The CIA on ‘Your Thoughts Create Your Reality’

CIA, Center for the Study of Intelligence

In 1999, the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence published Psychology of Intelligence Analysis by Richards J. Heuer, Jr.

An impressive list of credentials backs this book. The forward is by Douglas MacEachin,  a former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. “After 32 years with the Agency, he retired in 1997 and became a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.” The Introduction is by Jack Davis, who “served with the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), the National Intelligence Council, and the Office of Training during his CIA career”. Heuer himself “headed the methodology unit in the DI’s political analysis office” and receives copious praise from MacEachin and Davis.

I list the credentials as a way to front-load you, the reader, with Heuer’s expertise on a complex and arguably controversial subject. Let’s dive in:

Here’s Heuer from page 7:

People tend to think of perception as a passive process. We see, hear, smell, taste or feel stimuli that impinge upon our senses. We think that if we are at all objective, we record what is actually there. Yet perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records “reality.” Perception implies understanding as well as awareness. It is a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses [emphasis added].

As already noted, what people in general and analysts in particular perceive, and how readily they perceive it, are strongly influenced by their past experience, education, cultural values, and role requirements, as well as by the stimuli recorded by their receptor organs.

Many experiments have been conducted to show the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

For example, when you looked at Figure 1 above, what did you see? Now refer to the footnote for a description of what is actually there. 1 Did you perceive Figure 1 correctly? If so, you either have exceptional powers of observation or have seen the figure before. This simple experiment demonstrates one of the most fundamental principles concerning perception:

We tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.

A corollary of this principle is that it takes more information, and more unambiguous information, to recognize an unexpected phenomenon than an expected one.

One classic experiment to demonstrate the influence of expectations on perception used playing cards, some of which were gimmicked so the spades were red and the hearts black. Pictures of the cards were flashed briefly on a screen and, needless to say, the test subjects identified the normal cards more quickly and accurately than the gimmicked ones. After test subjects became aware of the existence of red spades and black hearts, their performance with the gimmicked cards improved but still did not approach the speed or accuracy with which normal cards could be identified.

This experiment shows that patterns of expectation become so deeply embedded that they continue to influence perceptions even when people are alerted to and try to take account of the existence of data that do not fit their preconceptions. Trying to be objective does not ensure accurate perception.

Heuer provides other examples of optical illusions to underscore his point: “we tend to perceive what we expect to perceive.” Expectation drives our construction of reality. He applies these notions to intelligence analysis, but the implications apply personally too:

Hold in mind expectations that don’t match what you want and it will become harder for you to notice when opportunities show up to support the life you want. Change your expectations in the direction of the reality you want, and you are more likely to perceive it when it actually shows up. 

Dan Pouliot

Our mental wiring is flawed: a wise person will use this to his advantage. Insecurity and vanity become obstacles to adoption of this strategy— by clinging to the need to be right or fear of appearing a fool.

It’s a good read, pick it up from page 7: Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.

A 2023 NH Literary Awards Finalist for Outstanding Work of Young Adult Fiction, you can pick up Dan Pouliot’s debut novel, Super Human, hardcover edition for just $17.95 for a limited time. Learn more…

  1. The article is written twice in each of the three phrases. This is commonly overlooked because perception is influenced by our expectations about how these familiar phrases are normally written.[]