Thinking & Writing: CIA's Guide to Cognitive Science

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This CIA Monograph (re-released in 2010 by Robert Sinclair) presents “the implications of growing knowledge in the cognitive sciences for the way the intelligence business is conducted – in how we perform analysis, how we present our findings, and even its meaning for our hiring and training practices”. In other words, this paper is about, “thinking and writing [and] the complex mental patterns out of which writing comes, their strengths and limitations, and the challenges they create, not just for writers but for managers”. Via

You can find more from the study on cognitive science and intelligence analysis below.

Thinking & Writing: CIA's Guide to Cognitive Science

Thinking & Writing: CIA’s Guide to Cognitive Science And Intelligence Analysis

When this monograph was published a quarter century ago, it sank virtually without a trace. It is clear to me now that the paper lacked what today would be called “curb appeal”; moreover, cognitive science was a new and unproven discipline. Then, few inside or outside the intelligence world were aware of it, and even fewer had thought about its relevance to intelligence analysis.

The field has opened up to a stunning degree since then. Not only have we seen a flood of studies documenting the myriad cognitive activities our brains engage in, but electronic imaging allows us to observe what happens in the brain as it goes about its business. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell have mined the literature to show the insights these processes can produce, as well as the times they leave us stuck in unproductive ways of thinking. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell reports that when experts were asked to assess the provenance of an allegedly ancient sculpture, they could agree that it was a fake but could not put into words how they had reached that conclusion. This and other examples, he says, illustrate how the things we learn through experience often are not readily available to our conscious minds.

Economists these days speak of “behavioral economics,” which uses research based partly on cognitive science protocols to suggest the limits to rational-actor models. Behavioral economics has reinstalled John Maynard Keynes on his pedestal.

In economics, the crucial Keynesian concept is uncertainty. Where it prevails, the simple rules of classical economics don’t apply. That’s because the classical economics that both predated Keynes and superseded him relies on rational actors making rational assessments. In order to make such assessments you have to have reliable knowledge, usually derived from past experience. Buyers of oranges or newspapers or legal services can be said to possess such knowledge. Buyers of speculative securities cannot. They’re always looking into an uncertain future, “anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be,” as Keynes put it.

And for its part, the Intelligence Community has taken a long list of initiatives ranging from structured analytic techniques to on-line blogs and social networking sites.

So why reissue this monograph? What could anyone gain from a 25-year-old piece on a subject that gets such broad coverage in today’s popular literature? For me, the most telling answer came from a couple of talks based on the monograph that I gave in the spring of 2009. I spoke to conference room-sized groups of analysts from CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI), and each time I had the impression that the talk was a revelation for most of the audience. Even after allowing as best I could for my own bias, I came away wondering whether information about cognitive science had percolated as widely as I had thought. In addition, in my regular interactions as a tutor of analysts and managers of analysts, I have similarly sensed that we have not absorbed the science into the way we think about our analytic jobs. Thus, one further attempt at consciousness-raising might not be out of place, especially since we have so many more ways to present this paper than we did 25 years ago.

Moreover, while acknowledging that we have learned a great deal since 1984, I would argue that the elements of cognitive science highlighted in the monograph are still the ones of first-order relevance for the DI. I do not think an intelligence analyst will gain much professionally from knowing how neurons fire or which parts of the brain participate in which mental operations. I do consider it essential, however, that we be aware of how our brains ration what they make available to our conscious minds as they cope with the fact that our “ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment.”

See full article on Thinking & Writing: The CIA’s Guide to Cognitive Science in PDF Format here.

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