Thursday, March 22, 2012

Thinking strategically

I continue to read with pleasure Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes between two modes of thinking; System 1 and System 2. System 1 is our story telling mind, always looking to create coherence even where none exists. System two is our analytical mind, able, with training, to think statistically and to ferret out cause and effect through scientific reasoning.

One question is what kind of thinking does “thinking strategically” entail. Consider the challenge American intelligence officials face in assessing the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear intentions. “Intention” is the key word. The facts that must be discerned are not facts in the usual sense of the term. Neither “intention,” nor “capability,” another essential feature of Iran’s potential threat, exists anywhere in any material sense. They certainly can’t be counted in the way we count money, births or accidents. All we have are indicators of intention and capability, not the subjects of interest themselves. This means that we can assess, intention and capability only through interpreting the indicators. Is interpreting the province of system 1, system 2, both, or neither? 

System 2’s statistical prowess is not helpful here. As Kahenman reminds us, statistical reasoning depends on measuring the “base rate,” the rate at which some fact, for example, car accidents per year, occur relative to a base rate, for example, the number of car -miles driven in a year. But there is no base rate for the situation Iran posses. We cannot identify the 100 other instances in which Iran posed a threat. We might decide to include threats posed in the past by other enemies, but then we face the question of whether or not these other examples are in fact similar. Many decades ago, the great management thinker, Raymond Hainer, argued that as we are called upon to process more and more information, our methodology for making sense becomes more “existential,” in the sense that each case is unique.

Psychoanalysis has a lot to say about interpretation however. Perhaps, as many critics have suggested psychoanalysts have erred in considering every patient to be unique. This prevents them from using statistical methods to assess their effectiveness as psychotherapists. But this stance has also been the basis for the way in which psychoanalysts take a non-judgmental view of each patient, a stance that promotes therapist-patient collaboration. 

This non-judgmental stance may also have lessons for how to interpret. Psychoanalysis emphasizes two requirements that are often in tension with each other. The “good enough” psychoanalyst tries to imaginatively inhabit the world of the “other, in this case, the world of the patient, without at the same projecting onto the patient his or her own emotional biases -- always a risk when we try to understand the emotional life of another person. System 1, because it privileges vividness, makes us susceptible to projection.  Instead, the psychoanalyst must take a stance of “dispassionately imagining,” the patient’s situation.

“Dispassionate imagining” may also be a good rule of thumb for understanding an enemy’s intention. Intelligence officials must “get under the skin” of their Iranian enemies without at the same time projecting onto their enemies their own satisfying fantasies- for example that Iran is monolithic and that all its leaders are evil.

Here is another piece of supporting evidence. The management researcher, Scott Armstrong compared the usefulness of role-plays to expert opinion in making predictions. If for example, he wanted to predict the outcome of a salary negotiation between football players and the teams’ owners, he asked experts to make a prediction, and he also had people role play the negotiation. Surprisingly, the outcomes of role-plays on average beat expert predictions. One interpretation is that people in the role-plays imaginatively inhabited how players and owners each experienced the situation, something experts could not do, perhaps because they favored one party over the other.   

The great military strategist Sun Tzu, a favorite of many business strategists and management theorists, argued that one does not defeat the enemy per se, but the enemy’s strategy. But the strategy is the result of the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. So the work of interpretation is ubiquitous and essential to our security. Is it the province of System 1, System 2, both or neither? Perhaps this manner of dividing up the cognitive domain is insufficient if it does not allow us to understand so important an activity as interpretation.

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