Can we usefully talk about a failure of intelligence?: A Theory of Mind Perspective

March 8, 2018 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

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Elena Botts





Failures of intelligence are useful insofar as they can be evaluated so as to improve analysis. In this process, it is important that one considers the psychological processes that underpin analytical failures. It is especially important to consider how failures of intelligence are governed by insufficient ability to understand the perspectives of others. This ability to determine other’s mental states is known as theory of mind.


Theory of mind is principally studied as part of the developmental field of psychology, as it is a mechanism that children purportedly acquire at the age of four (Wimmer and Perner, 1983). However, there remain very legitimate flaws in adult thinking that are comparable to weak theory of mind ability. The psychological phenomenon known as ‘theory of mind’ is related to the logical flaw referred to as ‘mirroring’ by the intelligence community. Further, I suggest that the human mind is more complex than we might imagine, and that though psychologists estimate that theory of mind is developed at age four, it is evidently an imperfect process – otherwise, how would mirroring and other logical flaws when considering other’s perspectives occur? Also, just as theory of mind is being discredited as an absolute threshold, it is also being understood to be more nebulous than previously envisioned, and is influenced by factors such as imagination. Further, theory of mind is critical for collective intelligence, which is important for analytical judgements within intelligence community settings. This raises many questions regarding ramifications in terms of improving logical analysis in the intelligence community based on improved understandings of how the human mind works. It is useful to consider how the intelligence failures that result from the limitations of theory of mind could be examined so as to overcome some of these mental limitations when performing future analyses.



Part I: The Relationship Between Collective Intelligence and Theory of Mind


In a study by Woolley, it was shown that the performance of a group at intelligence tasks, referred to as “collective intelligence”, does not seem to correlate so much with the average or maximum intelligence of members of the group, but rather with ‘average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group’. The study of collective intelligence is an emerging field (Malone). Although one might believe that the collective intelligence would be the average of individuals’ intelligence in the group, but apparently collective intelligence has less to do with individual intelligence rather than how group members interact and communicate information with one another (Woolley). A group’s ability to coordinate with one another effectively is more important than the intelligence of individual group members (Malone) By this logic, it would seem that social intelligence, especially theory of mind, would be useful not just as a way for intelligence agencies to understand the groups they are evaluating, but also as a means of improving how analysts communicate information to one another. Further research on this shows that theory of mind is critical for collective intelligence (Woolley).



Part II: The Role of Imagination in Theory of Mind


Since the original study by Wimmer and Perner in 1983, researchers have examined children’s understanding of theory of mind through the paradigm of the false belief task. In the Wimmer and Perner study, a subject observed the actions of a boy, Maxi, in an enacted scenario. The tests were conducted on children aged three to nine. In the task, there was an object, child and a protagonist in the room. The object is moved from one place to another, with the child observing but the protagonist not observing. The child was then asked where the protagonist would believe the object had been placed. The correct response was that the protagonist believed the object was still in the same place because if the child understood the protagonist’s mental state, he would understand that the protagonist did not observe the place change. However, if the child was incorrect, he might say that the protagonist would believe that the object had been moved to its new location because he failed to understand the protagonist’s mental state (Wimmer and Perner, 1983).

Despite this initial assessment, it had been shown that theory of mind is a dynamic, indefinite, and ongoing perceptual change over a range of years. Various adaptations of the false belief task have already revealed various aspects of how children learn to understand false belief at different stages in development. In a study by Onishi and Baillargeon, researchers came to the conclusion that even fifteen-month-olds could understand false belief (Onishi and Baillargeon, 2005). Though it would be inaccurate to state that the infants understood theory of mind in the same way as the four-year olds, the study did reveal how that altering aspects of the false belief task affects children’s performance. Consequently, these studies show how children’s approach to the false belief task characterizes their grasp of various aspects of theory of mind.

