Conspiracy theories, Cognitive Bias and Intelligence Analysis

By Roger Davies / 27 December 2015 / Human Factors, Insights, Intel Analysis, Intelligence 101, Psychology of Intelligence

An intertesting article here relating to conspiracy theories and their worryingly increasing prevalence. The ease with which barking mad, crazy or just slightly twisted stories can be “broadcast” to the world worries me.   And the fact that people can easily find stories which they believe confirms their suspicions is more worrying.  There is a part of the human population which which sees “intent” of a conspiratorial kind on all sorts of things. In recent months I’ve seen Ebola blamed on Obama (and half a dozen other strange conspiracies), the refugee crisis in Europe blamed on Zionists, 9/11 blamed on Bush, the Paris shootings blamed on the French government, MMR blamed on causing autism and by some strange twist on the drug companies themselves.   On one level these beliefs are slightly amusing. On another they are literally lethal – people were killed due to a conspiracy theory surrounding Ebola transmission, and kids die if not vaccinated for Mumps Measles and Rubella. More generally they simply get in the way of analysts looking for credible data.  In a related sphere I’ve even seen on “Linked In”, the so-called professional social media, a photo with weird accusations about charities that simply didn’t stand up to ten seconds of fact checking.  A serious, professional person had copied a photograph of a worrying/scurrilous accusation about a series of charities suggesting that they were in effect scams for the senior executives and posted it on linked in. The willingness to believe something as fact “because the internet told me” is incomprehensible.  And the speed with which conspiracy theories can now gather pace is remarkable, aided by technology, and it makes countering such nonsense all the more challenging.  It is easy to find people on the internet who share similar (perhaps extraordinary) views, and it’s easy for the extraordinary to masquerade as cogent facts.   One cannot dismiss such things any longer as being beliefs of a tiny percentage of weirdos – last year an academic study found half the population of an advanced western civilisation endorsed at least one conspiracy theory.     So we are no longer in the territory of being able to dismiss such belief as irrelevant. Conspiracy theories are now mainstream.     A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.

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The article in the Guardian goes on to suggest that  a cognitive bias is at play, namely the “intentionality bias”.     We humans are an imperfect species, and I’ve written before about cognitive biases and how they impact on the function of intelligence analysis, but not this one. The intentionality bias was perhaps something that intelligence analysts could ignore as they were (we hoped) above such nonsense, but I’m no longer so sure. The nature of the internet seems to facilitate the intentionality bias, allowing those subject to it to reinforce their views and easily find those who share their views which adds credence (in their view).

Maybe there’s an added danger for intelligence analysts. By the very nature of their tasks they are encouraged to find links and insights where none are apparent. And if one is to look at the fictional portrayal of the intelligence world you will find nothing other than major conspiracies, whether that be James Bond and Spectre, Jason Bourne and Treadstone.  The Guardian article hints at a solution for the Intelligence analyst.  By educating analysts in critical thinking techniques it appears that they may become less susceptible.  I’ve been looking recently at such techniques as “hypothesis mapping”, “competing hypothesis analysis” and “causal storyboarding” which both encourage a broad range of hypotheses (even the weird ones!) to be incorporated in a systematic intelligence analysis process.  I’ll blog about these a little in coming weeks.  But it seems that conspiracy theories can be legitimately taken into account and discarded, quite often, by assigning a probability score against them or simply recognising that other causes beyond conspiracy are possible. Occam’s Razor beats conspiracy theories pretty reliably.

My own view is that the large organisations which are credited with conspiracies, whether they be governments, corporations or religions are simply not functionally capable, in the modern age,  of the large scale evil intent they are portrayed as having.  The truth is that bad things happen due to incompetence, and most large organisations are incompetent and simply not capable of a conspiracy even if that is their intent.

6 comments on “Conspiracy theories, Cognitive Bias and Intelligence Analysis

  1. Dr Raveem Ismail

    What’s the saying? Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence?


