Posts Tagged ‘cognitive biases’

Information Wars

December 1, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of an informative book by Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time magazine. During the second term of the Obama administration he was appointed and confirmed as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. The book provides a detailed and interesting description of the State Department and the organization and workings of the State Department.

Stengel was appointed to lead the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication. It was integral to the Global Engagement Center. This is important because information warfare is the primary means terrorist organizations fought. It was punctuated by despicable terrorist acts, but the primary messaging was done using the internet. Effective counter-messaging needed to be developed to counter the messaging of the terrorists.

Although ISIS and al-Qaeda are currently recognized as the primary terrorist organizations, it is important not to overlook the largest and most threatening terrorist organization, Russia. Our term “disinformation” is in fact an adaptation of the Russian word dezinformatsiya, which was the KGB term for black propaganda. The modern Russian notion of hybrid warfare comes from what is called the Gerasimov model. Gerasimov has appeared in previous healthy memory blog posts. He is the father of the idea that in the 21st century only a small part of war is kinetic. He has written that modern warfare is nonlinear with no clear boundary between military and nonmilitary campaigns. The Russians, like ISIS, merged their military lines of effort with their information and messaging line of effort.

In the old days, disinformation involved placing a false story (often involving forged documents) in a fairly obscure left-leaning newspaper in a country like India or Brazil; then the story was picked up and echoed in Russian state media. A more modern version of dezinformatsiya is the campaign in the 1990s that suggested that the U.S. had invented the AIDS virus as a kind of “ethnic bomb” to wipe out people of color.

Two other theorists of Russian information warfare are Igor Panarin, an academic, and a former KGB officer; and Alexander Dugin, a philosopher whom he called “Putin’s Rasputin.” Panarin sees Russia as the victim of information aggression by the United States. He believes there is a global information war between what he calls the Atlantic world, led by the U.S. and Europe; and the Eurasian world, led by Russia.

Alexander Dugan has a particularly Russian version of history. He says that the 20th century was a titanic struggle among fascism, communism, and liberalism, in which liberalism won out. He thinks that in the 21st century there will be a fourth way. Western liberalism will be replaced by a conservative superstate like Russia leading a multipolar world and defending tradition and conservative values. He predicts that the rise of conservative strongmen in the West will embrace these values. Dugan supports the rise of conservative right-wing groups all across Europe. He has formed relationships with white nationalists’ groups in America. Dugan believes immigration and racial mixing are polluting the Caucasian world. He regards rolling back immigration as one of the key tasks for conservative states. Dugan says that all truth is relative and a question of belief; that freedom and democracy are not universal values but peculiarly Western ones; and that the U.S. must be dislodged as a hyper power through the destabilization of American democracy and the encouragement of American isolationism.

Dugan says that the Russians are better at messaging than anyone, and that they’ve been working on it as a part of conventional warfare since Lenin. So the Russians have been thinking and writing about information war for decades. It is embedded in their military doctrines.

Perhaps one of the best examples of Russia’s prowess at information warfare is Russia Today, (RT). During HM’s working days his job provided the opportunity to view RT over an extensive period of time. What is most remarkable about RT is that it appears to bear no resemblance of information warfare or propaganda. It appears to be as innocuous as CNN. However, after long viewing one realizes that one is being drawn to accept the objectives of Russian information warfare.

Stengel notes that Russian propaganda taps into all the modern cognitive biases that social scientists write about: projection, mirroring, anchoring, confirmation bias. Stengel and his staff put together their own guide to Russian propaganda and disinformation, with examples.

*Accuse your adversary of exactly what you’re doing.
*Plant false flags.
*Use your adversary’s accusations against him.
*Blame America for everything!
*America blames Russia for everything!
*Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Stengel writes that what is interesting about this list is that it also seems to describe Donald Trump’s messaging tactics. He asks whether this is a coincidence, or some kind of mirroring?

