The Question of Foreign Cultures:
Combating Ethnocentrism in Intelligence Analysis
The intelligence literature often cautions intelligence professionals to be wary of mirror imaging. Although the term is a misnomer (a mirror image is a reverse image), the concept is that individuals perceive foreigners—both friends and adversaries of the United States—as thinking the same way as Americans. Individuals do, in fact, have a natural tendency to assume that others think and perceive the world in the same way they do. This type of projective identification, or ethnocentrism, is the consequence of a combination of cognitive and cultural biases resulting from a lifetime of enculturation, culturally bound heuristics, and missing, or inadequate, information.
Ethnocentrism is a phenomenon that operates on a conscious level, but it is difficult to recognize in oneself and equally difficult to counteract. In part, this is because, in cases of ethnocentric thinking, an individual does not recognize that important information is missing or, more important, that his worldview and problem-solving heuristics interfere with the process of recognizing information that conflicts or refutes his assumptions.
Take, for example, the proposition that others do not think like Americans. It seems only intuitive that other tribes, ethnic groups, nationalities, and states have different histories, languages, customs, educational practices, and cultures and, therefore, must think differently from one another.
The problem, however, is that the cognitive process of understanding or even recognizing that there are cultural and cognitive differences is not intuitive at all. Intuition is the act of immediate cognition, that is, perceiving something directly through the use of culturally dependent heuristics and cognitive patterns accumulated through a lifetime without requiring the use of rational or formal processes. This effort appears doomed to failure, because “trying to think like them” all too often results in applying the logic of one’s own culture and experience to try to understand the actions of others, without knowing that one is using the logic of one’s own culture. This, however, does not have to be the case. Through acculturation and the use of specific strategies, tools, and techniques, it is possible to combat the effects of ethnocentrism without trying to “think like them.” This text includes two short case studies on failures to recognize ethnocentrism, both drawn from the author’s own experience and told from his perspective. These failures are then examined with the goal of developing strategies and techniques to combat ethnocentric bias.
Case Study One: Tiananmen Square
At the time of the prodemocracy protests of the Chinese students and, to a lesser extent, workers, between April and June of 1989, I too was a college student. I mention this because American college students and Chinese college students tend to perceive themselves in very different ways, and they are perceived by their societies as having very different social roles. Chinese students perceive themselves as having moral authority, and they are perceived as controlling social capital and possessing public status. There is a cultural norm in China that students, as the future elite, have a morally superior role in society. I remember thinking at the time that, with the obvious exception of those in power, who risked losing their privileged positions, any “right-minded” person in China would support democracy. A movement for democratic reform would liberalize the policies of a repressive regime, encourage personal freedom, and give the Chinese people a voice in their lives.
When the university students went on strike and took over Tiananmen Square, the popular view in the United States, reflected in the US media, was that they were college students protesting for democratic reform. There were images of thousands of students rallying and camping out on and around the statue of the People’s Heroes. Throughout the square, banners and posters from universities supported democracy and freedom. The statue of the Goddess of Democracy erected by the demonstrators looked very much like our Statue of Liberty. Labor groups offered to join the students, people paraded in front of the Great Hall of the People, and citizens donated blankets and food. Student leaders began a hunger strike to force a dialogue between the students and the government. All signs seemed clearly to point to a popular movement for democracy, for which there was a groundswell of support.
The Chinese government seemed hesitant or unsure. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was sent to surround the square, but citizens blocked their advance and tried to persuade the troops to be neutral. A curfew order was not obeyed; martial law was declared and ignored. Another PLA move on Tiananmen Square was repelled. It appeared that the students had forced a stalemate and that their demands would be heard.