  2. Tim Haines

    That’s very interesting, and I agree with most of it. But to argue that large organisations are not functionally capable of ‘large scale evil intent’ misses the point. I don’t think that anyone sets out to ‘be evil’, regardless of whether they are conducting a genocide, threatening the wrath of a vengeful god against those who use condoms, tapping the communications of their political rivals, or manipulating the emissions recording mechanism on a car. But (to my mind, at least) all are evil, and all would normally involve at least a degree of conspiracy. Indeed, to argue that there must be evil intent for an inherently evil conspiracy to occur is, perhaps, a form of intentionality bias in itself?

    But what makes some of us more prone to see conspiracy than others? I wonder if people who have ‘dark triad’ personality traits are more likely to see conspiracy in other agencies, because they would be more likely to engage in conspiracies themselves? Surely there is correlation between paranoia and propensity to believe in conspiracy theories too. Both of these elements would have interesting implications for the recruitment of analysts, I think.


    1. Roger Davies Author

      I think that’s a fair point to a degree, Tim. Of course large organisations are capable of evil intent. But to me, a conspiracy is something where the actions are hidden from the passive observer, with the purpose of achieving a goal. A conspiracy to some degree requires secrecy which hides the real actors and perhaps the purposes of their actions. Those warning of a vengeful god punishing the use of condoms aren’t conspiracists, they are overtly making their case. We might argue that a car manufacturer which hides its emissions is conducting conspiracy – and here this rather reinforces my point – the truth will out. There are evils in the world and their are conspiracies, with a hefty but perhaps not a complete overlap. Perhaps a better example of the conspiracy theory gone wild is Nasa and the alleged moon-landing hoax/conspiracy. Such a conspiracy is ascribed to Nasa, of course they deny it, but I struggle to believe in any way that an organisation as large, and an operation so convoluted, involving tens of thousands of people has any truth. I find Buzz Alrdin’s response cheering. But he is a hero of mine, so perhaps I’m biased.


  3. Tim Haines


    My example of threatening the wrath of a vengeful god is a more than a bit off – unless the behaviour of the individuals in question indicates that their belief in said god is somewhat implausible… but yes, it’s still a weak example of a conspiracy.

    But the idea that ‘the truth will out’ is interesting from an analytical perspective, because the number of undiscovered conspiracies that we know about is roughly equal to the number of parachutes which are returned as faulty (Apologies to Benny Hill: – alternatively, and more seriously, this kind of ‘unknowable’ data clearly does result in selection bias:

    So, in addition to known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, we can add unknowable unknowns. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Does this shift the burden of proof, I wonder?

    I don’t dispute that the vast overwhelming majority of conspiracy theories are utter rot, and that conspiracy theorists commonly deploy faulty logic. But that makes the manner in which such theories are refuted all the more important, I think.

    And on the subject of conspiracy theory related videos, this makes me laugh:


    1. Roger Davies Author

      Great response Tim, I take your excellent point about parachutes and I love the link.


  4. Justin Arn

    Hello gentlemen,
    Thanks for the intelligent and engaging parry, it was somewhat enlightening. I briefly wanted to discuss a final point that Tim had made, because I believe it is fundamental to the issue at hand, namely that Conspiracy theories and the ‘conspiracist culture’ appear to be a growing phenomenon. Tim said:
    “….theories are utter rot, and that conspiracy theorists commonly deploy faulty logic. But that makes the manner in which such theories are refuted all the more important, I think.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.
    I invite you both to examine not the mainstream conspiracy theories themselves but rather the responses to them and arguments used to refute them. I believe what you will find is an awful hodgepodge of appeals to authority, provincialism, straw-manning, etc. And it is the choice of these methodologies that is fomenting the problem.
    Here is how a conspiracy theory should be properly combatted:
    A. listen to said theory
    B. specifically identify questionable premises.
    C. More importantly, identify imperative absurdities that must necessarily flow from the theory presented.
    E. Present these to the theorist to confirm his/her understanding of what their belief must logically entail.
    F. In so doing bring the theory to its furthest logical conclusion.

    I submit that the use this method would upset quite a few baseless arguments currently floating around. Unfortunately our culture chooses to foment theories by dealing with them in a manner more akin to 2nd grade bullying than logical arguing: Lots of name-calling and biased observation.
    If we really do want to reduce the problem of a ‘conspiracy culture’ let’s start by looking at how we are addressing them, not at the theories themselves.


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