What If They Would?
There is a certain cognitive trick that we play on ourselves that my wife and I refer to as ‘they wouldn’t do that’. I suppose it is a form of confirmation bias, and it comes into play when someone becomes aware of a situation with a certain level of complexity, and which reveals a certain course of action. When presented with that hypothetical conclusion it is our habit to conclude that whomever they is…they wouldn’t do that.
That may seem rather muddy as a concept. I hope I can make it clearer with some recent events as details. My most recent observation of this curious syndrome involves the tragic October 7th terrorist attack from Gaza into Israel. The New York Times reported recently that Israel had intelligence which suggested that this attack might occur, and with great specificity. One particular intelligence analyst, a woman, warned that certain specific aspects of the attack had been displayed, and that Israel should be concerned about the approaching 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
The consensus from Israeli intelligence was that the Hamas plan that was uncovered was “aspirational”. For whatever reason, they were blinded by this cognitive trick, ‘they wouldn’t do that’. Israel might have been taking it a bit further by thinking that Hamas couldn’t do that, which from my perspective is just greater certainty in the bias against all observed evidence.
I take no joy in pointing out this observation. The October 7th attack tragically did come to pass. It was shocking for many reasons beyond the obvious brutality of the attack. It was shocking for me, someone not within the smallest concentric circle of this civilization, how a supreme intelligence apparatus, and a superior military could have missed the question, and failed to have an answer when it was needed. With that possible there, under those odds, it was possible anywhere. Again, the brutality was the worst. What comes after that was the warning for everyone else going forward.
Yesterday when the New York Times revealed that this information was known a year in advance, some worries were assuaged while others intensified. It was some small relief that we still can detect such plans, but quite alarming that we chose not to respond appropriately. The October 7th attack has been compared to the September 11th, 2001 attack on the Untied States. That comparison, until yesterday, centered on the aspects of surprise, brutality, and the relative numbers of deaths to the country’s populations. As of yesterday, the comparison is now about having had the separate elements of the attack, but not putting the elements together to conceive the entire plan, as it applies to the 2001 attack, compared to the entire plan having been sussed out and rejected as “aspirational”, regarding the 2023 attack on Israel.
‘They wouldn’t’ and ‘they couldn’t are identical twins cognitive bias. Within a certain range of activities, lets call them conceivably possible, there is no difference. An invasion from Mars is outside of conceivable reality. There is no ‘they’ to be concerned about. This is not to be flippant, but rather to demonstrate the danger of cognitive bias in the extreme case where the possible is deemed impossible. Tragically, we have observed that October 7th happened. Astonishingly, this was observed a full year in advance of the attack. That is something of a relief, and quite alarming for different reasons.
I had a discussion with a friend a couple of years ago whose family is from Taiwan. Sitting around the campfire, and discussing world events under the starry Vermont sky, a question was posed about China and Taiwan. While the four of us sat and talked, I was pondering this ‘they wouldn’t…’ idea. The challenge for that was to construct why they would. What I could come up with regarding motivation was series of preparatory actions taken, the cost of acting, and the opportunity cost of not acting. It was my view that as soon as the resistance to taking such an action was minimal, and the resources were optimal, the action would be taken.
Looking up from the fire, the look on Sue-Ni’s face was instructive. The two of us were standing on opposite sides of the ‘they wouldn’t’ chasm. For me it was an interesting hypothetical. For her, it involved family. I quickly backed away from my hypothesis. I’ve had similar conversations regarding Russia, and adventures moving into Crimea and Ukraine over the past 8 or 9 years. My wife used to sing in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra choir, and had given tickets to a colleague. On that night, I sat next to her, a woman from Crimea of Russian extraction, and her daughter born in the US. I asked her about Russia and Crimea then, back in 2014. I was puzzled by her lack of alarm by what might be about to happen. ‘They wouldn’t do that’.
Then they did.