Source: Sherman Publications

GHS grad involved in study of intelligence analysis

by Susan Bromley

April 16, 2014

Playing video games isn’t always touted as a productive use of one’s time, but the game play of one Goodrich High School graduate may contribute to intelligence analysis training that assists in matters of national security.

Emily Francis was one of 120 Mercyhurst University students who studied the effectiveness of digital games in mitigating cognitive biases by playing “Enemy of Reason,” a first-person shooter game designed to help analysts learn to identify and overcome three cognitive biases identified by the intelligence community as most likely to cause errors in judgment— confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error and bias blind spot. The team for the SIRIUS Program research project included Mercyhurst professor Kristan Wheaton, J.D., and graduate assistant Melonie Richey. The faculty-student research on the game earned Mercyhurst University a Performance Excellence Award from the Boeing Company. In the intelligence industry, falling prey to cognitive biases can lead to egregious errors in judgment and have far-reaching effects on U.S. security.

“I was so excited to participate in such an interesting and important project,” said Francis, a 2011 GHS graduate who is a junior at Mercyhurst, majoring in intelligence studies and public health and minoring in political science.

Wheaton, a gamer and game creator who is widely known for his use of game-based methodologies in the teaching of intelligence analysis, acted as a subject matter expert on the project. Richey assisted with multiple tasks from literature review to data analysis, while the students including Francis acted as test subjects in measuring the effectiveness of games in identifying and mitigating biases.

Boeing and several other subcontractors provided a team of experts in animation, gaming, cognitive bias and neuroscience.

“Our experience with Boeing was outstanding,” said Wheaton. “We learned quite a lot from the other members of the team and were lucky enough to be able to involve large numbers of graduate and undergraduate students as well as faculty in the research.”

The SIRIUS Program, as the research project was called, was supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) via the Air Force Research Laboratory. IARPA invests in high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide the United States with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.

Wheaton explains that cognitive biases are predictable errors in human judgment, not prejudices, and something that is an unconscious process in the brain. An example of cognitive bias, Wheaton said, is a used car salesman who starts a sales pitch with a high price on the car. When the buyer bargains and gets the price negotiated down, perhaps even a few thousand dollars, the buyer thinks they are getting a good deal, when in fact, they have been anchored psychologically by the salesman. This sort of cognitive bias is difficult to overcome, but identifying the situations when cognitive bias may be present is vital in defeating it.

“You want an analyst to be able to identify situations and take effective action to get rid of the bias,” Wheaton said. “We wanted to design a video game that will teach young analysts to get rid of the worst cognitive biases. It’s a first person shooter game, but not as violent as Call of Duty. You are a character in the game and presented with situations, embedded biased problems, and you spot them and take the right action that allows you to make an unbiased decision. The students came away less biased.”

The game could be used as a train-ing tool, he said, in many fields, not just national security. Cognitive bias is a problem in a variety of professions in which important decisions are made, including medicine, law, and business.

Wheaton noted the students who participated in the project are only a few in the country to have this type of education, and he called Francis one of Mercyhurst’s “best and brightest.”

Besides her participation in the SIRUS project, Francis led a kickstarter campaign which far exceeded its goal to send a Mercyhurst dance team to Jerusalem for competition, and she was recently one of five Mercyhurst students selected to study intelligence at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom in a competitive four-week summer program. She will be at Cambridge from June 29-July 25.

“Beyond the opportunity for travel, the course is on international security and intelligence,” said Francis. “It’s a different environment and we can see how what we learned here applies.”

Students majoring in intelligence studies learn critical thinking and written and oral presentation skills, as well as different analytical methods. Francis is interested in pursuing a career in national security with public health analysis, focusing on emergency response and preparedness.

“You have to keep up because what is going on in the world is always changing,” she said. “You have to be aware of events and educated on different topics.”