Cognitive Bias is Scary! Dust the Cobwebs from your Analysis with Structured Analytic Techniques

October 2015 Volume 2 Issue 10

By Randy Pherson, CEO, Globalytica LLC

Structured analytic techniques help us counter common analytic biases and intuitive traps we often confront as analysts.

Cognitive Bias: Mental errors caused by our simplified information processing strategies.

Behavioral scientists have studied the impact of cognitive biases on analysis and decision-making in many fields such as psychology, political science, medicine, economics, business, and education – ever since Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of cognitive biases in the early 1970s. Richards Heuer’s work for the CIA in the following decades, followed by his book Psychology of Intelligence Analysis,* applied Tversky and Kahneman’s insights to problems encountered by intelligence analysts. Since the publication of Heuer’s book, others associated with the US Intelligence Community (including Jeffrey Cooper and Rob Johnston) have identified cognitive biases as a major cause of analytic failure at the CIA.

Cognitive biases are similar to optical illusions in that the error remains compelling even when one is fully aware of its nature. Awareness of the bias, by itself, does not produce a more accurate perception.” 

Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis

What causes bias?

How we perceive data is strongly influenced by past experiences, training or education, cultural values, and role requirements as a recipient of data, and being a stakeholder in a particular decision. The mental models we construct are usually quick to form and highly resistant to change. Some of the most common analytic pitfalls include:

  • Discounting facts that do not support our analysis
  • Relying on first impressions
  • Overstating conclusions based on a small sample of data
  • Not changing our conclusions despite mounting contradictions
  • Assuming the future will be like the past
  • Ignoring data if we do not have an appropriate category or bin to store it in

How does one counter bias?

Structured Analytic Techniques (SATs) help analysts mitigate, avoid, or overcome analytic bias and intuitive traps. They do not replace intuitive judgment, but help analysts question intuitive judgments by adding rigor to their process. No formula exists for perfect analysis, but use of SATs can reduce the frequency and severity of error. They can help analysts mitigate proven cognitive limitations, sidestep some of the known analytic biases, and explicitly confront problems associated with unquestioned mental models or mindsets.

Use Structured Analytic Techniques to:

  • Avoid failures by reducing error rates
  • Encourage more collaborative work processes
  • Increase accountability
  • Make the analytic process more transparent to the decisionmaker

The graphic below highlights five common cognitive biases and SATs designed to counter the biases. Future issues of Analytic Insider will explore these biases more deeply, and explain how using the SAT solution can help. Stay tuned!

*Click here for more information on this publication.


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