Thinking Straight: Cognitive Bias in the US Debate About China   [open pdf - 98KB]

"Of the axioms, dictums, and mantras echoing through the US foreign policy and intelligence debates in the wake of controversy over estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, none reverberates more than: 'be wary of mind-set and bias and constantly reexamine assumptions.' The fact is, however, that genuine wariness and 'thorough' reexaminations have been rare and attention has tended to focus on the more easily recognizable non-cognitive biases, the 'lowhanging fruit,' that eclipse much more ingrained cognitive biases and the flawed assumptions they engender. Nowhere is this tendency more clearly evident than in the continuing US debate over China, which has long been conducted as if single-outcome predictions of China's long-term future are possible and that the United States is capable of promoting or altering a predicted outcome. I will argue here that these two assumptions are largely the result of an unrecognized, deeply ingrained, and enduring cognitive bias that results in the misapplication of a linear behavioral template to China, which, like all nation-states, in reality behaves 'nonlinearly.' In making my case, I will explain how cognitive bias fosters this misapplication, discuss the illusions of certainty--especially of predictability and influence-- that this misapplication promotes, and examine the complementary non-linear perspectives that might correct the imbalance. Finally, I will suggest how such nonlinear perspectives might be cultivated and applied to--in the words of Sherman Kent--'elevate the level of debate.'"

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Studies in Intelligence (2004), v.48 no.3
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