Thinking about thinking

In this book, we present the science of quirky human decision-making and its implications for terrorism and law enforcement decision-making. We believe that behavioural economics, along with other parts of decision theory, gives us the frameworks we need for thinking about thinking. Our goal is to explain the ideas as clearly as possible so that everyone can use them. We aim to show how behavioural economics can be used to explore various scenarios populated by various foes (or friends) who have various characteristics and, in a relatively structured way, it is possible to think about how these foes (or friends) might approach a problem, how they might solve it and how they might choose from the alternatives that they confront. We don’t expect an exact, one-hundred percent correct prediction of the precise course of action they will choose to take. Such predictions are called point predictions. Rather, we hope to help people to use behavioural economics to develop pattern predictions.

Given that counter-terrorism and, for that matter, other fields of national security, including intelligence and counter-intelligence, involves a lot of thinking about both foes’ and friends’ decision-making, there is room for a set of ideas that can stimulate and guide such thinking without imposing itself as ‘the way’ to think. Also, while many of the popular books that have been published about behavioural economics tend to be somewhat critical of human rationality and somewhat negative about the way that people make decisions, we prefer to be much more optimistic and much more positive.Things get done. People are making good decisions in the face of risk and uncertainty. A surprisingly high percentage of people are making decisions in accordance with rational choice theory. But there is a deepness to human decision-making that is being revealed by fields of study like behavioural economics. In this deepness, there is structure. There are patterns of behaviour that can be useful to know and useful to think about.

Along the way, we introduce readers to some of the most significant findings in behavioural economics. From terrorists’ decisions about attack methods and targets to the choices that shape the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) use of information to the relentless grind of everyday policing and counter-terrorism, observed patterns of behaviour are placed in the context of established research findings that identify the deep quirkiness of human decision-making processes. We think about the Unabomber, the Red Army Faction (RAF), airplane hijacking in the 1970s, embassy bombings, mass casualty attacks, Carlos the Jackal, Sam Melville, the 2nd of June Movement, Brenton Tarrant, Black September, Al-Qaeda, Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the IRA, the Zebra Killers, Black Liberation Army (BLA), Ulrike Meinhof and Greece’s Revolutionary Struggle. We think about counter-terrorism, the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other agencies and the role of information, how it flows, how we deal with it and how human decision-making shapes the ways we search for it.

Peter J. Phillips and Gabriela Pohl University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia October 2020


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