For me, the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence has become a don't-miss source of theoretical and applied work on decision-making, intelligence analysis, and future thinking. Just a few weeks ago, they republished an article that's a revelation: a 1984 report entitled "Thinking and Writing: Cognitive Science and Intelligence Analysis."

When this monograph was first published a quartercentury ago, it sank virtually without a trace. It is clear now that the paper lacked what today would be called "curb appeal"; moreover, cognitive science was a new and unproven discipline. Then, few inside or outside the intelligence world were aware of it, and even fewer had thought about its relevance to intelligence analysis. (Richards Heuer, author of the CSI-produced Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, was one of those few.)

The field has opened up to a stunning degree since then. Not only have we seen a flood of studies documenting the myriad cognitive activities our brains engage in, but electronic imaging allows us to observe what happens in the brain as it goes about its business. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell have mined the literature to show the insights these processes can produce, as well as the times they leave us stuck in unproductive ways of thinking.

This reprint takes these perspectives into the realm of intelligence analysis. (It has been slightly updated since its initial print run.) The author, Bob Sinclair, evaluates the implications of growing knowledge in the cognitive sciences for the way the intelligence business is conducted – in how we perform analysis, how we present our findings, and even its meaning for our hiring and training practices.

I do not think an intelligence analyst will gain much professionally from knowing how neurons fire or which parts of the brain participate in which mental operations. I do consider it essential, however, that we be aware of how our brains ration what they make available to our conscious minds as they cope with the fact that our "ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment." Not only do they select among outside stimuli, they also edit what they let us know about their own activities.

After the review of cognitive science research- which still holds up well- Sinclair moves on to "suggestions for changing the way we do intelligence analysis in light of what the discipline was telling us."

There are three things that I think are still useful, and really resonate with me. The first is his analysis of how the craft and structure of intelligence analysis allows certain kinds of cognitive biases to influence it:

The importance of bringing to light what might be called, with a bow to former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the "unknown knowns"—the factors in our analysis that we are unaware of.

The conservative bias of our default analytic approach: we tend to work from what we already "know"—even though, in fact, a host of "unknown knowns" affect the "known."

The solitary nature of the writing process and the difference between the way intelligence analysts typically do their work (linear, cerebral, mostly written) and the way policymakers do theirs (nonlinear, transactional, mostly oral and interactive).

The importance of constructing our prose with the reader in mind; the monograph, summarizing the work of cognitive-science investigators, states, "A striking aspect of the approach of skilled writers is the frequency with which they think about how they are affecting the reader."

The importance of the work done at the beginning of an analytic project—what the monograph calls the "conceptual front end."

The time needed to gain real skill at a craft; the monograph cites data suggesting that people are unlikely to get good at what they do for at least a decade.

The use that can be made of information technology to improve the quality of analysis.

Many of these issues are ones that futurists and forecasters also have to deal with. Second is his call to develop "collaborative analysis." The vision resonates with my ideas about social scanning, (social scanning is the package of tools that would be used in collaborative analysis), and Sinclair's explanation of why it hasn't taken off it still very relevant:

The monograph is not terribly clear on this point since I still was laboring to articulate the idea; but as far back as 1984, I was sure that electronic interaction was the wave of the future for DI analysis. More specifically, I thought the time was at hand when we would be producing finished intelligence not just online but collaboratively…. I am sure that some collaboration of this sort is occurring today, but I have seen little sign, a quarter-century after the monograph came out, of any impact on the way the community as a whole operates. I have given a good deal of thought to the reasons my vision was so wrong:

  • First, the idea required orders of magnitude more bandwidth and much more sophisticated software than we had in 1984. This constraint no longer holds, of course. We have plenty of bandwidth, and programs to aid collaborative work are now widely available.
  • Second, as I noted, the act of writing remains in essence a private process. To most writers, the idea of working interactively will seem like an intrusion into a space where they have always been alone.
  • Third, the proposition faces serious cultural and organizational barriers. Hierarchy is at the core of any bureaucracy, including the DI’s. The core of an analyst’s performance evaluation is his or her publication record as an individual, and the serial review process is firmly ensconced as the way we generate our analytic product. A collaborative process would challenge the traditional approach in both areas….
  • Fourth, interactive forums, whether Facebook and YouTube outside the community or Intellipedia and A-Space within it, may be enlightening for the participants, but nothing about them presses participants toward consensus or closure….
  • Finally, managers may have special difficulty adjusting to the interactive world.

Third, he suggests that organizations should try to promote "cognitive diversity" as a way of dealing with some of the issues he raises:

I believe the DI has always been populated very largely by serial thinkers like me, who analyze a problem by deconstructing it and laying out the result in writing, a quintessentially serial medium…. Might the DI do a better job if it were more cognitively diverse—if it took in more people with different cognitive "furniture"?

Given the pushback I got on my work on rethinking the discipline when I circulated the first public draft (a couple very senior people in the field HATED it), it's gratifying to discover Sinclair's work. When you encounter work that echoes (or even anticipates) your own thinking, you can either look at it as a threat, or as confirmation that you're not crazy, and that you're onto something. Especially when you're working in an area that's still controversial, the latter is always the more valuable attitude. And as a practical matter, the world is usually big enough for all of you.