According to Cognitive Development, children under the threshold age of four are able to comprehend false belief through use of pretense (Flavell, Miller, and Miller, 1993). When playing pretend games, children imagine things they know to be false. According to a study by Rosen, Schwebel, and Singer, children understand pretense based more on contextual clues than through use of theory of mind (Rosen, Schwebel, and Singer, 1997). However, according to Taylor and Carlson, there is a correlation between children’s aptitude for imaginary games and children’s understanding of false belief (Carlson and Taylor, 1997). There must be an interplay between the two. Possibly, pretense facilitates children’s understanding of theory of mind. Another study showed that pretense involved use of some, but not all, of the representational skills for false belief (Dissanayake and Nielsen, 2000).

Therefore, through various studies, it has been shown that theory of mind is far more complex and governed by many mental factors, including imagination. Understanding other’s mental states is not achieved through a concrete mechanism but rather through various aspects of cognition that can be quite gradual and variable. Given this variability, it is important to utilize these mental factors in order to improve theory of mind.



Part III: The Role of Imagination in Collective Intelligence


The impact that imagination has on collective intelligence can easily be extrapolated from the above research. It has been shown that theory of mind is vital to the cooperation necessary for the intelligence community to achieve a high degree of collective intelligence in their analysis, and for understanding the intentions behind the actions of the other side without simply projecting one’s own intentions onto that other side. Given that theory of mind is more nebulous than previously understood, and that imagination is a critical component, we know that imagination plays an important role in collective intelligence. What exactly this role is remains open for further postulation and study but imagination is an important tool in collective intelligence, and therefore vital to conducting more accurate analysis. This demonstrates the importance of understanding underlying mental processes in order to improve future analyses.



Conclusion: Ramifications for the Intelligence Community


In his article on what he names “the human domain”, Sands writes of the importance of evaluating behavior in understanding conflicts: ‘the defining variables of the human domain critical to the management of it are behavioral and based on constructs such as worldviews and underlying cultural lattices of belief systems and values of the actors (including military and/or intelligence personnel); in other words, these underlying cultural systems greatly influence the behavior that is observable in the human domain.’ Further, he writes that ‘the application of these types of knowledge sets to ascertain meaning of behavior and to interact within this domain with pertinent actors is tantamount to success and requires mastering thinking strategies and interpersonal skills and abilities not traditionally a part of military operations or learning programs.’


Perhaps it seems strange to suggest that imagination plays much of a role in intelligence analysis, but I argue that the whole profession relies upon the ability to extrapolate, which requires a certain type of imagination. Perhaps not fantastical imagination, but at least a certain kind of imagination based upon the sequencing of rational motives as one can observe in the other. Although we seldom wish to regard imagination as intrinsic to rational thought, I believe that it is altogether necessary, at least in the realm of foresight. In the case of understanding the problems that led to the incorrect assumption that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Jervis writes that the intelligence community was not imaginative enough- or at least not imaginative in the right ways. He writes that ‘there are countless dots that can be connected in a great many ways’ and it is important that analysts use imagination with discipline rather than not at all. He believes that it was lack of imagination that led to the failure in Iran because analysts were unwilling to imagine that the Shah would not crack down forcefully as predicted based on his reputation. It was also failure of imagination in part that led to the failure to consider that there might not be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, just because Saddam’s behavior seemed to suggest that he was hiding these. Duelfer and Dyson suggest that this was a case of misperception, ‘defined as the gap between the world as it actually exists and the world as it exists in the mind of the perceiver’ on both sides that led to the decision to engage in the Iraq war. Saddam overestimated the U.S. and Iraq’s common interests and believed that the U.S. knew that he did not actually possess WMD. He also did not believe that the U.N. was likely to take action against him if he did. The U.S. did not correctly perceive that Saddam was hiding a lack of WMD rather than WMD. Perhaps these misperceptions on both sides could have been averted through greater imagination in understanding the other’s mental intentions.


Jervis writes that ‘intelligence analysts are selected and trained to stay close to the information and to eschew speculation’, instead of utilizing the human capacity for imagination to understand the mental states of subjects they analyse. In Kent’s papers in which he considers why the Board of National Estimates missed the Soviet deployment of offensive missiles in Cuba, he writes: ‘If NIEs could be confined to statements of indisputable fact the task would be safe and easy. Of course the result could not then be called an estimate. By definition, estimating is an excursion out beyond established fact into the unknown–a venture in which the estimator gets such aid and comfort as he can from analogy, extrapolation, logic, and judgment.’ On the other hand, the successful conclusion of the missile crisis is something that Neustadt attributes partially to Kennedy’s ability to ‘constantly put himself in Khrushchev’s position’, a theory of mind exercise in imagination.


