A lot of things we have no control over have profound influences on how we interpret the world around us and, therefore, the way we can conduct analysis. One of the most basic is the language we use. The words we have at our disposal and the ways in which we can use them. Two recent articles talk about just that phenomenon, plus also demonstrate another current lesson relevant to intelligence analysis.
First, from NPR, is this piece which talks about how language can affect how we perceive something like direction.
Lera Boroditsky once did a simple experiment: She asked people to close their eyes and point southeast. A room of distinguished professors in the U.S. pointed in almost every possible direction, whereas 5-year-old Australian aboriginal girls always got it right.
The hypothesis is that the Australian aboriginals use language which centers around compass points rather than relative descriptions of location (X is to the left of Y) and therefore, they have a better awareness of where they are geographically. I have no idea if it works the other way and these girls would have trouble description the position of two things in relation to each other but the point is there probably isn’t an ‘ideal’ way of describing something. It’s just that using one system closes (or makes more difficult) the ability to use another.
The second piece is from Cracked. I’m not sure what’s going on over there but I’ve found a couple of pieces there lately that belie the image of the site as being all penis jokes photoshopped punch lines. Or, maybe I’m just trying to find an excuse to read all those penis jokes….
Anyway, the article gives very brief overviews of 5 ways language can screw with your worldview and one in particular jumped out at me.
Recent studies have suggested that language may act as a cue to which cultural frame of reference a given interaction belongs in…Psychologists call this phenomenon frame-shifting, and it’s basically the ability to put yourself in someone else’s cultural shoes just by speaking in their language.
For example: A test was applied to bilingual Arab Israelis who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew (two cultures that have famously held a little animosity toward each other over the years) that asked participants to record whether words had negative or positive connotations. When the test was given in Arabic, the participants picked Jewish names as being intrinsically negative, but this effect disappeared when the test was given in Hebrew. In short, their bias against Jewish names arose from the fact that they were thinking in Arabic at the time, and not because they necessarily had any deep-seated bias against Jews. Don’t go thinking that the Arabic language is somehow inherently racist — it has plenty of Jewish friends. They just go to another school; you wouldn’t know them.
Probably worth some serious consideration when thinking about sources that are translated or even among those who are non-native speakers. In intelligence analysis you are usually working with small amounts of information and trying to divine meaning (perhaps too much) from the dribs and drabs you get. Given how preconceived notions and cognitive biases can form so easily and early a turn of a phrase or different intonation can send even a good analyst careening off into left field.
And just so you don’t feel let down now that you made it all the way through this post, here’s a link complete with your daily allotment of penis jokes….enjoy.