A few years ago, I vowed to make daily exercise my New Year’s resolution. I was so committed, I bought a Fitbit and strapped that sucker onto my wrist, telling myself it was “exercise jewelry.” By February, I had adopted a different catchphrase: “strategic Fitbit usage plan.” I was 100 percent successful because I wore my Fitbit only on days when I was sure I’d hit 10,000 steps and get that glorious little wrist buzz. On days when I holed up to write, the Fitbit spent time “charging” in a drawer, so it didn’t count. By summer, my Fitbit was living in that drawer full time, alongside her dust-bunny friends. I have since stopped trying to fool myself. My 2018 resolution is: Eat more chocolate.
New Year’s resolutions are predictions about the future. They are usually aspirational. And they are almost always deceptive. Like so many people, I did not end up doing what I said I would. And here’s the thing: I failed at the easiest prediction possible—me predicting me, just a few weeks into the future.
Now imagine how hard it is for an intelligence analyst to predict how other people will behave—months, even years from now. And intelligence targets don’t want to be accurately predicted. They are doing everything they can to mislead and hide from America’s clever dot collectors and connectors.
Many factors make prediction difficult. Usually we focus on the wrong ones—such as believing that people are inherently unpredictable. Sure, people often do things that you wouldn’t expect for all sorts of reasons—new options or opportunities arise, interests and affinities change, new partners or advisers exert influence, and sometimes life just intervenes. As the CIA’s Sherman Kent learned with Nikita Khrushchev back in 1962, world leaders can zig when you expect them to zag, and those unpredictable moves can be especially consequential—in good ways and bad. Kent’s shop missed signals of the Cuban missile crisis in part because the missile deployment was so out of keeping with past Soviet practice and because Kent viewed the move as “suicidal.” Mao Zedong stunned the world in 1972 when he welcomed Richard Nixon to Beijing, setting China on a path from the Cultural Revolution to the capitalist revolution. Ronald Reagan was a Cold War hawk in his first term but a peacemaker in his second, nearly reaching a remarkable deal with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavík to abolish all nuclear weapons. More recent, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan have been dragging their countries backwards, from democracy to autocracy.
Yes, people can be unpredictable. But it’s the predictable weaknesses of our thinking that often blind us the most. Peering over the horizon requires overcoming the faulty wiring of our own brains.
Psychologists have found all sorts of cognitive biases that distort how we perceive and process the world around us. A big one is that we ascribe higher probabilities to events that we can easily recall—such as sensational news stories. That’s why, for example, Americans are more afraid of dying in shark attacks than car accidents, even though fatal car crashes are about 60,000 times more likely. In fact, many things have a higher probability of killing you than sharks, including being trampled in a Black Friday sale. A few years ago, the world was gripped by the Ebola outbreak, which killed an estimated 11,000 people from 2014 to 2016. (“Is the U.S. Prepared for an Ebola Outbreak?” blared The New York Times.) Meanwhile, influenza, the common flu, killed about 50 times more people during the same period worldwide—somewhere between half a million and 1 million people.