At that point, my assumption was that the government was weakened and would be forced to respond to the protesters’ demands, at least to some degree. I anticipated a dialogue and concessions on both sides. Although I imagined the government was capable of resorting to violence, I assumed that it would not. It seemed inconceivable that the citizens of Beijing—10–12 million people—would not intervene on behalf of the students. That many people could have overwhelmed the PLA had they chosen to do so. I also assumed that the soldiers of the PLA would be reluctant to fire on their own people, partly because the majority of both groups were from the same, dominant ethnic group of China, the Han, and, in part, because the soldiers represented a lower rung of Chinese society then did the students. The notion of soldiers killing students would be an affront to the sensibilities of the Han, or so I thought. I was wrong.
In the end, when the PLA carried out its orders to clear the square with force and end the protest, support for the protesters turned out to be relatively slight. The Chinese “middle class” never came to the students’ aid; the great majority of the Beijing populace simply watched the events unfold. Moreover, it turned out that the labor groups participating in the demonstration were actually protesting against corporate corruption and the lack of job stability brought about by market reforms and not in support of the students’ demands for a loosening of restrictions on expression. What I perceived to be a groundswell of popular support for the students had been exaggerated and wishful thinking on my part.
My failure to anticipate the way events would actual unfold in Tiananmen Square was tied to ethnocentric thinking and a lack of accurate and contextual information. Students in the United States are encouraged to be politically active, and their protests are often seen merely as minor inconveniences that need to be endured. In China, however, the protesting students were seen as a direct challenge to political authority and, much more so than in the United States, their actions were viewed as an outright conflict between the future elite and the current leadership. The protest itself was viewed as a violation of a taboo, upsetting the cultural order and the stability of society.
As an observer, I missed the cultural context that was necessary to view the events as an actual conflict and could not convince myself that a violent solution was a possibility. I had discounted the hypothesis that violence would occur, because I could not imagine it occurring in the United States. This led me to discount raw data that would have refuted a hypothesis that the two factions would reach a compromise. In addition, at that time, I had no formal grounding in Chinese studies, nor had I been to China. Thus, I had not acquired information that would have helped me create a meaningful context for the event.
Years later, my wife and I were in China doing ethnographic fieldwork on the socioeconomic effects of the spread of the English language and American culture in urban and rural China. While there, we spent a great deal of time talking with others about the events of Tiananmen, and we decided to include in our research questions about the student protests, if for no other reason than to satisfy our own curiosity.
What we found stood in contrast to media reports and the opinions expressed by many pundits and scholars in the US and the West. After hundreds of interviews with a wide variety of people in and around Beijing, we found a consistent preoccupation among the “silent majority.” That was the Cultural Revolution, which had affected all of the people we interviewed. They had been participants, observers, or survivors, and, often, all three.
In the mid-1960s, Mao Zedong sought to recapture power from reform-minded opponents within the Communist Party. Using radical party leaders as his instruments, he created the Red Guard, which was made up primarily of college students (although others followed suit in time). The image of the Cultural Revolution was not simply the image of Mao; it was also the image of angry, violent, and powerful college students, who were the most visible proponents of the “Cult of Mao.” According to the people we interviewed, it was the students who had chanted slogans, raised banners, paraded in public spaces, resisted older forms of social control, and seized power. With that power and the blessings of Mao, the youth and university students had committed many of the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution and plunged China into a decade of chaos, during which many institutions, including schools, were closed and many of the country’s cultural and historical artifacts were destroyed.
At the height of the Cultural Revolution, any dissent was sufficient to bring accusations of counterrevolutionary sympathies and to qualify one for “re-education,” which could mean public denunciation, job loss, incarceration, forced labor, relocation, and even murder, torture, and rape. The traditional values of respect and honor were replaced with violence and terror, and the historical social unit of the family had been disrupted and replaced with the cult of Mao.
For those who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, the student challenge to the government in Tiananmen in 1989 was also a challenge to social order and stability. The people we interviewed remembered, correctly or not, that the faction of the Communist Party then in power and the PLA had stopped the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution, arrested its highest ranking proponents and beneficiaries, the Gang of Four, and eventually restored order to the nation. The point of view of the people we interviewed was that the PLA, despite the low social status of soldiers, had stopped the chaos. Although they did not approve of killing students, the threat of another cultural revolution, democratic or otherwise, was more disturbing to them than the bloody climax in the square. Social order was the higher virtue.
