Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Jack Davis
I applaud CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence for making the work of Richards J. Heuer, Jr. on the psychology of intelligence analysis available to a new generation of intelligence practitioners and scholars. Dick Heuer’s ideas on how to improve analysis focus on helping analysts compensate for the human mind’s limitations in dealing with complex problems that typically involve ambiguous information, multiple players, and fluid circumstances. Such multi-faceted estimative challenges have proliferated in the turbulent post-Cold War world.
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Heuer’s message to analysts can be encapsulated by quoting two sentences from Chapter 4 of this book:
Intelligence analysts should be self-conscious about their reasoning processes. They should think about how they make judgments and reach conclusions, not just about the judgments and conclusions themselves.
Heuer’s ideas are applicable to any analytical endeavor. In this Introduction, I have concentrated on his impact—and that of other pioneer thinkers in the intelligence analysis field—at CIA, because that is the institution that Heuer and his predecessors, and I myself, know best, having spent the bulk of our intelligence careers there.
Leading Contributors to Quality of Analysis
Intelligence analysts, in seeking to make sound judgments, are always under challenge from the complexities of the issues they address and from the demands made on them for timeliness and volume of production. Four Agency individuals over the decades stand out for having made major contributions on how to deal with these challenges to the quality of analysis.
My short list of the people who have had the greatest positive impact on CIA analysis consists of Sherman Kent, Robert Gates, Douglas MacEachin, and Richards Heuer. My selection methodology was simple. I asked myself: Whose insights have influenced me the most during my four decades of practicing, teaching, and writing about analysis?
Sherman Kent’s pathbreaking contributions to analysis cannot be done justice in a couple of paragraphs, and I refer readers to fuller treatments elsewhere. Here I address his general legacy to the analytical profession.
Kent, a professor of European history at Yale, worked in the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He wrote an influential book, Strategic Intelligence for American World Power, while at the National War College in the late 1940s. He served as Vice Chairman and then as Chairman of the DCI’s Board of National Estimates from 1950 to 1967.
Kent’s greatest contribution to the quality of analysis was to define an honorable place for the analyst—the thoughtful individual “applying the instruments of reason and the scientific method”—in an intelligence world then as now dominated by collectors and operators. In a second (1965) edition of Strategic Intelligence, Kent took account of the coming computer age as well as human and technical collectors in proclaiming the centrality of the analyst:
Whatever the complexities of the puzzles we strive to solve and whatever the sophisticated techniques we may use to collect the pieces and store them, there can never be a time when the thoughtful man can be supplanted as the intelligence device supreme.
More specifically, Kent advocated application of the techniques of “scientific” study of the past to analysis of complex ongoing situations and estimates of likely future events. Just as rigorous “impartial” analysis could cut through the gaps and ambiguities of information on events long past and point to the most probable explanation, he contended, the powers of the critical mind could turn to events that had not yet transpired to determine the most probable developments.
To this end, Kent developed the concept of the analytic pyramid, featuring a wide base of factual information and sides comprised of sound assumptions, which pointed to the most likely future scenario at the apex.