Social Sciences as Sorcery

Many years ago someone recommended that I find an old book titled “Social Sciences as Sorcery.” I was in a seminar, and the speaker was (and still is) a revered thought leader on the topic of counter-insurgency.

I was asking lots of challenging questions, poking holes in some of the assumptions and assertions that underpin COIN, and there just wasn’t enough time to address them all.

“Find Social Sciences as Sorcery,” he said.

And so I did. 

This was well over a decade ago. And the book itself was published in 1972.

I found a copy and read it.

Well, actually, I read part of it. The subject matter is dense. It’s not an easy read. You have to focus.

I recently came back to it, and I’m glad I did. 

The thesis, at its core, is that understanding the human dimension – the mind, psychology, complex social interactions, etc. – is incredibly difficult. So much so to be nearly impossible. 

How do you understand the mind of another with your own mind? 

No one said it was going to be easy, but because it is precisely so difficult, and because so many of our problems seemingly call for a “social” solution, this opens the door for social scientists to offer solutions. 

Unfortunately, most of this is just sorcery.

Hucksterism.

The author, Stanislav Andreski writes:

“The easiest way out is always not to unduly worry about the truth, and tell people what they want to hear, while the secret of success is to be able to guess what it is they want to hear at the given time and place.”

The “truth,” when it comes to complex social dynamics and psychology, is that we usually don’t know the answer. 

So then, why wager a guess?

Because there is always someone out there who is hoping you might be right. This person is desperate for a solution.

And there is always someone out there ready to cash in on that hope.

There were a bunch of tweets going around recently quoting this line from Stanley McChrystal:

“Implementing an effective counter-insurgency requires ‘a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.'”

I disagree. 

Do you really think if we just had that one expert sitting in the room who could tell us what to do and what to say and what image to put in the tweet, we could turn this whole thing around?

I don’t.

Related: How important is culture training, anyway?

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

I Want Konami for Christmas

konami logo from the nes era

When I was a kid, I thought “Konami” was some kind of video game system, like the original NES. I didn’t realize it was a video game company. I told my parents that “I want Konami for Christmas,” which probably made things very difficult for them when they went to Toys ‘R’ Us and started asking around.

One of my friends in the neighborhood had a Konami game called Rush’N Attack – which I always thought was “Russian Attack.”

I remember seeing the Konami logo – were there commercials for video games back then? – and knowing that I wanted whatever it is that Konami was.

Episode 63 of the Kojima Frequency Podcast (Hideosyncrasies) discusses the preservation of old games, streaming, dying consoles, the stealth similarities between Metal Gear and The Last of Us 2, and more.

Right after I bought a PS4, I went out to the local pawn shops in Killeen, Texas looking for one of the original PS3s that had backwards compatibility. I wanted to make sure I’d be able to play some of my old games (which I never do, by the way). I managed to find one and I still have it – and it still works.

After listening to this episode, I’m starting to get worried I might lose that capability.

I’m still not even sure what the changes to the Playstation Network mean. I am getting the sense that even if I physically own a copy of a game, I might not be able to play it.

Huh?

As I mentioned in the last post on the Kojima Frequency, the Lunar series is one of my favorites – and I have the discs (original PS1) and a PS3 to play it.

Whenever I decide to go back to it, will it work?

I relaunched CTG when I was wrapping up my playthrough of The Last of Us 2, and there is so much more I could have written about it if I was in the groove. I think I just have this one post on Isaac and the burden of leadership.

I know that game took a lot of flack for a lot of dumb reasons – but I loved it. And I think they got it right (in the episode). The stealth mechanics made the game. There is real terror when navigating the terrain and avoiding both zombies and human enemies. And I remember getting into set battles where I had to set traps and think hard about how to win and move forward – often just avoiding battles altogether.

What a great game. Would love to go back to it.

But I probably won’t.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Become an insider

to victory join the udf

The newsletter goes out on Sunday.

This is for you.

And you should sign up because you are already here.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Behaviors shape Attitudes

the atlantic saudi arabia women praying

A fascinating write-up in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood on Saudi Arabia. The focus is on MBS, but there is a detour that describes the Kingdom’s efforts at deradicalizing jihadists.

Instead of trying to “deprogram” or otherwise convince jihadists that their attitudes and beliefs are wrong, they have them do mundane office work.

Nothing is stranger than normalcy where one least expects it. These jihadists—people who recently would have sacrificed their life to take mine—had apparently been converted into office drones. Fifteen years ago, Saudi Arabia tried to deprogram them by sending them to debate clerics loyal to the government, who told the prisoners that they had misinterpreted Islam and needed to repent. But if this scene was to be believed, it turned out that terrorists didn’t need a learned debate about the will of God. They needed their spirits broken by corporate drudgery. They needed Dunder Mifflin.

Absolute Power, by Graeme Wood (The Atlantic)

Logical thinking tells us that in order for someone to change their behavior, they need to change their attitudes first. This is why see influence efforts focus on convincing someone of something first in an effort to ultimately change the behavior.

