What Do Cognitive Biases Mean for Deterrence?

Iain King CBE, Defence Counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington D.C., February 12, 2019, Strategy Bridge
https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/2/12/what-do-cognitive-biases-mean-for-deterrence
Some highlights:

Humans make poor decisions—not just sometimes, but systematically—and new insights into these cognitive biases have implications for deterrence.

… the War Department was making a common mistake now known as survivorship bias. … Survivorship bias is one of many deep-rooted and systematic flaws in the way humans process information…

… We make bad decisions for many reasons. For one, thinking takes time and effort, and so we often go for heuristic short-cuts. For another, like pack animals, we follow the herd. Furthermore, we regularly misunderstand the world in systematic ways. We have deep-rooted attachments to what we already own, even when we can have something better…

… These biases affect us all … and they affect us much more than we realize. Almost all of us suffer from a bias blind spot: the proven tendency for people to recognize biases in others more readily than in themselves.

… Considering cognitive biases allows us the opportunity to think about how deterrence can face down modern threats. This leads to some interesting propositions.

1. Tailor deterrence messages to specific audiences. …

2. Biases provide a particularly effective means to embed some forms of deterrence. …

3. Leveraging biases means deterrence must remain proportionate, but cannot be marginal. …

4. Reciprocity suggests an adversary will look to use cognitive bias to undermine our own deterrence strategies. …

5. The awareness of biases reinforces the need for deterrence threats to be carried through when they have failed to deter. …

… Many of these strategies are already in use. … We are using nuclear deterrence strategies against rogue states as well as superpower rivals. We are deterring terrorist groups and lone wolf individuals through highly-developed messaging and sophisticated online armies. And we are deterring attacks in cyber and space with threats designed for optimum effect against the most likely transgressors. …

… Cognitive biases have enormous implications for deterrence. Our new understanding of biases means deterrence is now stronger than it ever was during the Cold War, and far better than when Abraham Wald advised the War Department how best to protect their bombers.


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