Thinking & Writing : The CIA’s Guide to Cognitive Science & Intelligence Analysis

This CIA Monograph (re-released in 2010 by Robert Sinclair) presents “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”. In other words, this paper is about, “thinking and writing [and] the complex mental patterns out of which writing comes, their strengths and limitations, and the challenges they create, not just for writers but for managers”. Below are some curated excerpts.

P.S. Don’t confuse this paper with the popular CIA book, “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis” which I have linked to in the past.  This paper draws upon similar cognitive research but has a different focus (mainly that of communicating clearly).


Two quotations sum up what this essay is about:

“Our insights into mental functioning are too often fashioned from observations of the sick and the handicapped. It is difficult to catch and record, let alone understand, the swift flight of a mind operating at its best.”

“A writer in the act is a thinker on a full-time cognitive overload.”

“In brief, I hope to describe some of the powerful metaphors about the workings of our minds that have developed over the past couple of decades.”

“…although this essay talks a lot about writing, it is not designed to deal with the how-to-write issue. As the title indicates, its topic is thinking and writing the complex mental patterns out of which writing comes, their strengths and limitations, and the challenges they create, not just for writers but for managers.”

“I would argue that the elements of cognitive science highlighted in the monograph are still the ones of first-order relevance for the DI. 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. This is the focus of the monograph.”

“For every analyst and every reviewer in this serial process, the analysis starts from a body of analogies and heuristics that are unique to that individual and grow out of his or her past experience after images of ideas and events that resonate when we examine a current problem, practical rules of thumb that have proven useful over time.The power of this approach is incontestable, but we are all too easily blinded to its weaknesses. The evidence is clear: analysis is likely to improve when we look beyond what is going on in our own heads—when we use any of several techniques designed to make explicit the underlying structure of our argument and when we encourage others to challenge our analogies and heuristics with their own. Little about the current process fosters such activities, it seems to me; they would be almost unavoidable in a collaborative environment.”

On Writing

“If the very act of writing puts a writer any writer at all—into “full-time cognitive overload,” then perhaps we would benefit from a better understanding of what contributes to the overload.”

“The novelist and poet Walker Percy offers a concept that may be even more fruitful. In a series of essays dealing with human communication, Percy asserts that a radical distinction must be made between what he calls “knowledge” and what he calls “news.” Percy’s notion takes on added significance in light of the findings of cognitive science (of which he seems largely unaware), and I will be discussing it at greater length in due course. For the present “I would simply assert that the nature of our work forces us to swing constantly back and forth be- tween knowledge and news, and I believe cognitive science has something to contribute to our under- standing of the problem. “

 Why We Use Heuristics / Mental Shortcuts In Decision Making

What is it about heuristics that makes them so useful? First, they are quick and they get the job done, assuming the experiential base is sufficient and a certain amount of satisficing is not objectionable. Second, what cognitive scientists call the problem-space remains manageable. Theoretically that space becomes unmanageably large as soon as you start to generalize and explore: any event may be important now, any action on your part is possible, and you could get paralyzed by possibilities as the centipede did. But humans constantly narrow the problem-space on the basis of their own experience. And most of the time the results are acceptable: what more efficient way is there to narrow an indefinitely large problem-space? ”

Limits To Using Heuristics / Mental Shortcuts In Decision Making

  • “Heuristics are inherently conservative; they follow the tried-and-true method of building on what has already happened. When the approach is confronted with the oddball situation or when someone asks what is out there in the rest of the problem-space, heuristics begin to flounder. Yet we resist using other approaches, partly because we simply find them much less congenial, partly because the record allows plausible argument about their effectiveness when dealing with an indefinitely large set of possibilities.”
  • “As most people use them, heuristics are imprecise and sloppy. Some of the reasons why cognitive activity is imprecise were noted earlier; another reason is the tendency to satisfice, which encourages us to go wherever experience dictates and stop when we have an adequate answer. With perseverance and sufficient information one can achieve considerable precision, but there is nothing in the heuristic approach itself that compels us to do so and little sign that humans have much of an urge to use it in this way. Most of the time, moreover, the information is not terribly good. We then may find ourselves trying to get more precision out of the process than it can provide.”
  • “In everyday use, heuristics are not congenial to formal procedures such as logic, probability, and the scientific method. This fact helps explain why we rarely use logic rigorously, why we tend to be more interested in confirming than in disconfirming a hypothesis, and why we are so poor at assessing odds.”

