How hindsight bias leads us to make the wrong assessments after a terrorist incident.
We must find a way to react more rationally to risk whenever we are reminded of its constant presence by a terrorist act—successful or not. Arguably, our response to 9-11 was justifiably seismic because that event was a paradigm shift.
But the paradigm does not shift every time there is a new al Qaeda led or inspired attempt or attack. And we only play into the radicals’ hands when we collapse in paroxysms of self-criticism and hand wringing about “what went wrong” and engage in the perennial “why intelligence failed to connect the dots” diatribe.
It makes sense, of course, to constantly assess the effectiveness of security policies and procedures, but too much emphasis on how tactics worked in one event is not productive and can be as destructive as an excessive business focus on short-term profits versus long-term strategy.
Case in point: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to set off a bomb aboard a plane headed for the United States. Does the fact that in hindsight we can see the plan so clearly mean that only fools could have missed the signs? Far from it.
“Things are always obvious after the fact,” notes Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Fooled by Randomness. Our tendency to evaluate past details in light of current knowledge is referred to as “hindsight bias” by psychologists, explains Taleb in a chapter called “Skilled at Predicting the Past.”
When pundits and politicians and the White House itself point out certain “dots” today that they think should have been connected, they really don’t grasp how that information looked before an event made clear what fit together. But imagine taking 10,000 separate puzzles and throwing all the millions of pieces into a pile, mixing them, removing many key pieces, then separating them again and distributing random bits to 100,000 people without any clue about the actual pictures. That’s how those dots were aligned before Abdulmutallab struck.
Some commentators also derisively lamented after this incident that the intelligence community should have been able to do the equivalent of a Google search. They forget that Google’s subjects want to be found. And even with a directed search, my Google searches generate endless irrelevant links. It is only because I know what I seek that I know which suggested link to pursue. By contrast, intelligence analysts can’t know in advance what query to pursue.
Sure, there’s room for improvement in intelligence analysis, but let’s not lose perspective. As columnist George Will aptly noted shortly after the incident, “It was al Qaeda that failed,” in this case. He also noted, correctly, that “we have to get away from the notion that anything short of perfection is failure.”
We should not forget that these same agencies have stopped several serious plots since 9-11—an impressive achievement considering the true difficulty of finding the picture in the scattered puzzle pieces.