Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Effects Of Labels On Analysis (Thesis Months)

(Note: At the risk of making this an all-Jeff-Welgan blog, I thought this week I would cover Jeff's thesis work on the effects of labels on analysis right on the heels of last week's discussion of his work embedded in the new book, Hyperformance).

Does a name matter? Shakespeare says, "No, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" but most psychologists would disagree. The well known "framing effect" shows that the way a question is asked can determine how people will answer it. Likewise, psychological campaigns aimed at dehumanizing an enemy often accompany wars.

Jeff Welgan, in his thesis called, The Effects Of Labels On Analysis, tests these ideas in the realm of intelligence analysis. Some of you may remember taking Jeff's survey last year. In it, he presented a fictitious scenario set in the Horn of Africa. Each participant was asked to read an identical report of an activity. The only thing that changed was the word used to describe the group conducting the activity. Specifically, Jeff tested the words "group", "insurgent", "rebel", "militia", or "terrorist". He hypothesized that the specific word used would affect the analytic conclusions that participants would draw.

Jeff did not aim his study at a random sample of the general population, however. He took pains to engage analysts in the national security realm, in law enforcement or in business. The results in the image to the right are self-reported (the inevitable cost of a web-based survey...) but he was fairly careful in his approach to getting participants. In all, some 233 of you participated in the experiment (Many thanks!).

Despite his hypotheses, it was unclear what he would actually find. These psychological biases are deep-seated and robust but, on the other hand, there is good research to suggest that credible evidence helps overcome framing issues and intel analysts are typically trained to be on the lookout for sources of bias. As Jeff stated, "My thesis will examine to what extent the quality of analysis is at risk, if it is indeed at risk, as the differing connotations of these labels would suggest."

In the end, the labels wound up making little difference for trained intel analysts. As Jeff bluntly stated, "My hypothesis that these particular labels have significant meaning, and many individuals have a preconceived idea, or cognitive biases, regarding the kinds of actions each of these particular groups conduct must be rejected at this time due to an overall lack in statistical significance across the labels."

This is clearly good news for the intel community at large. It certainly suggests that at least some of the training to defeat at least some of the cognitive biases is working.

The full text of the thesis is below or can be downloaded from

The Effect of Labels on Analysis

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Anonymous said...

Interesting concept and research, unfortunately, one of the primary sources utilized had his name misspelled throughout the thesis-- RichardS Heuer.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...

I will take the hit on that one. I was the primary reader (My apologies to Dick Heuer, too!). I will get with Jeff and see if he can fix it.