The recent news about a Starbucks in Philadelphia reinforced what many of us have been taught about unconscious biases. Learning to recognize and work around cognitive biases is an important part of any profession. This is especially so for those working in intelligence since the field is largely about thinking, anticipating, and making sense of incomplete information.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the related issue of assumptions--the assumptions we make about ourselves, the people with whom we communicate, and the leaders whom we advise as intelligence professionals. Just as we need to be mindful of the biases we hold, we need to be careful about the assumptions we make when we approach a given situation or set of facts.
One of the first things we need to do as intelligence professionals, right after checking our biases, is to check our assumptions. In intelligence analyst language, this is called the “key assumptions check.” It is basically the process of asking ourselves about what assumptions we are bringing to the table. This is huge, because it has a direct and forceful impact on how we approach information and situations, and ultimately, how we communicate our analyses.
An effective way of checking our personal assumptions is to do a quick thought experiment, which works something like this:
- For each person, organization, event, action, location, etc., in any scenario, pay attention to two things: 1.) the information you have, and 2.) the information you created based on your inferences and personal experiences.
- Ask yourself if you are basing your analysis purely on the information provided, or if you feel obligated to "fill in the blanks" of what was not provided in the information. If you choose to fill in the blanks, what is your process for doing so?
- Play around with different possibilities for filling in the blanks and see if your analysis holds up. Does your analysis only make sense under a certain set of circumstances?
Let’s take a very basic scenario to illustrate how sneaky our assumptions are and how the thought experiment can help to work around them. If I told you that a lawyer enters a house of worship and speaks to a spiritual leader, what images come to your mind? What does the lawyer look like? What age and gender do you see? Is the lawyer calm or upset? How about the house of worship? Is it large or small? What religion does it serve? What about the spiritual leader? What nationality is s/he? What attitude does s/he take to the lawyer? Why is the lawyer there? What do you think is going on in this scenario?
There are so many possibilities here and many blanks that could be filled in. Using the thought experiment, we see that there is just a small amount of confirmed information that we have; the rest is just subjective conjecture based in the assumptions and associations we have made about the lawyer, the spiritual leader, and the house of worship. There is no right answer to what is happening in this scenario, or alternatively, we can say that there are many right answers, depending on the details we choose to apply.
This is a simplistic example, but the point I am hoping to convey is that assumptions pop up even in the most basic of situations. If we get into the habit of recognizing and challenging them at a basic level, doing so in complex intelligence analyses will be much easier.
As intelligence professionals, we rarely have all of the details we would like. It is tempting to make assumptions based on our experiences and biases, but doing so is not advisable. It is better to work with the information we have to ask good questions and test our analyses and recommendations against a variety of possibilities. Experiences and knowledge can inform our work, but the foundation of that work should never be based on assumptions or biases, no matter how probable or logical they may be.