According to Duelfer and Dyson: ‘States send each other signals as to their thinking and likely behavior both intentionally and unwittingly. At the same time, they are receiving signals and attempting to make sense of them…The consequence is that international politics is characterized by incomplete, often contradictory, information concerning interaction with multiple international actors where the payoffs for each side are constantly shifting.’ This means that having a superior ability to imagine the other’s intention is crucial to navigating international politics.


Imagination is defined by the U.S.-government prepared 2009 “A Tradecraft Primer: Structured Analytic Techniques for Improving Intelligence Analysis” as ‘an unconstrained group process designed to generate new ideas and concepts’. Its importance is expounded upon in a section that focuses on imaginative thinking as a structured analytic technique. Given that estimation is a necessary analytic technique, it only remains to further explore the psychological processes underlying this as a component of theory of mind, and thus, collective brainstorming. Just as imaginative thinking can be used for understanding unknowns regarding other’s mental states, it becomes useful as a brainstorming mechanism for considering unprecedented possibilities to foster more comprehensive understanding of a scenario.


The handbook encourages brainstorming methods such as incorporating outside views and considering unconventional viewpoints, which truly reflects the use of imagination as a theory of mind tool. Further, the use of imagination as in theory of mind is meant to cultivate open mindedness when considering intelligence concepts by providing enough time for thorough thought and determining the reason behind associative thoughts. The manual emphasizes the importance of recording thoughts and doing away with hierarchies for the purpose of imaginative discussion, which makes sense in terms of both theory of mind and brainstorming given the need for continuity and unfettered investigation of the “other”- whatever that may be in either case. The manual also emphasizes the importance of structure in this processes to ensure that divergent ideas converge, so that the new ideas are fully synthesized and incorporated into the collective thinking. This reflects psychological concepts of theory of mind, wherein imaginative thinking seems useful when constrained to thinking about the possible mental states of the “other”. This would be applied to brainstorming both for the purposes of improving collective understanding through cooperative, interactive thinking, as well as for the purpose of understanding the unknown intentions of entities envisioned in the scenarios, such as state leaders.


In another section of the handbook, there is a section devoted to encouraging analysts to avoid “mirroring” or projecting their interior understandings about themselves onto the entities that they are analyzing- a nearly impossible task, but one that becomes possible due to theory of mind, and the intrinsic imaginative processes therein. To truly understand the “other”, and their motives, values, and perceptions, it is necessary to think like the adversary. In order to do so, one must ‘consciously place analysts in the same cultural, organizational, and personal setting (“putting them in their shoes”)’. The handbook advises that ‘a manager needs to build a team of experts with in-depth knowledge of the operating environment, the target’s personality, and the style of thinking used’. In particular, it is vital that this form of analysis ‘avoids the use of caveats or qualifications and assumes that the recipient understands that the paper is aimed more at provoking thought or challenging the conventional understanding of how an adversary thinks’, which highlights the imaginative component whereby thought is provoked for theory of mind to work in an analytical context. Alternative futures analysis is just another example of the use of imagination through theory of mind, simply because it is the job of analysis to ‘imagine the future’. Further studies on different methods of imaginative thinking as it is used in theory of mind processes could be useful to better understanding its use for focused brainstorming in analytical work. Therefore, this paper has been a case study in that it demonstrates how past analytical failures and their underlying psychological inconsistencies are useful to developing better mental abilities- such as a more imaginative theory of mind ability as benefits collective intelligence- for improved analysis.






Elena Botts

Elena Botts is a senior at Bard College, where she is majoring in Global & International Studies with a concentration in Mind, Brain, & Behavior. Since she graduated from high school in 2014, Elena interned and worked for local nonprofits and political campaigns, including for local officials in the school board and state legislatures. In 2015, she interned at Lawyers for Human Rights, where she did policy research and directly assisted refugees. Elena is a visual artist and poet and wants to explore how the psyche can influence society. She has been published in dozens of literary magazines, exhibited in local galleries, and published three poetry books.



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