ZenPundit
Sunday, April 10, 2005
 
THE COGNITIVE BIAS OF HINDSIGHT IN EVALUATING INTELLIGENCE FAILURES ( DOUBLE UPDATE)

"Overseers of intelligence production who conduct postmortem analyses of an intelligence failure normally judge that events were more readily foreseeable than was in fact the case"

An important consideration for anyone deeply involved in the ongoing assessment of intelligence community failures in regard to Iraq or the GWOT is the concept of Hindsight Analysis. When an ex post facto critic engages in review of intelligence analysis without being aware of the operation of this cognitive bias their own assumptions about what may have been possible, discernable or " dot- connected" can be terribly distorted.

Ominously, being aware of this effect causes IC analysts to practice CYA in intelligence assessments first and foremost so that angry Congressman and pundits, enveloped in hindsight bias, cannot destroy their careeers or agency budgets. Thus, out of self-preservation, the IC tends to promote policy paralysis, monitoring of the status quo and studied ambiguity in its assessments combined with vague but broad warnings of disaster.

Being trained as a historian I've long been aware of this psychological effect - professional hazard as it were - but it is an extremely difficult concept to get across to other people due to the self-referential nature of hindsight. The CIA it seems, long ago did a very good journal article on this effect in Studies in Intelligence. *

Well worth your time to read as you dive into the reports of various Commissions.


* Heuer, Richard J. " Cognitive Biases: Problems in Hindsight Analysis", Studies in Intelligence, vol. 22, no. 2 (Summer 1978), pp 21-28.

UPDATE: Matt of Verisimilitude tackles Bayesian Probability analysis. Incidentally, there's a Studies in Intelligence article on this one too.

UPDATE II: Pundita examines a bias of a somewhat different kind.
 
Comments:
Agreed, hindsight bias is extremely annoying. I made a related point from the angle of Bayesian decision-making last week (also clarified somewhat in the comments).

-- Matt McIntosh
 
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