We Can’t Talk About Mental Shortcuts Without Talking About Memory & “Chunking” 

It should be apparent the heuristic approach is critical to the effectiveness of our conscious mental activity, since short-term memory needs procedures like heuristics that narrow its field of view. On the other hand, the drawbacks are equally apparent. The ability to process large quantities of information is always an advantage and sometimes a necessity. How can we operate effectively if we can consider so little at a time? The answer to this question lies in the speed and flexibility with which we can manipulate the information in short-term memory; to use the terminology, in our chunking prowess.”

Accessed via Robert Sinclair's Overview of Cognitive Science & Intelligence (written for the CIA)

Accessed via Robert Sinclair’s Overview of Cognitive Science & Intelligence (written for the CIA)

A chunk, it should be clear, equates to one of the roughly seven entities that short-term memory can deal with at one time. Hunt’s formulation notwithstanding, it need not be tied to words or discrete symbols. Any conceptual entity—from a single letter to the notion of Kant’s categorical imperative- can be a chunk. And not only do we work with chunks that come to us from the outside world, we create and remember chunks of our own. Anything in long-term memory probably has been put there by the chunking process. We build hierarchies of chunks, combining a group of them under a single conceptual heading (a new chunk), “filing” the subordinate ideas in long-term memory, and using the overall heading to gain access to them. We can manipulate any chunk or bring wildly differing chunks together, and we can do these things with great speed and flexibility.

“In some ways “chunk” is a misleading term for the phenomenon. The word calls to mind something discrete and hard-edged, whereas the very essence of the phenomenon is the way we can give it new shapes and new characteristics, and the way conceptual fragments interpenetrate each other in long-term memory. A chunk might better be conceived of, metaphorically, as a pointer to information in long-term memory, and the information it retrieves as a cloud with a dense core and ill-defined edges. The mind can store an enormous number of such clouds, each overlapping many others.This “cloudiness” the way any one concept evokes a series of others is a source of great efficiency in human communication; it is what lets us get the drift of a person’s remarks without having all the implications spelled out. But it can also be a source of confusion.”

Heuristics/ Mental Shortcuts & “Chunking” Work Hand in Hand During Decision Making

  • “Heuristics—non-random exploration that uses experience and inference to narrow the field of possibilities—loom large in the development of each individual and are deeply ingrained in all of us (particularly when we are doing some- thing we consider important). Combined with the chunking speed of short-term memory, the heuristic approach is a powerful way to deal with large amounts of information and a poorly defined problem space.
  • “But there is always a tradeoff between range and precision. The more of the problem space you try to explore—and the “space,” being conceptual rather than truly spatial, can have any number of dimensions—the harder it is to achieve a useful degree of specificity. Talent and experience can often reduce the conflict between the need for range and the need for precision, but they cannot eliminate it. We almost always end up satisficing.”
  • “We are compulsive, in our need to chunk, to put information into a context. The context we start with heavily conditions the way we receive a new piece of information. We chunk so rapidly that “the problem,” whatever it is, often has been sharply delimited by the time we begin manipulating it in working memory.
  • Although the conceptual network formed through years of experience may make an individual a more skillful problem-solver, it can also make him or her less open to unusual ideas or information—a phenomenon sometimes termed “hardening of the categories.” The conservative bias of the heuristic approach—the tendency we all share of looking to past experience for guidance—makes it easy for an old hand to argue an anomaly out of the way. In fact the old hand is likely to be right nearly all the time; experience usually does work as a model. But what about the situation when “nearly all the time” isn’t good enough? Morton Hunt recounts an instance of a computer proving better than the staff of a mental hospital at predicting which patients were going to attempt suicide.”

