era of “novice” decision makers, greater emphasis must also be given to ensuring sources and methods are not compromised.
When dealing with both ideologues and “novice” decision makers, one of the worst mistakes an analyst can make is to self-censor. Self-censorship can take two forms:
1) tweaking the analysis to make it more acceptable to the client in the hope of retaining access and sustaining a dialogue, and
2) avoiding a topic because the views of the analytic community differ from those of the client, and analysts suspect the client will simply ignore or quickly dismiss the analysis.
In the end, it comes down to maintaining an analytic culture of direct engagement with the client, coupled with a deeply-ingrained culture of objectivity and integrity. Intelligence community managers need to constantly reinforce this culture. Senior leaders need to incentivize such behavior through example and by actively monitoring analyst interactions with policymakers and praising those who walk these fine lines the best.
A fuller discussion of how to avoid politicization will be found in the third edition of Critical Thinking for Strategic Intelligence, to be published in spring 2020.
* Explore these techniques – and many others – in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, by Randolph H. Pherson and Richards J. Heuer Jr.
The third edition, featuring step-by-step practical guidance for 66 techniques, will be published in January 2020. Insiders will receive an exclusive announcement when this latest edition of our best-selling volume hits the shelves!
In both the United Kingdom and the United States, two political parties traditionally have competed for power. The system of two dominant parties, however, is coming under increasing strain in both the UK and US. Citizens complain that government has become too politicized and its leaders too focused on self-aggrandizement. As a result, basic concerns of the people are not addressed.
In addition, the governing political parties appear to be suffering greater internal disarray:
- In the UK, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson “removed the whip” from 21 members of his party because they voted against Brexit, leaving the party without a majority in Parliament. His decision to prorogue the Parliament for five weeks was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court.
- In the US, the Republican Party has been criticized for evolving into a political movement that does not dare differ with the US President. The leader of the Senate, for example, said he will not bring a bill to a vote unless the President assures him it will not be vetoed. Meanwhile, moderate Republicans fear being “primaried out” of their party, and an unusually high number of Republican legislators may choose not to run for reelection.
This article speculates that change in the political systems in the UK and the US could be startling and not incremental. What if these trends turn out to be not aberrations, but signs of a dramatic shift away from the current two-party political system? A good analyst would ask: How can one anticipate such a political transformation?
A good technique for working through such an issue is What If? Analysis. With this technique, one posits a dramatic—and usually controversial—outcome and then works backwards to find a credible pathway showing how it came about. To demonstrate the technique here, start with the theory that both the Conservative Party and the Republican Party will cease to exist in their present form in the next five years.
Step 1: Define a hypothetical endpoint as each country evolves into a new system of multiple parties contesting for power. See Figure 1 for a portrayal of the current UK and US party lineup and how it might be transformed. In these speculative What If? Analysis scenarios:
- The Conservative Party in the UK suffers serious erosion. Many members defect to the Brexit Party (or the Brexit and Conservative Parties forged a new coalition) and some Conservative “Remainers” help swell the ranks of the Liberal Democrats or migrate to one of the smaller parties.
- The Republican Party in the US splits into three factions: (1) “America Firsters,” (2) “Classic Conservatives,” and (3) “Evangelicals.” Some Republican candidates run as Independents or shift their allegiance to a newly energized Libertarian Party or an increasingly popular Green Party.
Step 2: Suggest key drivers that spurred this dramatic shift in the political landscape:
- Growing concern over the temperament and competence of the top Conservative and Republican Party leaders.
- Swelling popular distaste for “politics as usual,” accompanied by the perception that radical change is necessary to make government work again.
- The perception that the leaders of both parties only care about holding on to power rather than making the government work.
- A groundswell of support for the environmental movement and the emergence of young, charismatic leaders with innovative policies in other parties.
- A major shifting of political allegiances as some legislators move to the center and others to the extreme ends of the political spectrum.
- Increased alarm about deficit spending, income inequality, and massive budget shortfalls.
- Landslide defeats at the polls for the Conservative and Republican Parties in the next two years followed by irreversible leadership schisms.