Tiananmen Square: Discussion
We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.
Benjamin Whorf 
In 1987, a Chinese academic, Min Qi, performed the first national survey of Chinese political culture. Respondents were asked, among other things, to select statements that best described their understanding of democracy. Of the 1,373 respondents, 6.6 percent responded that democracy meant that people could elect their political leaders and 3.4 percent that power was limited and divided. These replies tended to be from individuals under 25 years of age, in college, and living in urban centers.
In contrast, 25 percent responded that democracy was guided by the center (the party and the cadres), 19.5 percent that democracy meant that the government would solicit people’s opinions (the party would ask people what they thought), and 11 percent that democracy meant the government would make decisions for the people based on the people’s interests but not including the people’s direct vote. These three responses were more in line with then-current party doctrine and tended to be from individuals over 36 years of age living in both urban and rural settings. This was the same demographic that experienced the Cultural Revolution.
The election of representatives and the division and limitation of those representatives’ power—what I would have considered to be two key aspects of democracy—were chosen by 10 percent of the sample, only slightly larger than the 6.3 percent of Chinese respondents who reported that they didn’t know what the word “democracy” meant. My own perception of democracy fit with a young, urban, elite, college educated population, not with the majority of Chinese citizens.
There was a very small sample of citizens in Tiananmen Square demanding what looked and sounded like my American version of democracy. Yet, however much the students’ message resonated in the West, it did not do so in China. My expectations notwithstanding, there was a cognitive disconnect between students and average citizens, which, along with the visceral semiotics of the Cultural Revolution, kept the two apart. It was not just the message that had kept people in their homes during the PLA siege on Tiananmen; it was also the messengers.
The label “ethnocentrism” might be accurate, but it does not diagnose the root of the problem. I did not use a variety of tools or techniques to question my underlying assumptions and, therefore, I failed to make an accurate forecast. There were obvious statistical and analytic flaws. The former was principally a sampling error, both frame and selection bias (the students at Tiananmen did not represent the general population in Beijing or China at large). More significant than simple technical or statistical flaws, however, my frame of reference and my assumptions about meanings, context, and values (or culture) misled me.
The assumptions I made about the Tiananmen protests were products of my own enculturation, and I am not convinced that anything short of the experience of analytic failure would have been sufficient for me to examine the process underpinning my reasoning. I never would have reexamined my mental mode without experiencing failure. Failure is an event that is easily remembered; it affects the ego and drives one to investigate errors and to adapt or change behavior based on those investigations. Failure is a learning event and results in a teachable moment.
There seems to be little reason to perform a postmortem when events unfold as predicted. The natural assumption is that the mechanisms of analysis were valid, because the results of the analysis were accurate. The obvious danger is that this assumption discounts the possibility that one may be accurate purely by accident. Moreover, by focusing only on failure, one risks sampling bias by only choosing cases in which there was error. The risk of ignoring success is that potential lessons may go undiscovered. An alternative to relying on failure to challenge one’s assumptions is to create a standard practice of reviewing each case regardless of outcome, principally through the use of a formal After Action Review (AAR).
Case Study Two: The Red Team
Recently, I was asked to serve on a newly formed red team within the Department of Defense. I agreed to participate, despite a number of serious concerns having to do both with the nature and structure of red teams in general and with my own experience with ethnocentrism and its effects on analysis. These concerns are applicable not only to red teams, but also to any analyst put in the position of trying to “think like them.”
This particular red team was part of a constructive/conceptual war game in which there were 11 participants, seven of whom had doctorates. Of the seven doctorates, three were psychologists, one was a historian, one was an economist, one was a political scientist, and one was an anthropologist. The other four participants had extensive military backgrounds. There were no physical scientists or engineers. Nine of the 11 participants were white males, one was a male born in the region of interest, and one was a white female. All were middle class. Seven of the 11 were raised in nominally Christian homes and three in nominally Jewish homes. (I say nominally because it was not possible to determine their level of religious commitment during this exercise.)
