cognitive bias

New forms of cognitive bias, 2017 edition

Eric Garland Intelligence Analysis 5 Comments

As I grow as an intelligence analyst and adviser, my interests increasingly tend toward the human factors in analysis, especially cognitive bias. I have recently done a series of workshops on cognitive bias because while it’s great to know how to do foresight and scenarios, it’s even more important to know how we screw it up.

There are four main categories of cognitive bias, namely Social Bias, Memory Bias, Probability Bias, and Decision Bias. As many of my readers know, I have been engrossed in the story of American democracy’s current crisis with regards to a certain president whose connections to the Russian Federation are…unsavory at best. The news cycle is relentless, with each day bringing new revelations from our intelligence community, and those of our allies, as well as excellent reporting on the depth of abnormality currently shaking America to its roots. This news cycle is actually creating new forms of cognitive bias, and I’d like to be the first to identify these forms that I see as Normal People (not obsessive analysts like myself) attempt to wrap their heads around a deeply abnormal situation.

News Density Time Frame Distortion

I would like to identify a new type of cognitive bias that arises from too much important stuff happening in too short a span of time, resulting in the inability to perceive how long ago something occured, or News Density Time Frame Distortion.

Can anybody remember how long ago it was when President Trump bear hugged the Prime Minister of Japan? Or when he turned his golf course into an “open-air situation room” to deal with a North Korean nuclear crisis? Can you remember how long ago it was when Mike Flynn was still employed by the U.S. Government?

Lots of people cannot. They also lose sight of the fact that we are not even through the second month of this presidency. I have a theory that when news of such importance is coming at such a rate, the time frame an individual perceives is shifted. Weeks seem like months because the news of major changes are coming at a rate that is normally punctuated by a couple weeks in between. This changes our perception of just how fast a news story is progressing. This is how I explain people telling me, “Oh, nothing is happening with Trump. Why doesn’t somebody investigate or something?” and I remind them that, for example, the FBI director just spent all day with Senators in classified briefings only yesterday.

This distortion changes our ability to perceive the speed of narrative as it shifts.

Extreme Normalcy Warp

Speaking of the shift of narrative, I’d also like to identify the cognitive bias that occurs when normal expectations are changed radically and quickly, or what I’ll call Extreme Normalcy Warp.

America has gone from a place where there is a general expectation that politicians will follow established laws and traditions, to one where seemingly every single expectation can be blown away at a moment’s notice. The human brain does not like rapid shifts of any nature and tends to impose a framework of normalcy on situations, despite the objective reality that things are functioning in a radically different manner. In doing so, we lose track of just how much has shifted, as well as how quickly its been altered. (See the above Time Frame Distortion.)

In an effort to keep functioning on a daily basis, the majority of people find ways to justify as workable violations of normalcy such as: a President making profit off the White House, Canadian citizens asked for VISAs for entry into Vermont, the use of Stalinist/Maoist rhetoric to describe the press, and sadly, much more. The cognitive bias comes in the way that past a certain amount of aberration, people in general lose the ability to perceive just how much has changed in exchange for the ability to go about their daily lives.

I hope that we can soon put an end to this chapter of American life and add these cognitive biases to the master list in the past tense, during a one-time disruption.

That’s my fervent wish.