Step 3: Identify potential consequences of the key drivers. One consequence of the changes proposed above is that future UK and US leaders will represent parties that command the support of a distinct minority of the voting population.
- In the UK, Labour would not dominate because internal power struggles had prompted many members to shift allegiances and join other parties. To gain a majority, a party would have to ally with others of roughly similar size to form a winning coalition. Such a transition to a system where four to six parties compete for the right to lead the country would not require major systemic change.
- In the US, the change would be more disruptive but could be accommodated without requiring legislation or amending the constitution. In this What If? Analysis scenario, the Republican Party would fracture, a more leftist party would split off from the Democratic Party, and a new Centrist Party would emerge that is fiscally conservative but socially liberal, attracting both Republicans and Democrats as well as many younger voters.
In the US presidential race, the Electoral College would function more like a parliamentary system with a handful of parties jockeying to build a winning majority.
A system might even emerge (as originally contemplated by the Founding Fathers) where the candidate of the party with the most Electoral College votes becomes President and the candidate of the party with the second highest number of votes becomes Vice President.
A description of the What If? Analysis technique can be found in the Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques, 5th ed. and the 3rd edition of Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, to be published in January 2020.
The US Presidential election is 16 months from now, and trying to predict the outcome is a fool’s task. However, Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs) can help you rise above the cacophony of the pundits and better understand the underlying political dynamics.
SATs can be used to help identify the key drivers most likely to influence, if not determine, how the election campaign will play out. I have incorporated these techniques into a five-step process you can use to help anticipate the likely winner.
- Make a list of key assumptions about the race.
- Identify which assumptions could be unfounded.
- Convert unsupported assumptions into key variables or key drivers.
- Track how these key drivers are playing out.
- Apply that knowledge to predict the eventual winner.
Using the above process, here is how one could best forecast the outcome of the 2020 presidential election:
Key assumptions can best be described as reflecting the current, common wisdom. In today’s political climate, the analysis offered by most pundits seems to be based on the following set of working assumptions about the race:
- The strong US economy is a major factor working in the President’s favor.
- Whomever dominates the airwaves is most likely to win.
- The President has an extremely loyal base representing over 40 percent of the population that has consistently supported him. They are highly unlikely to change their mind.
- As happened in 2016, the coming campaign will focus on “hot button” cultural issues and pay little attention to who is offering the best policy solutions.
All these key assumptions make sense, but it is conceivable some could turn out to be wrong. In fact, some or all these assumptions are better described as key variables. The key assumption could either be validated—and even strengthened—as the campaign plays out, or it could collapse because of changing circumstances or a competitor’s counter strategy. A critical examination of how each key driver could play out reveals:
On the one hand, the economy could remain strong, giving the President a competitive advantage. Consumer confidence could remain high, GDP growth could remain at 3 percent as has been predicted so far by the White House, and the stock market could continue to set new records.
On the other hand, the economy could be at its zenith. Some lead indicators point to a coming recession in 2020, current or newly imposed tariffs could become a major drag on the economy, and instability in the Middle East could prompt a spike in oil and gasoline prices depriving the President of one of his strongest arguments.
On the one hand, the President was—and continues to be—a master at obtaining considerable air time. He continues to show great talent in driving the daily news cycle.
On the other hand, he is no longer “the new kid on the block.” His June 2019 rally kicking off his campaign was not covered live by most networks because it included little new information. The North Carolina rally received coverage because of the “Send Her Back!” chant, but future rallies may be perceived as “same old, same old.” You need to make real news to remain an object of news broadcasts.
On the one hand, polling shows that popular support for the President has consistently varied within a narrow bank of 38 and 45 percent since he was elected. His support within the Republican Party tracks at an almost unprecedentedly high rate of 90 percent.
On the other hand, many of his constituents have suffered as a result of Administration policies, i.e., tariffs that hurt farmers, auto workers, and other manufacturing as well as the policy of separating undocumented children from their parents have created unease among some previous voters. A more serious potential vulnerability is that policy differences within his cabinet and his party (e.g., over new military adventures, racism, or policy toward Iran or Russia) could cause fissures within his coalition and drive some supporters out of his camp or make them less willing to vote.