I mention the demographics of the group because it was not representative of the adversary we were intended to simulate. Although the group had numerous domain matter experts, very few had first-hand knowledge of the region of interest. Only one participant was from the area, had spent formative years there, spoke the languages, and experienced the culture firsthand. As this group was assembled to simulate the behavior and decisionmaking of a foreign adversary, this aspect was more important than it would have been for a substantive team developing threat assessments around a specific topic or target. Consequently, the scenarios developed by the red team often reflected an adversary whose behavior and decisionmaking resembled those of educated, white, middle class Americans.
The one member of the red team who had been born in and spent formative years in the region of interest regularly stopped the scenario development process by saying, “They wouldn’t do that” or “They don’t think that way.” On several occasions, he objected, “This scenario is way too complex” or “They wouldn’t use that tactic; it requires too much direct communication.” His objections were not usually based on military considerations; rather, they were based on the cultural norms and mores of the adversary. He talked of kinship relationships as a specific type of social network in the region and of the value of kinship for understanding the adversary’s intentions. In short, he brought an ethnographic perspective to the exercise.
Having no personal or professional experience with this region or its cultures, I thought it appropriate to defer to his first-person experience. Ultimately, however, it proved difficult to convince the group that this man’s cultural knowledge was, in fact, an area of specialized knowledge that needed to be factored into each scenario. This difficulty was born out of another type of ethnocentric bias.
Inviting an anthropologist to a red team exercise presupposes that the red team takes seriously the notion that cultural differences matter and that those cultural factors ought to be made explicit in the analytic process. The problem in this case was that the anthropologist was not an area expert for this region and its cultures, and the one area expert who was there lacked the academic credentials to be taken seriously by the other members of the group. Had I been able to assert the same concepts that the other individual asserted, it would have had a certain academic, or scientific, imprimatur because of my training and experience. Because he lacked these credentials, many of the other individual’s insights were lost, and the analytic product suffered as a result.
The Red Team: Discussion
I am reluctant to fault the organizers for the ethnocentric bias in the demographic composition of the red team. It is very difficult to assemble a truly representative red team. There is the obvious problem of security. Someone fully able to represent the adversary culturally would very likely be unable to obtain requisite clearances for participation in a classified red team exercise. In fact, even if it were possible to find someone both culturally representative and sympathetic to the goals of the red team, such as the participant born in the region, the conflicts triggered by that sympathy, cultural identity, and cultural allegiance could well lead to unforeseen cognitive biases that would be difficult to counteract.
An alternative is to find an ethnic American citizen with similarities to the people of the region of interest, but simply finding a US citizen with the same ethnicity as those of the region of interest does not guarantee any special insight into their thinking. Ethnicity is not the same as sharing culture or identity. Not all ethnic groups in the US are isolated and self-perpetuating. Many, in fact, put great effort into trying to assimilate into the larger “American culture” by distancing themselves from their culture of origin. These people often struggle with their own concept of cultural identity and the broader issues of community affiliation. Many immigrants and most first-generation offspring have already begun the process of acculturation. More striking, their offspring display a process of enculturation in the US by learning the language, attending the schools, assimilating local and national values, and establishing ties to a diverse community outside of their own ethnic enclave. In fact, the children of recent immigrants share many of the same cognitive filters as those who are generations removed from migration. That said, there are American citizens born in the region of interest, like the member of the red team in which I participated, who do have insight into specific cultures, principally because their enculturation was affected by being born in, and living in, a foreign region.
The participant in that red team was a foreign-born American citizen, but foreign birth is not a necessary condition for enculturation. Living in a foreign region, speaking the language, interacting with the people, developing community ties, and establishing an identity within that community are all part of the acculturation process and allow one to alter the cognitive filters through which one interprets the world. Time spent on a US military base, in a US embassy, or in a Western hotel overseas does not lead to acculturation. Quite the contrary, each of these is a “virtual” America, an approximation of life in the United States on some foreign soil, and it is the time spent away from these institutions that is important.
