The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis

TruView Investigators Avoid Cognitive Biases

One of the ways TruView’s Investigative Team stands apart is how we collect, analyze, and put to practical use intelligence in investigative operations. Following is an interesting extract from our investigator refresher training that speaks to how we approach intelligence analysis.

A key component of conducting intelligence analysis is the need to avoid cognitive biases. These subconscious mental errors are defined as, “a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.” Individuals engaging with cognitive biases are creating their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the information input. In short, what the analyst is perceiving becomes the reality, rather than what the information is stating. In order to maintain their objectivity, intelligence analysts should be aware of, and do their utmost to avoid, falling into these cognitive bias traps; Perception, Mirror Imaging, Satisficing, and Group/Organizational Pressures.

Perception: In terms of combating perception as a bias, always keep in mind that perception is reality. Perceptions along cultural, social, and/or religious lines can all lead to a bias that will skew the reality of a situation. An analyst’s personal experiences may also come into play when establishing Perception. Take, for example a terrible trip on a major airline. That experience may lead an individual to declare that airline “the worst,” when they are only perceiving it as such based on one encounter.

Mirror Imaging: An analyst engages in mirror imaging when he or she assumes a subject will think and behave the same way the analyst will or expects the subject to think and behave a certain way based on the analyst’s preconceptions. Conscious thought that acknowledges the different mindset of individuals is the best tactic to reduce this bias. In these instances, and analyst can ask themselves, “How would I attack the problem?” and then repeat the question for how the Subject would attack the same problem, considering the information and tactics gathered to that point in time.

“Satisficing”: Electing the first identified alternative that appears “good enough,” rather than examining all alternatives to determine which is best, is a practice known as “satisficing.” This occurs when the most likely or obvious answers that seem good enough are chosen, and less likely assumptions are not tested. An analyst may engage in “satisficing” when choosing to select a piece of information that proves their solution is correct, while ignoring other indicators. Take, for example, a mechanic working on a car engine. This mechanic may choose to select spark plugs as the reason why the engine isn’t operating properly, while ignoring signs for the fuel injector because it better fits their narrative. Analysts can avoid this behavior by giving credence and consideration to all available alternatives, not just the most obvious solution.

Group/Organizational Pressure: Group or organizational pressure occurs when leadership or a collection of individuals pressures an analyst to agree with an alternative analysis that may not be correct or may be colored by something other than the evidence. This practice is often seen in politics, but the film 12 Angry Men is an excellent example. In the movie, 11 jurors, each with their own reasons and motivations, try to pressure the twelfth juror into sentencing a man to death. The twelfth juror manages to hold onto his convictions in light of this pressure and, gradually, brings others to open their minds and consider alternatives. The analyst with a carefully formed analysis and conclusion should, by this same measure, not succumb to outside pressures and motivations. Their analyst’s assessment may be the correct one—one that possibly would never be known if it were to be buried by the group at large.

In the end, cognitive bias can prevent critical information from coming to light. It is imperative at all times that analysts be on guard for the traps of Perception, Mirror Imaging, Satisficing, and Group/Organizational Pressures. Only by being aware and actively recognizing these biases can an analyst truly remain objective. It is when an analyst is objective that the most scrutinized information can be presented, ruling out all plausible alternatives for the most likely conclusion.