Tag Archives: Cognition

Kvick Tänkare

I was never a devout Christian but when I was, as they say, ‘in the fold’ I always found the Book of Job weird.  How this story doesn’t undermine everything we’re told about god today is beyond me.  One can see how Nietzsche called it a ‘slave-religion’ if you cherry pick parts like this.  Joan Acocella from the New Yorker recounts the efforts scholars throughout the ages have attempted to reconcile that book with their understanding of their religions.

Does human evolution owe a debt to sabercats?  Amazing article about the diversity and impact of these creatures.

It’s been 500 years since Machiavelli wrote The Prince and to mark the anniversary, there have been a spate of articles about his impact.  Most have been derivative and phoned in but some have been interesting.  I found this article from The Diplomat to be in that category, particularly if you apply it to the intelligence community.

Now think about big institutions, bodies made up of — and led by — individuals prone to linear thinking. Institutions like governments, armed services, and companies tend to transcribe dramatic events — great victories or traumatic defeats — into bureaucratic routine. Structuring policies, doctrines, and career incentives on the assumption that past triumphs can be rerun or setbacks avoided strips flexibility out of decisions and actions.

Written with a slate and, I suspect, maybe some liberties with some details but both entertaining and disturbing in turn.  Vice’s ‘Year in Bad Cops‘ wrap up (be warned, there’s NSFW content on this site).  I am very concerned how our culture deifies authority figures who share a monopoly on the use of violence whether its law enforcement of the military.  They aren’t all brave, honorable, selfless, etc.  Some are.  And some are despicable, sadistic and parasitic.  Fetishizing them with a broad brush encourages abuse and exploitation.  They should be held to a higher standard than everyone else, not given a pass for their transgressions by saying ‘Well, they’ve got a tough job.’

This article feels about six years too late but I’m a sucker for ‘Lessons from the ancients’ stories.  What can Tacitus’ Agricola teach us about successful counterinsurgency campaigns?  Hmm…sounds remarkably like FM 3-24.

Cognition and intelligence analysis

A couple of stories have been in the press recently that have some interesting implications for intelligence analysis.

First, courtesy of Discover magazine, is this piece summarizing research that seems to indicate that people that sign their documents on the top of documents (before they’ve entered data or made a statement) their information is more accurate than if they sign at the bottom of the document (after they’ve already done the work).

People are often dishonest in little ways on forms, rounding numbers in a beneficial direction or failing to mention a relatively small item as part of a larger list. If they sign a form once they’ve done all that, they don’t go back and correct it; instead, they’ve already woven a story to themselves—consciously or not—about why what they did was perfectly fine.

It’s worth noting that most intelligence products do not have the author(s) names attached.  Now, there’s usually a very good reason for that.  Namely, that the analysis done is supposed to represent the agency’s position and not the individuals.  Additionally, there’s a security issue as well.  Knowing that analyst ‘A’ is the one who writes all the stuff about security issues in Outer Mongolia opens that analyst up to targeting and influence.

That being said, I’ve heard analysts say things like ‘I don’t care, my name’s not on this.’ Anonymity often breeds what I recently heard described as ‘a culture of compliance rather than one of performance’.  Check a box…if you get it wrong, who cares?

This isn’t just an individual issue, either.  Take a look over at Public Intelligence and you can see all sorts of examples of poor analysis (and occasionally good).  Very rarely are agencies held accountable for putting out bad, or just outright wrong, analysis so we can’t just go out and hammer analysts.

There’s got to be a way to address both problems.

The London School of Economics has this podcast about cognitive biases in support of the speakers book titled ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly‘.  It’s a fun, easy to access set of examples that demonstrate the various ways in which cognitive biases cause us to make poor decisions.

