When a young child is terrified of the dark, we may consider it “childish,” since we know such fear usually has no basis in reality. Yet, even as adults, we sometimes find ourselves in the same posture as the child, confronting the boundaries of what we know with anxious uncertainty about what lies beyond.
If we can improve our comprehension of the world we live in, we will be better equipped to deal with real hazards and freed from imaginary ones. How might we address such insecurities in ways that best preserve our safety, our integrity, and our values?
We might learn something from how intelligence agencies — government organizations responsible for anticipating and evaluating threats to the nation —train analysts to assess risk. A competent intelligence analyst is obliged to strive for the clearest possible understanding of potential threats calmly and dispassionately, setting aside personal prejudice, received opinion, or political preference. And he or she must often act on the basis of incomplete, ambiguous, or even contradictory information.
This mental discipline is necessary because the human capacity to perceive and understand external reality is naturally limited. We see and hear only a slice of the electromagnetic or auditory spectrum, and then we place added weight on what is familiar or expected. Our ability to think rationally is further constrained by our difficulty in keeping more than a few facts in mind at the same time. Our thought processes are dominated by patterns, or mindsets, that make it easier to reach swift decisions in familiar circumstances, but that make it harder to recognize or assimilate unexpected facts. We are more likely to grant a presumption of trustworthiness to those who look and act like us than to those who appear different.
“Information that is consistent with an existing mind-set is perceived and processed easily and reinforces existing beliefs,” writes intelligence officer Richards J. Heuer Jr. in a CIA monograph, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis. “Because the mind strives instinctively for consistency, information that is inconsistent with an existing mental image tends to be overlooked, perceived in a distorted manner, or rationalized to fit existing assumptions and beliefs.”
In order to overcome such subconscious barriers to accurate perception and understanding, a conscious and determined effort is needed, although even that may not be sufficient. Heuer’s work describes a variety of methodologies — such as “thinking backwards” from an unexpected outcome to understand its preconditions — that professional analysts can use to achieve greater clarity and insight.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli military intelligence officials established an analytical unit nicknamed “Ipcha Mistabra,” using the talmudic expression meaning “on the contrary” or “the opposite is true.” The purpose of the unit was “to demonstrate that it is possible to reach differing conclusions from the same intelligence data,” and thereby to instill humility and caution in the intelligence process.
In fact, it is rarely if ever the case that the exact opposite of an initial assessment is correct. What is true is that when viewed with greater attention and critical insight, threats to security often assume a different, more nuanced meaning. We may come to realize that an adversary’s hostile behavior has roots in domestic conflict and is only incidentally directed at us. We may learn that some conflicts can be averted by a show of force, while others require conciliatory gestures. We may discover that while we were preoccupied with other crises, we were unwittingly sowing the seeds of catastrophic global climate change.
What does this mean for us in practice? Expanding our awareness of the world as well as considering diverse perspectives may help us to adapt more skillfully to an unknown future.
A beginning chess player, focused on the chessboard, will typically seize any opportunity to capture an opponent’s pieces. A more experienced player, recognizing that every action can have favorable or unfavorable repercussions several moves ahead, will proceed more strategically. It is that quality of attentiveness to consequences and awareness of possible alternate paths that we should aim to achieve.
Studying a foreign language, immersing ourselves in another culture (or in the deeper reaches of our own), or exploring unfamiliar points of view in political or religious matters are simple steps that can shift our perspectives and reveal unsuspected new directions forward.
Security is not simply a matter of locks or guards; it has a cognitive dimension. Our ability to face the unknown will depend greatly on how we think.
Steven Aftergood directs the project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.