risk aversion in intelligence analysis

One of the things I have been doing for Rapleaf is talking to people that gather and analyze intelligence. We’re very interested in systems that gather discreet pieces of info and put them together to find patterns and good intelligence.

while talking to intelligence officers (mostly those in the US govt) i found something very interesting: an incredible fear of failure. the fear for a false positive (falsely identifying something) is so incredibly high that these officers err on the side of massive false negatives (in this case, not going out on a limb or being creative).

essentially, they seem highly risk averse … and there seems to be very good reason to be risk averse as a false positive is often a career ending move in many intelligence services (often yielding to career stagnation or even firing).

somehow … and i’m not sure how … we need to reward people for being wrong. and then protect those people. encourage good mistakes (not stupid mistakes — there is a big difference).

of course, i’m not an intelligence expert … but the fear amongst analysts is so pervasive that it MUST be a signal of an endemic problem.

4 thoughts on “risk aversion in intelligence analysis

  1. Danielle D. Camner

    Auren, It’s one of the issues that we’ve been ‘thinking about’ at BENS. How does the private sector do its analysis? If you’re an analyst at a huge investment bank – a cog in that big machine – how is accountability handled? How are results vetted? How are analysts encouraged to be bold, yet accurate? The IC and Wall Street are not perfect parallels, but IMO, at least, there are probably some best practices (and plenty of worst ones) that could be of value to the IC. Nice Blog, btw! I’ll bookmark it.

    Reply
  2. Ed Bellis

    There may be another reason for this great aversion to risk. In the field of government intelligence, there is not only political and career consequences, but personal ones as well. Falsely singling out an individual for something as serious as an act of terrorism (or other crimes against the government) can ultimately make other intelligence less credible. If you’re intelligence is not trusted, it loses most of it’s value. I believe there are several real examples of this currently in the media.
    Given the shrinking amount of controls and checks in place for individuals being accused of a crime, this front end avoidance of false positives becomes almost necessary.
    Admittedly, this is a very difficult problem to tackle.

    Reply
  3. George

    Can you really blame individuals for being “risk-averse”? While we often extol the virtues of “try try again” to children, as an adult the concept of gambling with your paycheck or professional reputation is entirely out of the question.
    We should definitely be asking why we aren’t more entrepreneurial, thoughtful when it comes to our intelligence? Common sense would tell you that a CIA analyst making 35K a year is not going to stick his neck out on a hunch. Or better, that a SENIOR CIA director isn’t going to stick his neck out for fear of 1)being ignored; or 2) being ridiculed.
    “What good will it do me if I do go out on a limb?”
    You’re absolutely right. Without sounding overly-materialistic: Is there a way to make the collection and connecting of intelligence as there are massive dollar signs attached to it?

    Reply

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