Intelligence and Thuggery

Highly intelligent people often have problems in predicting the likely behavior of thugs.

In his 1982 book Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design–a work whose relevance is considerably broader than might be imagined from its title–Gerald Weinberg briefly discusses a contemporary book called How Real is Real?–An Anecdotal Introduction to Communications Theory. Although he finds value is many aspects of this book, Weinberg strongly objects to a passage in which the author (Paul Watzlawick) suggests ways in which communications theory could have been used in the Patty Hearst kidnapping case. Watzlawick suggests that the authorities should have used “Erickson’s confusion technique” as follows:

Utilizing the same channels of delivery as the abductors, it would have been relatively simple for them to deliver to the mass media fake messages, contradicting the real ones but similarly threatening the life of Patricia Hearst if they were not complied with…Very quickly a situation of total confusion could have been set up. None of the threats and demands could have been believed, because every message would have been contradicted or confused by another, allegedly coming from the ‘real’ abductor.

Weinberg responds:

It’s very difficult for me to believe that Watzlawick ever thought critically about this idea for fifteen seconds, but its naivete is typical for this genre of speculative systems writing.

…and goes on to suggest that a good way to consider the possible real-world consequences of ideas like this is to imagine a movie (specifically, a thriller) based on the situation and the proposed actions, and to imagine how the plot might develop.

The heiress is kidnapped and the investigating authorities put the confusion technique into action. then Field Marshal Cinque, not being constrained by the niceties of the upper classes, simply authenticates his next message by sending along one of his captive’s fingers!


Unhappily, this is not a far-fetched example. I run into similar modes of thinking every time I examine grand systems designs. For instance, the software and hardware experts design the ‘”impenetrable” curbside cash dispenser–only to have crooks drive up in a van and remove the entire dispenser using jackhammers. There is simply too much distance between the high-level designers and the people with whom their systems are supposed to work. This applies to security and privacy systems as well as antiterrorist systems, but it also applies even more strongly to the most mundane data processing systems that we can imagine. As systems get more vast, more complex, our techniques of thinking about them have to get tougher and more realistic. Of course we need high-level abstraction, but not at the price of losing touch with day-to-day reality.

Weinberg’s remarks in Rethinking are principally concerned with computer-based information systems. But I think it’s clear that these points about the limitations and vulnerabilities of abstract thinking applied to real-world situations are also highly relevant in the political sphere. There have been many cases of a refusal to believe that the opposition would do anything so brutal–so out of keeping with “the niceties of the upper classes”–as to send in the victim’s fingers.

Consider, for example, this remark by Ralph Peters:

One of the most consistently disheartening experiences an adult can have today is to listen to the endless attempts by our intellectuals and intelligence professionals to explain religious terrorism in clinical terms, assigning rational motives to men who have moved irrevocably beyond reason. We suffer under layers of intellectual asymmetries that hinder us from an intuititive recognition of our enemies.

…and these words from Paul Reynaud, who became Prime Minister of France just before the debacle of 1940:

People think Hitler is like Kaiser Wilhelm. The old gentleman only wanted to take Alsace-Lorraine from us. But Hitler is Genghis Khan. (approximate quote)

(Both of the above quotes here.)

See also The Proverb of the Poodle.

5 thoughts on “Intelligence and Thuggery”

  1. Shannon has written several times about the need for intellectuals to believe that their skills are the key to solving all problems, and the concommitent need to play down the usefullness of force, as it negates all their subtleties and nuances.

    I have long thought that the perfect example of the situation you are describing was LBJ’s conduct of the Vietnam War. He essentially ran the war in the same way he ran, very successfully btw, the Senate when he was majority leader. A little of the “Johnson method” was perks for the loyal, penalties for those who wouldn’t go with the program, drinks and rough humor for the “inner circle”, cold, threatening phone calls and unpleasant committee assignments for those too foolish to go along.

    Carrots and sticks. When he tried the same on a larger scale on the N Viets, they didn’t play, and he was completely flummoxed.

  2. People have an innate bias that if they themselves cannot or will not do something then someone else can’t or won’t either.

    It is very amusing to see how easily expensive physical security setups designed by the middle-aged can be defeated by the leaping and crawling powers of teenage males. Likewise, many people have been burgled because it never occurred to them that someone could slip through a bathroom window or a transom. More, darkly, many people are shocked when they first encounter the lengths that drug addicts will go in pursuit of their addiction.

    I think many intellectuals want to believe that others who present threats share the same basic cultural or moralistic axioms because only then can the intellectuals hope to manipulate them.

  3. I guess the LBJ example makes it clear that this phenomenon isn’t limited to intellectuals…certainly no one could have ever called LBJ an intellectual…although it is probably more prevalent among them.

    Wasn’t it Heinlein who said “Even smart sons of bitches are dumb off their home ground”…or something like that?

  4. Suppose you were told there is one million dollars in cash on the dining room table of a specific average American house. You will be given five minutes to get it. If you get it within five minutes, you can keep it. You can bring only the tools you can carry. You have 24 hours to prepare.

    Think about it. This is how secure the average American house is.

  5. Not long ago a government minister in some country, maybe Mexico, made a flashy example of having a miniature homing transmitter or RFID chip implanted in his arm as a deterrent to kidnapping. Of course it was no such thing. What it did instead was to make it likely that anyone who kidnapped him would cut off his arm. (I think Bruce Scheier made this point.)

    Another example of this kind of bad thinking is automobile door locks, which have made more effective without adequate consideration of how car thieves might change their behavior in response. Now that it’s more difficult to break into cars, some thieves who might otherwise jimmy the lock resort instead to carjacking, with its attendant high risk of death or injury for the victims.

    The general error in these cases is overconfidence on the part of the system designer. Everyone is overconfident to some degree — it’s human nature. But very intelligent, educated people seem on average to be more overconfident than other people are.

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