Daily Archives: January 31, 2012

How political affiliation can influence intelligence analysis

As the United States has gotten more politically divisive, we occasionally hear members of this party or that making accusations that the intelligence community (or some portion of it) is supporting one faction or another by ‘cooking the books’ and altering its analysis one way or another.

I doubt such activity occurs explicitly (is there some sort of secret cabal that decides what the appropriate analytical line should be in order to further the political ambitions of candidate X?) but it may happen unconsiously.

Researchers at the University of Nebraska showed a number of people a variety of photographs.  Some of the photos were nice…and some were nasty.

People who were politically identified as conservatives tended to fixate (shift their attention quicker and look longer) at photographs that were distinctly negative:  The grusome, the fearful, the threatening.

People who were identified as liberals focused longer on more ‘positive’ images like kittens or puppies.

This certainly begins to explain some of the features of the messages behind the current campaign where the Republican candidates revel in terms like ‘failure’, ‘collapse’, ‘danger’, etc.  and describe the world as one that’s full of existential threats:  China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, al-Qaeda, immigration, gays, a socialist president, etc.  When Rick Santorum spends as much time as he did at the most recent debate discussing the threat to America from the ‘Marxist’ conspiracies in Nicaragua, and make the aged and infirm Fidel Castro America’s Hannibal, there’s clearly something going on here.  Their message is (and has been):  Be afraid.  The world is a dangerous place and you are beset by enemies everyone.  Trust no one.

The researchers are exploring the possiblity that political affiliation is (at least in part) a manifestation of biology.  In short, ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ (as those terms are used in the US today) experience and interprete reality in different ways.

So, what does this mean for intelligence analysis?  Quite a bit in different areas.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Analysts will support or undermine a thesis based on their (biologically influenced) understanding of the world around them.  So, for example, I know analysts (almost uniformly ‘conservative’) that in making the case for why they think the US is at immediate risk for a wave of terrorist attacks (let’s say suicide bombings) will point to attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflict zones.  The attacks themselves block out other factors that underscore significant differences between those places and our own.  The world is seen as one place where threats are roughly equal througout and mitigating factors play almost no role.*  This is why I can have quite intelligent people tell over a course of six years that the US will be hit with a wave of suicide bombings in the next six months and never allow for the possibility that they’ve been incorrect.

On the flip side, analysts on the ‘liberal’ side of the spectrum (of which I fall) are likely to be more dismissive of threats.  Now, I’d like to think that I arrive at my conclusions via a rigorous (ahem. Sorry, had trouble swallowing there for a second. eds) methodology that weighs evidence and comes to supportable conclusions.  I need to consider, however, that just as ‘conservatives’ may be biologically tuned to see threats everywhere, I’m inclined to see them nowhere, or at least minimize them.

But that’s not all.

Analysts create products for customers.  The biases of those customers can also influence hwo they accept (or reject) the analysis they’re given.

In the law enforcement and military communities, ‘decision makers’ generally (and I’m speaking broadly here) are going to fall on the conservative side of the spectrum (they are, after all, charged with maintaining the status quo of society).  That might make them more inclined to accept threatening analysis (like this).

It’d be interesting to see if, when given two equally well argued analyses, customers chose the more ‘doom and gloom’ one.

On a related (and positive) note, it appears the conventional wisdom is incorrect and people don’t get more conservative as they age.

While there is some evidence that today’s seniors may be more conservative than today’s youth, that’s not because older folks are more conservative than they use to be. Instead, our modern elders likely came of age at a time when the political situation favored more conservative views.

Assuming you want an intelligence shop with a wide range of experiences and perspectives, you might want to take this sort of thing into account (within the limits of discrimination laws, of course).

*This isn’t to say that mitigating factors won’t be acknowledged but rather that, in my observation, they are mostly for form’s sake (because we’re all told we have to) but discarded in the internal calculations of risk.