One particular point I like to emphasize when teaching critical thinking and analysis that Dobelli mentions is that what we see as cognitive biases today are actually traits that were essential for survive for much of the human (and, I suppose, pre-human) evolutionary process.  When you’re a hunter-gatherer traveling across the savannah and you see a shadow in the tall grass, your buddies to take off running.  Maybe it’s not a lion in the grass but if it is they’ve got a good shot at getting away.  Meanwhile, while you’re trying to analyze the various possible hypotheses explaining the movement, some sabre tooth is picturing you with a nice mango salsa.

Another part of the lecture reminded me of a circumstance I had where I had written a product yet it languished in editing/approval hell for an astounding 13 (!) months.  Finally I suggested officially killing the project since its contents were of dubious relevance any more and I had increasing concerns about the validity of my original findings.  My suggestion seemed to be the spark that was needed for everyone else to decide that the product needed to be disseminated right now!  Lengthy, impassioned arguments discussing my concerns were brushed aside.  After all, I was told:  ‘We’ve already spent so much time on this already…we can’t just let it go.’

When I mentioned the concept of ‘sunk costs‘ I got this sort of look:

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For the record, I’m kind of used to those looks now…

The idea that the time spent on project X is already gone doesn’t justify spending more time on it unless project X makes sense and has value but my overlords at the time saw that past time as some sort of investment and were determined to get some sort of return on that investment.  Getting them to see the sense in the fact that their ‘return on investment’ would, in fact, just leave readers confused about why they were getting a product about an event that was a year old, took some doing.

Music and intelligence analysis

So, last time I talked about trying to incorporate different sensory inputs in order to improve analytical production.  Now I’m entering into speculative territory here but while I was primarily looking to different types of visual stimuli (the written word, graphics, images, etc.) I’ve been thinking about the possibility of using our sense of hearing to either improve the analytical or production process.

I therefore submit to you, then, this interesting project.  It takes a piece of classical music and, while you’re listening to it, describes it with accompanying text.  In doing so it conveys more information that either the musical piece or the text individually AND more then if you experienced both but separately.  The ‘extra’ value comes from getting the explanation at the same time the music is playing.  That not only reduces the chance of miscommunication (‘Is this supposed to be the teeth chattering or….this?’) but also helps improve the ‘stickiness’ of the information.  Associating the text with the music helps ‘anchor’ it in your mind.  The next time you listen to the music you’ll be more likely to remember the text.

Is there any value in incorporating music into the production process?  Might customers retain more with particular accompaniment?  Could music be used to emphasize particular pieces of information?  How about in terms of explaining probability, risk or threat?  Does the human mind respond consistently to certain types of music and sound or is the process so individualistic that the incorporation of sound is just as likely to hinder the transference of meaning as enhance it.

Up to now I’ve been talking about the production part of the intelligence cycle but music might have an easier fit in the analytical part of the cycle.  There’s evidence that distraction can assist in problem solving, particularly in helping identify weak connections between items or when thinking about difficult problems with multiple variables.  Sitting down and trying to force yourself to solve problems doesn’t work well when compared having your subconscious take a crack at it.

The goal is to get into the proper mental state:

It means not actively working on a problem but instead letting yourself happily mind-wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It is like being okay to feel how you feel when you first wake up in the morning – relaxed, with diffuse, easy attention.

I’ve found that some of my best insights came about when I was most definitely not working on the problem that needed solving.  Running, reading, sleeping or…yes…listening to music.  I began wondering if there was any possibility tapping into that insight potential collaboratively after playing with my latest time sink, turntable.fm.  Is there any benefit to having analysts, working on the same problem, simultaneously sharing something like music playlists and listening to the same songs at the same time?  If you assume that a person’s choice in music is a reflection of their mental state and preferences, would sharing music give you a glimpse into how other analysts are thinking?  If so, would that help to look at problems through a slightly different perspective and, therefore, improve you problem solving skills?

Many questions for which I have no answers but interesting to think about.  Now, time to listen to some tunes….

