“Every one of us is potentially a reconnaissance agent,” writes David Omand in his new book, How Spies Think. The former director of the UK's Government Communication Headquarters and the UK's first Security and Intelligence Coordinator wants to help us make better decisions – by teaching us how to think like spies.
In an age in which we have less time to make up our minds than ever before, we come to conclusions without properly assessing the evidence. In Omand's eyes this is clearly a problem with serious consequences. The lies around Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum prompted him to write the book. With so much disinformation around, he wondered, how could people find out what they really needed to know?
The model Omand uses as a foundation on which to base your thinking is called SEES. The acronym stands for: Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now; Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved; Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions; and Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term. “In a sense,” Omand tells me over the phone, “every time you have a decision to take as a person, there are two quite different types of thinking that have to go on. One is the rational analysis but then there's the emotional side: what do you actually want to get out of this decision, or what do you want to avoid? You've got to hold them both in your mind.”
“What do you actually want to get out of this decision, or what do you want to avoid?”
Omand peppers his book with examples of political situations in which using the principles behind the SEES model either did or could have saved the day. “Motives are … easily misread if there is projective identification of some of your own traits in your adversary,” he writes during a passage about a confrontation with the genocidal war criminal Ratko Mladic. Intelligence agents are potentially victim to the same traps as the average person. Completely objective analysis is therefore always out of our reach, but it is the conscious, continued effort to avoid falling into these traps that distinguishes me or you from a spy.
In a chapter called 'It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us,' Omand writes that even being aware of one's cognitive biases is little protection against their power. “The errors in the intelligence assessments over Iraq,” he writes, “resulted from the great capacity of the mind for self-deception and magical thinking.” We see what we want to see. CIA intelligence officer Richards Heur said that there therefore have to be systematic checks in place. The Israeli government, for example, set up a group within military intelligence whose only job it was to play devil's advocate, challenging the prevailing political orthodoxy at all times. Omand doesn't say it but this seems like a desirable committee to have at the heart of every government.
As well as providing highlights from an illustrious career, Omand often brings the discussion explicitly down to the everyday life of the reader. He says that on a first date, for example, you should be wary of mirror-imaging: the presumption that your date feels the same way as you.
I wanted to hear more from him about these real-life examples, so I asked him how being a spy might improve your chances on a first date — a scenario that is something of a negotiation, after all. A successful first date is about empathy. Omand recommends that you choose somewhere neutral where the other person will be at ease. It is good if your date does not perceive you as “intellectually threatening or emotionally threatening or indeed physically threatening.” And, if it becomes clear that they are not comfortable in the environment you've chosen, change locations. “You're recognizing that if you want to get on together then you're going to have to find some common ground as well as having fun with differences.”
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What about trying to get a pay rise at work? The problem with most negotiations, says Omand, is that they're win-lose: for example, you will get a pay rise but your boss will be annoyed because it cost them money. If that's the way your boss is thinking, they're going to resist. Try instead to see things from their perspective. Get the facts of your case straight, and make sure you understand why you believe your case is justified. “That is the opposite of the magical thinking which holds that all that is needed in negotiation is sufficient willpower and obstinacy,” Omand writes in the book. “What you're trying to do,” he tells me, “is to avoid the other person simply thinking 'This is somebody who's being greedy or being difficult'.”
In the UK Civil Service College, Omand writes, he also learned the importance of a BATNA: each party should privately work out what would be the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. “You're trying to search for that ground which is win-win.”
Staying with the topic of work, I wonder if being a spy might make you better at giving presentations. All the advice you've heard about eye contact is true, Omand says. But more important than this is that you truly understand your own position “and you've simplified it to the point at which you can get a sympathetic hearing”. Like a negotiation with a political leader, you don't want to be too manipulative. People are quick to sense that, Omand says. “A good speaker doesn't give that impression because they're not trying to manipulate, they're just trying to connect.” Because talking to an audience is about trying to establish a relationship, again empathy is paramount: do you understand what it's like to be bored stiff while listening to a presentation? Of course you do, says Omand. “So how are you going to deal with that? In the same ways you might have hoped the other person would have dealt with it when you were receiving the material.”
One of the demons likely to mislead us, Omand writes, is transferred judgment: “the implicit assumption that others will think about and assess situations as you do.” This is particularly dangerous when you are doing something like buying a used car from a salesperson, he says. “If you go in and assume that they are entirely motivated by pleasing you, and their objective is the same as your objective, then that will go rather badly wrong,” he says. But don't let this make you too cynical to be honest. If the person selling the car knows what you're trying to achieve, they're more likely to give you honest answers. “A general lesson worth bearing in mind,” Omand writes, “is that the answer you get depends on the question you asked.”
“If you go in and assume that they are entirely motivated by pleasing you, and their objective is the same as your objective, then that will go rather badly wrong.”
Finally, I wanted to ask Omand about how to reason with conspiracy theorists, a category of people about whom he devotes some time in the book. Even the once-chief of the CIA's counter-intelligence staff, James Jesus Angleton, was guilty of this type of thinking when he believed the 'Soviet spider' to be behind pretty much everything including the Kennedy assassination. “These plots, he concluded, must have involved high-level treachery on the part of senior officers in the CIA and MI5, stretching all the way up to the Head of MI5, whom he caused to be placed under surveillance as a suspected Soviet agent.” The danger with believing conspiracy theories is that people's thinking becomes increasingly distorted once it enters a 'conspiratorial loop': in other words, there is no way to reason with it. “My experience is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin,” Omand writes.
COVID-19 is powerful in attracting conspiracy theories, he says, just as 9/11 was. He thinks there is a lot of evidence that simply providing facts doesn't work in these conversations. Instead, again, empathy is key. Some form of “emotional impact” is probably needed, Omand says, to shake the conspiracist out of their loop. Conspiracy theories are attractive because they are emotionally satisfying. When talking to someone convinced of one, the challenge is to make the truth as emotionally satisfying as the conspiracy theory.
How Spies Think is a useful guard against lazy thinking and a timely reminder that it is always necessary to interrogate information and challenge our own assumptions. This is not easy. Often it's impossible. But, Omand writes, “One of the ways of knowing that a course of action is 'the right thing' to do is that it usually appears harder than the alternatives.”