On the one hand, the President has been a master at focusing campaign rhetoric around “hot button” issues, such as an adversary’s personal, immigration, abortion, and gun control.
On the other hand, by 2020, the population may be more inclined to seek input on how the candidates stand on key policy issues, demanding that more attention be paid to issues that directly impact them, such as health care, climate change/severe weather, income inequality, and gun control.
By tracking these four key drivers, readers can gain an overarching perspective that will help them identify what really matters as upcoming primary and general election campaigns play out. One might also discover that a fifth key driver is missing from the list. Only time will tell. But armed with such a framework, readers will find it easier to separate the true signals of where the campaign is headed from the unrelenting noise.
In recent years, democracies have increasingly come under attack by perpetrators of Digital Disinformation, also popularly labeled Fake News. A European Union (EU) study conducted after the recent European Parliament elections showed a consistent trend of malicious activity. Russia, most notably, used fake accounts and bots during the European campaign to amplify divisive content, promote extreme views, and polarize local debates. EU countries that have strong cultures of independent journalism and governments that are actively fighting Russian disinformation campaigns were the most resistant to phony news stories. Other countries lacking these institutional protections, such as Poland and Hungary, were more vulnerable.
A growing concern is a new technology that almost anyone can use to create increasingly convincing—but false—sound clips, videos, and photos. “Deepfakes,” which are media that have been digitally altered through artificial intelligence techniques, pose a major risk for both individuals and democratic institutions. Laymen now can plug a photograph or video clip into prewritten code and produce an extremely realistic, life-like false image or video. Deepfakes are inherently hard to detect and, so far, society is largely ill-equipped to deal with them.
Incentives to post Deepfakes on social media are likely to grow in the coming months as the US presidential election campaign heats up. Digital Disinformation and Deepfakes could also be used in the coming months to enflame passions surrounding such highly divisive issues as abortion, gun control, and immigration because:
• Massive groups of people can be reached almost instantaneously.
• The Deepfakes can be micro-targeted, focusing on those most easily swayed and open to persuasion.
• The perpetrators are rarely held accountable for what is posted.
The perpetrators of Digital Disinformation and Deepfakes appear particularly adept at manipulating perceptions by exploiting common cognitive biases, misapplied heuristics, and intuitive traps. Examples that the Russians and others have leveraged to promote their agendas include:
Confirmation Bias. Social media is a Confirmation Bias “machine.” People are predisposed to accept information that is consistent with the judgments, conclusions, and preferences they have already formed. Perpetrators of Digital Disinformation know how to tailor their messages to reinforce someone’s fears or influence how he or she votes.
Vividness Bias. The objective of much Digital Disinformation is to generate clicks. Clicks lead to increased site traffic, which leads to increased income from ad revenue and donations. The more salacious and outrageous the story, the more clicks are generated. By focusing attention on vivid scenarios, individuals are less likely to pay attention to other possibilities or alternative hypotheses.
Groupthink. Social media creates echo chambers that enable the acceptance of a certain view without challenging it through critical thinking. This is especially easy when one is surrounded by others holding the same opinion.
Anchoring Effect. Once anchored on an assessment, people usually adjust their views as they learn more. But if the initial assessment is highly skewed, even people’s adjusted views will be influenced by first impressions, leading them to make decisions grounded in incorrect or misleading information. People are particularly susceptible to this bias if they are already predisposed to believe a certain idea.
Judging by Emotion. Accepting or rejecting new information because the recipient is predisposed to like or dislike the source is a classic trap that is easily manipulated. Much of the visceral hatred evidenced in political campaigns is likely to be a product of this intuitive trap.
Confusing Correlation with Causality. Many people will easily jump to a conclusion that one variable causes another because they want it to be true or they think that the “connection” proves their beliefs or justifies their positions. This trap is a favorite tool of manipulators of social media.