Recent events have answered this question. The acceptance of the alternative reality that the Ukraine has a secret server and was the source of the 2016 election interference is Putin’s narrative developed by Russian propaganda. Remember that Putin was once a KGB agent. His ultimate success here is the acceptance of this propaganda by the Republican Party. There is an information war within the US that the US is losing.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lifting the Lid on the Unconscious

August 2, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a feature article by Emma Young in the 28 July 2018 issue of the New Scientist. About 95% of thought happens in our unconscious minds. By understanding how the unconscious mind works, you can game the system to beat your bad habits and unconscious biases.

Emma Young writes, “Your unconscious has many vital functions—from controlling breathing to processing incoming information—but there are also a few glitches. Tweak these and you can make the system work better for you.”

She discusses bad habits and how to break them. Perhaps as much as 40% of our daily behavior is habitual. A good example is when our unconscious is busy driving to work, our conscious mind is free to think about something else.

Ms. Young writes, “Automated behaviors are grouped into distinct routines, or “chunks”—having a cigarette when drinking coffee, perhaps—making bad habits hard to break. To reprogram our unconscious, we must first derail the existing problematic habit. If we always reach for a snack when we walk into the kitchen, for example, move the snacks so that they are out of easy reach.

Use prominent cues to promote more desirable habits. To replace snacking with fruit eating, buy a fruit bowl and put it in a new, easily accessible position in the kitchen.

Repetition is key and it can take anywhere between 15 and 254 days, and perhaps even more, to form a new habit.

Contexts also trigger habitual behaviors, so try breaking a bad habit while away from our normal environment. For example, quit smoking while on a holiday.

A host of unconscious cognitive biases influence much of our thinking and decision-making. They evolved to help our ancestors act fast and effectively, but these days they often trip us up. Knowing how cognitive biases shape our thinking is the first step to consciously controlling them. Here are some common biases.

Anchoring — Focusing on one factor, often the first encountered, when making a decision.

Clustering illusion — Seeing phantom patterns in random events.

Confirmation bias — Preferentially seeking and recalling information that confirms our preconceptions.

Congruence bias — Testing ideas by seeking evidence that a supports rather than refutes them.

Endowment effect — Valuing things more highly simply because they belong to you.

Fundamental attribution error — Attributing people’s behaviors to their personality, not the situation.

Gambler’s fallacy —Believing that past random events alter the likelihood of future ones.

Hyperbolic discounting — Overvaluing what’s available now relative to what you can have later.

In-group bias — Overestimating the abilities and values of your own group relative to others.

Negativity bias — Paying more attention to bad news and feedback than good.

Projection bias — Assuming that most people think like you and hold the same bias.

Status quo bias — Favoring decisions that will leave things just as they are.

In addition, we all have our own implicit biases: prejudices about things like race and gender that affect our judgments of others. Discover yours at

Ms. Young offers these five ways to game your unconscious

Take a hot bath. If you’re feeling lonely, a hot bath may make you feel better. Why? Research reveals that we unconsciously associate physical warmth and social warmth. Conversely, holding an ice pack can make you feel lonelier.

2. Think yourself full. Looking at pictures of particular foods decreases your appetite for that type of food. Similarly, spending just a minute imagining that you are full will help you choose a small portion.

3. Smell something fishy. It “smells fishy” is a metaphor for distrust in more than 20 languages. Intriguingly, fishy smells make us more alert to misleading information, perhaps because unconscious vigilance for rotten fish makes us more wary in general.

4. Get you house in order. Crime rates are famously linked with broken windows, litter and graffiti. But even asymmetry and wonky edges promote bad behavior. Such visual disorder may activate mean metaphors such as ‘crooked politician,’ which affect behavior.

5. Don’t be deceived. We are surprisingly bad at consciously spotting liars, possibly because we look for behaviors, such as fidgeting and averted eyes, which don’t actually signal deception. To avoid being duped, it is better to trust your intuition, since we do have an unconscious sense of who is lying to us.