Intelligence analysis, avalanches, and Sally Fields

An excellent article by the BBC that uses archival footage to talk about the mutually dysfunctional relationship between Israel, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Also demonstrates that while we often think the Arab-Israeli conflict has been unchanging for the last 60 years, there has, in fact, been significant changes in attitudes on both sides…and not for the good.

Speaking of interesting ways to present information, check out this amazing use of video and graphics to convey information about an avalanche that swept up a group of experienced skiers.

These sort of stories are fine examples of how information can be transmitted more efficiently and effectively through the use of mixing media.  We’re all familiar with the trope that people learn information differently and we also know that the more senses we can engage with a piece of information will make it more ‘sticky’.  That’s one reason, for example, that the Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012 were insistent that campaign people have at least three contacts with voters they were looking for.  Voters that had such contact were more likely to vote for the President.  Now some of that might be a result of voters saying ‘Hey, they like me!  They really like me!’

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Some of that, however, is due to the voters internalizing the positions of the campaign by hearing the arguments repeatedly through different mediums.  A phone call, a knock on the door, an email, you get the point.

So, why not think about that in terms of intelligence products?  Frequently, products come out in one format *cough* pdf *cough* but why?  I’m convinced that a lot of it has to do with ingrained prejudices about what products are ‘supposed’ to look like.  But c’mon, that’s all based on style guides from 50 years ago when people were using typewriters and carbon paper (look it up).  At that time, strict uniformity made some real sense since we’re no longer getting out information primarily from the physical, written word.  Whole new venues have been opened up and yet the conventional wisdom seems to be that we should try to make our digital products mimic paper ones as much as possible.

That’s kind of like inventing the airplane but then only using it to taxi to where you want to go.

But we might want to think about this not just in terms of production but also analysis.  If one of the cornerstones of analysis is trying to understand some aspect of our environment by reducing bias and making connections maybe there are ways to engage multiple areas of the brain at once.

More on this later….

Cognition among humans and other animals

Researchers did an interesting experiment comparing how crows and children problem solve.

The main difference between the birds and the children, Gopnik says, is that members of the crow family “have sophisticated but specific knowledge about how physical causal relationships work in the world,” whereas children “seem to have broader and more wide-ranging causal learning abilities.”

Mountain gorillas demonstrate all sorts of advanced cognitive abilities through their ability to identify and disable snares.  The snares are set for smaller animals but can catch young gorillas and cause serious injury.  The way these gorillas act may be indicators of not just forethought and planning but also empathy.

Speaking of primates, Scientific American takes a stab at explaining gun violence through the lens of primate behavior.

However, social capital 1by itself, accounted for 82% of homicides and 61% of assaults. Other factors such as unemployment, poverty, or number of high school graduates were only weakly associated and alcohol consumption had no connection to violent crime at all.

In short, some primates have been identified to have groups of ‘high-reactors’.  These primates tend to be very aggressive and be hyper-aware to threats.  These primates can terrorize the primate groups they are a part of, ruling the group through violence.

In a unique natural experiment a group of baboons known as Forest Troop began feeding at the contaminated dump site of a Western safari lodge. As had occurred elsewhere, the largest and most aggressive males dominated the food source. But this time their despotic behavior resulted in untimely death after they all contracted tuberculosis. In the intervening years Forest Troop developed a culture in which cooperation was rewarded more than aggression and adolescent males who migrated into the troop adopted this culture themselves. Remarkably, the level of stress and stress-related behaviors in low-ranking males were dramatically reduced after the outbreak (and remained significantly lower than the nearby Talek Troop that retained its most aggressive males).

The author recommends embarking on a program of increasing social interaction through multiple means could be one way of strengthening bonds among people and thereby reducing violence.

I suppose, however, using the example of the Forest Troop the other way would be through identifying those ‘high reactor’ types and eliminating them.  How would we do that?  Well, John Carpenter had one idea

  1. interpersonal trust that promotes cooperation between citizens for mutual benefit