Ignoring Inconsistent Evidence. When confronted with data that is inconsistent with one’s world view, politics, or deeply-held beliefs, a classic reaction is not to argue the facts but to avoid the discussion. A true metric for success for purveyors of Digital Disinformation is when people believe there is no truth or that real truth is unknowable.
The best antidote for such manipulation is to increase popular consciousness of how vulnerable people are to such behavior modification campaigns and to adopt more deliberate and purposeful thought processes as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Structured Analytic Techniques, in particular, are effective in helping people recognize when they are being influenced by disinformation campaigns and in countering their impact. Four especially effective techniques that can help combat the growing scourge of Deepfakes and Digital Disinformation are the Key Assumptions Check, Analysis of Competing Hypotheses, Indicators, and Premortem Analysis with its companion, the Structured Self-Critique.
You can learn more about cognitive biases, misapplied heuristics, and intuitive traps in the Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques by Randolph H. Pherson (available at shop.globalytica.com). To learn more about our associated training opportunities, including a Strategic Foresight Workshop to be taught in Australia in August 2019, click here.
I suspect that many readers of this blog have been influenced by the work of Richards J. Heuer, Jr. at some point in their career. His book, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, prompted those of us in the field to rethink how we ensure rigor in our analysis, and it has been a mainstay in intelligence programs since its publication by the Central Intelligence Agency in 1999.
Some readers may not be aware of Heuer’s other ground-breaking contributions to the intelligence profession. Heuer, who passed away in August at the age of 91, was a consummate case officer, counterintelligence officer, and security specialist as well as an analytic methodologist.
Heuer put it so well: “When I leave this world, I want to leave it a better place as a result of my efforts. This will allow me to die a happy man with no regrets whenever that time comes.” He certainly succeeded in this pursuit.
Heuer’s career as a civil servant stands out because his contributions to the profession spanned so many disciplines. Perhaps more telling, even with Heuer’s passing, his gifts endure.
Following are a few examples of his legacy.
- The work of an Israeli colleague spurred Heuer to explore the implications of cognitive bias for intelligence analysis. His research, summarized in Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, is one of the most frequently cited examples of applied psychology in the literature, even though Dick used to say bemusedly that he never took a psychology course. An update of the book is currently in the works.
- Structured Analytic Techniques have emerged as a new domain in intelligence analysis. Two editions of the book we co-authored, Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, have sold tens of thousands of copies worldwide. A third edition will be published in summer 2019.
- Inspired by the vagaries of the Nosenko case—was Nosenko a Russian defector or a double agent?—Heuer conceptualized several new analytic techniques, including Analysis of Competing Hypotheses—a method that has emerged as one of the five leading structured techniques employed by analysts around the world. Heuer’s work as a counterintelligence officer also built the foundation for the MOM, POP, MOSES, and EVE process for Detecting Deception.
- Heuer was a thought leader in the world of security analysis, writing the 500-page Adjudicative Desk Reference and the 600-page Online Guide to Security Responsibilities. In Anatomy of Betrayal, he identified seven significant character weaknesses that would establish a person’s vulnerability to recruitment as a foreign agent: Narcissism, impulsiveness/immaturity, vindictiveness, anti-social behavior, inability to make and keep a commitment, paranoia, and risk-seeking.
As Heuer approached 90, he turned his attention to writing a memoir for his family and asked me to edit his draft. I could not resist publishing a slimmed down, 100-page version of the memoir, entitled: Rethinking Intelligence: Richard J. Heuer, Jr.’s Life of Public Service. The work contains his unmistakable voice and is replete with anecdotes you would have never expected and will never forget.
In recognition of Dick Heuer’s signal contributions to the field of intelligence, Globalytica has created a Heuer Legacy Collection that includes Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 2nd edition. With the purchase of these books, Globalytica will send you a free electronic copy of Rethinking Intelligence: Richard J. Heuer, Jr.’s Life of Public Service. Click here to purchase the Heuer Legacy Collection.
With the changes in the political landscape on Capitol Hill in the wake of the US mid-term elections, an opportunity presents itself for the US Congress to abandon its previous Team A/Team B approach to legislating and adopt new techniques based on the concept of Adversarial Collaboration.
