CIA guide to optimised thinking

The CIA have released the full text of a book on the psychology of analysing surveillance data. While aimed at the CIA’s analysts, it’s also a great general guide on how to understand complex situations and avoid our natural cognitive biases in reasoning.

I’ve not read it all, but it aims not only to give the reader an understanding of the limitations of our reasoning, but also how to overcome them when trying to think about tricky problems.

A central focus of this book is to illuminate the role of the observer in determining what is observed and how it is interpreted. People construct their own version of “reality” on the basis of information provided by the senses, but this sensory input is mediated by complex mental processes that determine which information is attended to, how it is organized, and the meaning attributed to it. What people perceive, how readily they perceive it, and how they process this information after receiving it are all strongly influenced by past experience, education, cultural values, role requirements, and organizational norms, as well as by the specifics of the information received.

The chapters on cognitive biases seem particularly good, and the book consistently grounds the abstract concepts in accessible examples.

It’s interesting that patients who undertake cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help with emotional or psychiatric difficulties will learn how to identify and avoid many of these exact same biases.

However, in the clinical situation the idea is that mood or emotion is in a pathological feedback loop which makes biases more likely (e.g. anxious people will tend to focus on threatening things), which in turn reinforces the emotional state.

The CIA book doesn’t seem to mention emotion or mood at all, despite the fact that the same effects are known to occur in all of us, even if they don’t get to the level of illness or impairment.

Secret service analysts must surely work in high-emotion environments (and the fact that the UK’s secret services regularly advertise for clinical psychologists seems to bear this out), so this would seem to be a crucial aspect not covered by this otherwise very comprehensive guide.

Link to full text of CIA book ‘Psychology of Intelligence Analysis’.

One Comment

  1. Queltor the Wonder Duck
    Posted May 8, 2008 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    This book was released in 1999 and has been available online since then. It isn’t new and it’s misleading to say “the CIA have released the full text” when they released the whole thing from the very start.
    You’re partially correct in assuming intelligence analysts work in high emotion environments, but the comparison to clinical applications is inappropriate. Heuer’s book was written for people who study problems over the long term.
    Emotions can run high at times, but when studying a subject for years the impact of those moments can be minimized through the rigorous application of analytic standards, stating assumptions, and asking good intelligence questions.
    For example: The US Intelligence Community failed in their assessment of Iraq’s WMD program because they began with a flawed assumption: Saddam was telling the truth when he claimed to have WMD. That flawed assumption led to them trying to answer the wrong question: Where is Saddam storing/hiding his WMD stockpile? A flawed, and unstated, assumption kept the US Intelligence Community from asking and answering the right question: Does Saddam currently have a WMD stockpile?


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