What are the Dangers of Entrenched Thinking?
by CYNTHIA E AYERS
March 5, 2012
The intellectual activities associated with waging conflicts of the 20th century seem, in retrospect, rather sedentary by today’s standards. The cognitive associations regarding enmity and conflict appear (from this vantage point) to have been more simple and distinct than those with which we are currently attempting to grapple. Whether or not earlier wars were considered “popular,” the identities of adversaries were much easier to clarify, both analytically and publically (understanding that it is not always easy to visually identify an enemy in the field, tactically speaking). Analysts, military officers, political leaders, and academics had time to study and discuss adversarial ideologies, objectives, culture, strategies, and tactics in depth. Much of this study included reading lengthy volumes, peer-reviewed articles, current media reports, and (for some) intelligence documents. True “experts,” in all things associated with specific adversarial entities, emerged.
As a result of having to rely only on “approved experts” while steering clear of all controversy, the intellectual aspects of 21st century conflict-related discourse can be considered limited to the point of extreme superficiality. Instead of growing in-depth expertise on the subjects of current enmity, historical comparisons—even bad ones—are often heavily relied upon as substitutes for use in poorly formulated analyses. This pabulum is then fed to leadership as a luxury food item, while truly grounded analyses are thrown out with the garbage. The brave few who oppose the process are dismissed as “extremists” with an agenda of their own, and a view that no government executive dare voice agreement with. Critical thinking has thus effectively been stifled, and we have opened ourselves up to the information operations—the propaganda—of our adversaries.
Paradoxically, in our highly encouraged and assisted attempts to eliminate the perceived biases associated with stereotypes, limited cognitive associations, and the use of old data for analytic interpretations, we actually end up relying on other, more politically efficacious biases—occasionally to the point of entrenchment. Some examples include:
Furthermore, a limited collective understanding of adversarial associations and commitment is perpetuated by the use of highly specific verbiage inherent in government reports (e.g. the words “there is no evidence that . . . [an entity such as Iran] is working on nuclear weapons” can be—and has been by certain media outlets—taken to mean that the absence of evidence is firm evidence of absence).
We become entrenched—and then stick by our positions as if our lives depend on them. We do this because we lack the time to be truly intellectual, we lack the will to take on risk, and thus lack the ability to be flexible in our understanding of enmity and conflict potential. Unfortunately, we also lack the capacity to acknowledge this problem, even to ourselves. We think we study enough, know enough, and have a sufficient level of expertise to make informed decisions. What we need to do, however, is reexamine our firmly-held and highly-entrenched positions, and consider all possibilities (to include “worst case” scenarios). If we do not, our collective entrenchment will be our downfall. The future of our nation may depend on our ability—as individuals and as groups—to risk hearing and recognizing truth, to rise above mediocre assessments of threat, and to stand up in support of those who are putting their lives on the line for our freedoms.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Cynthia E. Ayers is currently Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Prior to accepting the Task Force position, she served as Vice President of EMPact Amercia, having retired from the National Security Agency after over 38 years of federal service—a period that included 8 years at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Cynthia E. Ayers is currently Deputy to the Executive Director of the EMP Task Force on National and Homeland Security. Prior to accepting the Task Force position, she served as Vice President of EMPact Amercia, having retired from the National Security Agency after over 38 years of federal service.