Adversarial Collaboration is a relatively new concept championed by Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. In a paper published in 2002, Kahneman said he was “…appalled by the absurdly competitive and adversarial nature of these [social science debates], in which hardly anyone ever admits an error or acknowledges learning anything from the other.” He proposes, as an alternative, good-faith efforts to engage in joint research, assuming that the contestants will not reach complete agreement but can lay out their differences in an informed way.
Kahneman’s desire to encourage people to make good-faith efforts to resolve their differences was operationalized by Richards J. Heuer, Jr. Heuer developed three techniques that could be adopted by US Senators and Representatives to shift the dynamic from name-calling to problem-solving:
Mutual Understanding. Side 1 is required to explain Side 2’s position to Side 2 until Side 2 believes Side 1 understands the whole of the argument. Then roles are reversed, and Side 2 must present to Side 1 the argumentation used by Side 1. Once both sides accurately understand each other’s positions, a more rational and less emotion-laden discussion can result.
Joint Escalation. When two sides disagree, instead of escalating the conflict to their superiors to resolve, both sides are required to generate a single document that lays out both sides of the disagreement. Then both sides can “jointly escalate” the position to their superiors based on the agreed description of the differences. Their superiors then have a much more balanced view of the dispute and can more easily propose a just solution.
The Nosenko Approach. Both sides draft separate papers summarizing their positions and identify the ten items of logic or evidence that are most critical in supporting their positions. Each side then shares its paper and its list with the other side and the other side must factor these critical items of evidence and logic into its position paper. Both sides read each other’s revised papers. Hopefully, a more productive discussion will result.
More detailed descriptions of forms of Adversarial Collaboration can be found in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 2nd ed. by Richards J. Heuer, Jr. and Randolph H. Pherson, pages 277-282.
Other techniques that support effective dispute resolution are the Key Assumptions Check, Argument Mapping, and Analysis of Competing Hypotheses. These techniques are described in the newly-published Handbook of Analytic Tools and Techniques, 5th ed. by Randolph H. Pherson.
Conspiracy theories have been gaining publicity in recent months. When we see them in a tweet or receive an email forwarded from a “dear uncle,” most of us dismiss them as uninformed and irrelevant. But what do you do if someone you know and respect cites and uses one in a discussion with you to buttress his or her point of view?
Challenging conspiracy theories usually fails to work. Asking someone to provide evidence rarely bears fruit because the person repeating the story already believes it to be true and may not recall where she heard it (and almost certainly has no knowledge of the presumed source). Your colleague may not feel the need to cite facts and employ logic because she believes the argument itself is persuasive. The conspiracy theory confirms her “intuition” and biases—and that must make it true! Trying to validate the sources of the theory is a route few will pursue.
Rather than needling your friend for the facts, try something new: do not challenge the statement, but agree it may well be true. The fun comes with your next sentence: If your statement is accurate, then what do you expect will happen in the next three months (or some other appropriate period of time) as a result? Ask the propagator of the theory what behavior an observer should expect to see that would confirm the validity of the theory. Ideally, challenge her to prepare a list of Indicators that both of you can keep that will demonstrate in a short period of time how prescient they may well be.
Once the list of Indicators is drafted and several weeks or months go by, take out the list and see if any of the predicted behavior has occurred. If most of the Indicators “light up,” then you probably should admit that you were unnecessarily skeptical. If few or none come to pass, then you can make a solid case that your colleague’s theory is unsupported or, at best, might require more time to play out.
By using Indicators in this way, you can turn an emotional argument into a more rigorous analytic dialogue. If your colleague is a rational thinker, you may have spurred her to think more carefully about the issue. If your colleague is an ideologue, you probably had little impact on her thinking, but you did have fun demonstrating the power of rational thought!
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You can learn more about how to construct and monitor Indicators in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators by Randolph H. Pherson and John Pyrik (available in our Analyst’s Bookshop.)
Critical Thinking Fundamentals, our online course, teaches you how to apply Structured Analytic Techniques to improve the quality of your work. Click here to learn more.