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Defense Dept. invites Mercyhurst to 'play'

Monday, November 4, 2013

The poison pill for any intelligence analyst is the egregious error in judgment. Frequently the cause stems from “cognitive biases,” which cause individuals to look at situations in biased and misleading ways. Learning how to mitigate biases is no easy job. But it makes for a fun game.

That may seem an oxymoron, but Mercyhurst University intelligence studies associate professor Kristan Wheaton, J.D., has successfully translated the bias-avoidance challenge into a game of wits called The Mind’s Lie.

Wheaton recently took his research, his game and student Melonie Richey to the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) at the National Defense University (NDU), where they taught some of the nation’s top analysts, game designers and simulation experts how to play – and learn.  According to its website, the mission of the CASL is:

To enhance the strategic decision making and critical thinking capabilities of military and civilian leaders from the United States and other countries through strategic level experiential opportunities that address the complexity of the evolving and interlinked international, national and local security environments.

Studies have shown that traditional lecture methods are inadequate for teaching people to recognize and limit the effects of biases, Wheaton said.  The Mind’s Lie, however, is a game-based approach that actively engages participants in identifying and mitigating biases using realistic scenarios. 

And, it works. Richey, a second-year graduate student from Melbourne, Fla., researched the game’s effectiveness for her thesis, studying its influence on gamers, members of the intelligence community and Mercyhurst students. In all three categories, participants were better equipped to identify cognitive biases in real-world situations having played The Mind’s Lie.

The game focuses on six cognitive biases identified by the U.S Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity as most likely to cause errors in judgment:  Confirmation Bias, Anchoring Bias, Representativeness, Fundamental Attribution Error, Projection Bias and Bias Blind Spot.

“Anchoring Bias,” for example, is the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions. The “Confirmation Bias” is the inclination to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Only by filtering out the cognitive biases that arise as decisions are being made can you be confident that, at the end of the day, the best decision was made.

Wheaton said the response from participants at the National Defense University to experiencing The Mind’s Lie was highly positive.

Elizabeth Bartels, CASL research analyst, who sponsored the Mercyhurst team’s workshop at the NDU, had this to say: "CASL is deeply grateful for Wheaton and Richey's excellent presentation on myths of teaching with games, and demonstration of their game, The Mind's Lie. The presentation offered strong evidence to refute several aspects of the conventional wisdom surrounding teaching with gaming, and the demonstrations offered new tools for government teachers working to integrate cognitive issues into the education of policy makers.”

“It was a pretty big deal to be invited to present the workshops to top people involved in gaming and simulation within the Department of Defense; the fact that they loved it was an even bigger deal,” Wheaton added.