The red team experience reinforced lessons I learned from my own analytic failures and biases. Watching the struggle between the man enculturated in the region of interest and the academic experts was a frustrating experience. It was clear that the experts would not, or could not, hear what he was saying and that neither he nor I knew how to get the other experts to listen. I doubt this communication failure was the result of stubbornness or arrogance on anyone’s part. It seemed rather that the experts’ thinking naturally defaulted to their own cultural reference points, which interfered with his attempts to communicate his cultural knowledge.
Specific cultural knowledge is a skill and the foundation for forecasting the behavior and decisionmaking of foreign actors. Acquiring cultural knowledge should be taken as seriously as learning any other facet of one’s analytic capabilities. Moreover, it is incumbent on analysts to educate their own leadership and policymakers about the value and utility of cultural knowledge for intelligence analysis.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Ethnocentrism is a normal condition, and it results in analytic bias. The analytic community and intelligence researchers need to develop tools and techniques to combat analytic ethnocentrism. I believe that using cultural diversity as a strategy to combat ethnocentrism has much to recommend it.
Security concerns may make it very difficult, if not impossible, to hire people who are genuinely representative of a given culture. As an alternative to focusing on hiring practices, I recommend a formal cultural training program to facilitate acculturation. The program would include language acquisition and a classroom segment centered on specific cultures, but it would go beyond these by having the students go to countries of interest and interact with the people in their own setting and on their own terms. Students would be encouraged to investigate the rituals, norms, taboos, kinship systems, and social networks of the cultures being studied. There would also be provision for continuing on-line education and an on-line community of practice for mentoring, problem solving, and peer-to-peer interaction.
In my view, a stand-alone training program would be insufficient to affect analytic processes without specific follow-on programs. Retention of training requires repetition, problem solving, application, and evaluation. People must use what they learn and then determine if what they have learned can improve the quality of their work. To this end, I recommend a formal After Action Review (AAR) process.
The AAR is used by the US Army to capture lessons learned after a training exercise or a live operation. Unlike conventional postmortems and traditional performance critiques, the AAR is used to evaluate successes as well as failures. Although failure generally receives more scrutiny and attention than success, an approach that only examines failure results in sampling error. If one only scrutinizes mistakes, otherwise effective methods may be blamed for the errors. That those techniques were successful in 99 out of 100 cases can go unnoticed, with the result that the failures receive disproportionate attention and bias the statistical results of the postmortem. The AAR was specifically designed to avoid this problem.
The AAR process was introduced in the mid 1970s, but it is based on the oral history method of “after combat interviews” employed by S.L.A. Marshall during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. As soon as possible after a battle, regardless of the outcome, Marshall would assemble soldiers who were involved and, using a semistructured interview technique, would engage them in a group discussion about their individual and team roles and actions during combat.
The current AAR method also includes such objective data as tactics, logistics, kill ratios, time-to-task, accuracy-of-task, and operational outcomes. Informed by the objective data, a group discussion led by a facilitator trained in the elicitation process ensues. The AAR, along with supporting documents, such as historical studies and relevant doctrinal materials, is then stored in a knowledge repository at the US Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL).
With some customization, an AAR process and a lessons learned repository could be created for intelligence analysts. Although seemingly time-consuming and cumbersome, with training and expert facilitators, the AAR process could be modified and streamlined for use by analysts at the end of a production cycle. As a practical matter, the process would be used mostly with longer works, such as assessments or estimates. The intelligence product, along with AAR notes, would then be incorporated in a community knowledge repository. This knowledge repository would also help in the development and refinement of advanced analytic courses by providing course developers with baseline analytic data. In short, the repository becomes a tool for continuous educational needs analysis and links training directly to the actual work practices of analysts. These data can be used as a test bed for research on the effectiveness of analytic methodology. In this way, the lessons learned are not lost to future generations of analysts.