Cognitive Aspects of Speaking & Writing

Here are some of the ways in which writing and speech differ:

  • With speech, much of the communication takes place in ways that do not involve words: in gesture, in tone of voice, in the larger context surrounding the exchange. Speech is a complex audio-visual event, and the implications we draw—the chunks we form—are derived from a whole network of signals.
    With writing there is nothing but the words on the paper. The result may be as rich as with speech—nobody would accuse a Shakespeare sonnet of lacking richness—but the resources used are far narrower.”
  • Writing calls for a sharper focus of attention on the part of both producer and receiver. When you and I are conversing, we both can attend to several other things—watching the passing crowd, worrying about some aspect of work, waving away a passing insect—and still keep the thread of our discourse. If I am writing or reading I must concentrate on the text; these other activities are likely to register as distractions.”
  • The pace and pattern of chunking is very different in the two modes. With speech, one word or phrase quickly supersedes the last,and the listener cannot stop to ponder any of them. What he ponders is the chunk he forms from his perception of everything the speaker is saying, and he is not likely to ponder even that very intensively. He does have the opportunity to ask the speaker about what he has heard (an opportunity almost never available to a reader), but he rarely does so; the spoken medium has enormous forward momentum. In compensation, speech uses a much narrower set of verbal formulae than writing. It relies heavily on extralinguistic cues, and by and large it is more closely tied to a larger context that helps keep the participants from straying too far from a common understanding. In the written medium, by contrast, the reader can chunk more or less at his own pace. He can always recheck his conclusion against the text, but he has little recourse beyond that. All the signals a writer can hope to send must be in the written words.”
  • A reader is dealing with a finished product: the production process has been essentially private. A listener is participating in a transaction that is still in progress, a transaction that is quintessentially social.”
  • Partly because of the factors listed so far, writing is capable of more breadth and more precision than speech. Neither complex ideas nor complex organizations would be possible without writing. My own impression is that even in this television-dominated era, people attach more solidity and permanence to something written than to something spoken. Perhaps we have an ingrained sense that the products of speech are more ephemeral than the products of writing. But to achieve this aura of permanence writing sacrifices a sense of immediacy. A writer tends to speak with the voice of an observer, not a participant.”

Communicating Knowledge vs News

“…. I am building toward an assertion that…..there are correlations between news and the cognitive processes involved in speech on the one hand, and between knowledge and the cognitive processes involved in writing on the other.”
Knowledge  = “all the scientific and formal statements, all the generalizations, and also all the poetry and art. Producers of such statements are alike in their withdrawal from the ordinary affairs of life to university, laboratory, studio, mountain eyrie, where they write sentences to which other men assent (or refuse to assent), saying, “Yes, this is indeed how things are.””
News =  “statements that are significant precisely insofar as the reader is caught up in the affairs and in the life of the island and insofar as he has not withdrawn into laboratory or seminar room.”
You can categorize knowledge vs news using the following filters:
  • “Nature of the sentence. Knowledge can in theory be arrived at “anywhere by anyone and  at any time”; news involves a nonrecurring event or state of affairs which bears on the life of the recipient.”
  • “Posture of the reader. The reader of a piece of knowledge stands “outside and over against the world;” the reader of a piece of news is receiving information relevant to his specific situation.”
  • “Scale of Evaluation. We judge knowledge ac- cording to the degree it achieves generality; we judge news according to its relevance to our own predicament.”
  • “Canons of acceptance. We verify knowledge either experimentally or in light of past experi- ence. News is “neither deducible, repeatable, nor otherwise confirmable at the point of hear- ing.” We react to it on the basis of its relevance to our predicament, the credentials of the newsbearer (according to Percy, “a piece of news requires that there be a newsbearer”), and its plausibility.”
  • “Response of the reader. A person receiving a piece of knowledge will assent to it or reject it; a person receiving a piece of news will take action in line with his evaluation of the news. (And, I would add, the receiver of a piece of news is more immediately concerned than the reader of a piece of knowledge with the correctness of the information.)”

Continue Reading: Thinking & Writing – The CIA’s Guide to Cognitive Science & Intelligence Analysis

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17. May 2014 by Miguel Barbosa
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