It makes logical sense, but when you start to dig into the psychological research, it doesn’t quite work that way.

It turns out that if we engage in a behavior, and particularly one that we had not expected that we would have, our thoughts and feelings toward that behavior are likely to change. This might not seem intuitive, but it represents another example of how the principles of social psychology—in this case, the principle of attitude consistency—lead us to make predictions that wouldn’t otherwise be that obvious.

Changing Attitudes by Changing Behavior

This partially explains why veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to support those wars than the general public.

  • 53 percent say the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting vs. 30 percent of Americans overall.
  • 44 percent think Iraq was worth fighting vs. 38 percent of the general public.

Source: Washington Post, April 2014

Why is this the case? Cognitive dissonance.

Once placed into a situation (like the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan), to admit that it wasn’t worth it might impact self-esteem or self-worth. Instead of adjusting your attitude, you shift in the other direction and rationalize the behavior to alleviate that dissonance.

For the jihadists, sitting them in a room and trying to convince them that their views are wrong was fruitless. But putting them into a situation where they have to spend time working and churning in an environment seems to have the desired effect.

Their behaviors, over time, influence their attitudes.

They have time to reflect on what they’re doing. It just kind of happens.

Powerful efforts to convince or bludgeon people with information rarely works in terms of changing behavior. Instead, the efforts should be on changing the behavior which can then change the attitude.

Admittedly, this is much harder.

It’s easy to build a flyer with some factual information or a campaign to convince jihadists to “turn away.”

It’s not new information they need. It’s a different behavior.

Think of anyone you’ve tried to convince of something who was resistant because they had a personal experience that informs their thought.

It’s a fool’s errand.

But if you can get the same person to actually try the thing?

The behavior changes the attitude.

Creating experiences and situations where people are forced to behave in certain scenarios is more likely to have the effect you’re looking for.

Anything else is shot-in-the-dark advertising.

Image Source: The Atlantic (Lynsey Addario)

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

GWOT War Stories

night vision afghan commando raid with special forces

This is an addendum to this morning’s post.

Sometimes it is easy to get excited about some new term or piece of information. I had never heard the term “grammando” before but it instantly clicked.

That’s how you get a new post.

But the rest of that episode is terrific. It’s a long war story.

The GWOT is over, right?

Maybe.

I’m continuously struck by the numbers of folks who are still around with incredible stories of heroism, triumph, and tragedy.

We are fortunate to have such people.

Click through and listen to this setup:

“We got into a big firefight, our dog handler got shot in the head, he lived, some of our commandos got killed, our Echo (Communications Sergeant) took a machine gun round to the chest plate and it exploded his magazines, destroyed his M4, so he took an AK from a guy he shot earlier that day and used it for the rest of the mission, and at one point… their snipers were shooting at those explosives…”

Brackforce #1, ~18:50

We are very fortunate indeed.

Image Source: New York Times

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Send in the Grammandos

Intro screenshot from metal gear nes airborne insertion

grammando – noun. One who is particularly particular about the accuracy of grammar, punctuation and syntax.

via Urban Dictionary

We all know a grammando. And we mostly don’t like them.

Heard this term for the first time on a recent episode of the Pineland Underground.

Only listen if you want to know that you have been using both the reflexive pronoun “myself” and the verb “try” incorrectly.

Warning: you can’t unhear this.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Optimal Ignorance: Information You Don’t Need

war room from wargames lots of screens

One of the best articles I’ve seen on FTGN for awhile.

“Optimal ignorance,” a deliberately contrarian term, “refers to the importance of knowing what it is not worth knowing. It requires great courage to implement. It is far, far easier to demand more and more information than it is to abstain from demanding it.”  In other words, seeking optimal ignorance requires deliberately going about not wasting energy or time on information that distracts from the primary inquiry. 

Optimal Ignorance: A Filter for Intent-Based Leadership Above the Tactical Level – From the Green Notebook

We have been trained to pay attention to detail and ‘check small things.’ And these days, we have the technology and the means to keep constant tabs on everything and everyone.

The information is all there and available.

To be truly effective, though, we don’t need all of that information. In fact, too much information becomes paralyzing.

It takes maturity and confidence to realize you don’t need to know. You don’t have to have input or an opinion, either.

This is especially true for senior leaders. Every time a senior leader speaks, there’s a good chance those words are going to get scribbled down into a book and transformed into an order, tasking, or inquiry.

Even a simple request for clarification can turn into a multi-day goose chase for obscure information.

Of course, buying into optimal ignorance requires a great deal of trust within an organization. One of those things that briefs well, but might be hard to implement.

Related to this is the concept of “just-in-time” information. To squeeze the most out of a day, your system needs to be optimized to not saddle you down with information you don’t need right now. It should arrive precisely when you need it.

I, for one, choose to be just in time and optimally ignorant.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for the monthly newsletter.