Teams better than individuals at intelligence analysis

When it comes to predicting important world events, teams do a better job than individuals and even lay people can be trained to excel in intelligence analysis and forecasting world events even without access to classified records, says a new study.

The findings challenge some common practices of the US intelligence community, where professional analysts usually specialise in one topic or region and send reports up the chain of command, the authors noted.

“Inaccurate intelligence analysis can have very costly results, such as the US war in Iraq, which was based on inaccurate claims about weapons of mass destruction,” said Barbara Mellers, one of the lead researchers and a psychology and marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania.

Methods used by the US intelligence community are outdated, she added.

Researchers in this first scientific study of its kind identified common characteristics that improved predictions by amateur participants in a geopolitical forecasting tournament.

The tournament sought predictions of 199 world events that were of interest to the US intelligence community, including picking the winner of the 2012 presidential election in Taiwan, determining whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would remain in power, and predicting whether North Korea would conduct another successful nuclear weapon test.

Tournament competitors were laypeople who had no access to classified records.

The researchers organised a group of 743 tournament participants that beat four other university-based groups in the tournament held from 2011 to 2013.

The teams performed approximately 10 percent better than individuals working alone.

Participants who received training in probabilistic reasoning as part of the study also performed better in the tournament.

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The study appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.


Mellers, B., Stone, E., Atanasov, P., Rohrbaugh, N., Metz, S. E., Ungar, L., Bishop, M. M., Horowitz, M., Merkle, E., & Tetlock, P. (2015, January 12). The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis: Drivers of Prediction Accuracy in World Politics. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication.

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