July 19, 2007

Biases and Terrorism

Cognitive HazardI blog on Overcoming Bias about How Biases Save Us From Giving in to Terrorism. The short of it is that people have a cognitive bias tthat makes them assume that actions and their outcome are the intention of the actor. Hence people tend to assume that the goal of terrorists is just terror, making it harder for the terrorist to convince people about his actual goals. Max Abrahms has a nice analysis of the actual success of terror campaigns, showing that they need to be focused on military targets and have clear, minimalist goals to have any chance of succeeding. Not even then is the success rate that great (about 50% for minimalist goals). The media is the message.

Overall, it seems that terrorists suffer from plenty of biases themselves. Maybe this can explain the surprising inefficiency of most terror groups in acquiring or using more advanced weapons or attacks (ask any team of engineers or roleplayers for ideas, and you will get dozens of chilling terror plots that have a decent chance of working if implemented). The UK "docs of war" had access to hospitals, yet made bad car bombs. If extreme biases reduce efficiency and creativity, then we might actually want to make sure the link between terrorism and bias remains. But conversely, anti-terrorism policies also suffer from bias and a rational policy might be politically untenable because it does not fit the cognitive biases of the public and decisionmakers.

[As an aside, I noticed that my cognitive hazard sign is spreading nicely on the net, for example to this blog, which in turn gets deep linked by plenty of others. I guess it makes a good warning sign against biases and other pitfalls. Too bad we would have to place signs everywhere. ]

Posted by Anders3 at July 19, 2007 10:32 AM