Improving Marine Commanders’ Intuitive Decisionmaking Skills

by LtCol W. Frank Ball, USMC(Ret) and Morgan D. Jones

We agree with Maj John F. Schmitt’s observation (“How We Decide,” MCG, Oct95) that: (a) intuitive decisionmaking is usually all that battlefield conditions allow and (b) intuitive decisionmaking usually achieves less than the best results. We further agree with his conclusion that commanders’ intuitive decisionmaking skills can be improved through training. The issue is what that training should comprise.

Can We Trust Intuition? Should We?

Most of the time intuition gives us decisions that are, as Maj Schmitt says, “good enough,” because the problems we normally face are not momentous. But on those occasions when our decisions have critical consequences, we run heavy risks if we rely on intuition. The reason is that the unconscious mind can easily mislead us . . . as it does, for example, to the quarterback who misreads a blitz and gets sacked, or to a leader in combat whose misreading of a battlefield situation results in excessive casualties and failure of the mission.

Maj Schmitt says cognitive research shows that “proficient decisionmakers rely on their intuition to tell them: (a) what factors are important in any given situation, (b) what goals are feasible, and what the outcomes of their actions are likely to be-allowing them (c) to generate a workable first solution and (to forego analysis of) multiple options.” Let us examine each of these three functions separately.

Intuition Tells Us What Factors Are Important in a Given Situation

This implies that “importance” can be determined by some universally objective standard. In fact, importance is a totally subjective evaluation driven by the biases of the decisionmaker. For the most part our biases are highly accurate and become more so as we gain experience. They are what make us humans smart. Useful though they are, they do have an insidious downside.

First, we are rarely conscious of our biases. They lie unseen and unbidden within the fabric of our thinking, springing into action spontaneously whenever we confront a problem or make a decision. Second, we tend to give high value to information that is consistent with our biases and to give low value to, and even reject, information that is inconsistent. In these two respects, biases are, like deadly viruses, unseen killers of objective truth. They impose artificial boundaries on our thinking-on our intuition-and we aren’t even aware of these constraints because they are unconscious.

It is important for combat leaders to be aware that they not only have individual biases based on personal experience, but they also share the organizational biases of our Corps-for example, our preference for offensive action-and cultural biases that shape expectations regarding an enemy’s behavior.

Intuition Tells Us What Goals Are Feasible and What Outcomes Are Likely

“Feasibility” and “likelihood,” like importance, are subjective factors whose interpretation is driven by the decisionmaker’s assessment of the situation. That assessment is based on the mind’s instinctive trait of viewing the world through patterns.

The human mind is a finely tuned pattern-recognition mechanism that identifies the characteristics of anything-a word, a person, an activity, a situation-by matching the perceived pattern with one stored in memory. But sometimes, to find that match, the mind secretly adds missing characteristics to the perceived pattern or deletes (ignores) some to make it fit. This happens most often when we expect to see, want to see, or are accustomed to seeing a particular pattern.

Then, having “recognized” a pattern, another human mental trait kicks in: the mind looks for, and usually finds, evidence to confirm this pattern, while eschewing, devaluing, and disregarding evidence that disconfirms it. Moreover, the mind clings to the “recognized” pattern, even in the face of strong contradictory evidence.

These mental traits, which are common to us all, can and frequently do mislead us. It is this natural human tendency to cling to beliefs and patterns that makes deception operations possible and so strongly effective when they work. These traits also explain why stereotypes play such a major role in our thinking and why we frequently perceive a causeand-effect relationship where none exists . . . and why we are so easily tricked by magicians’ illusions.

Intuition Allows Us To Generate a Workable First Solution and To Forego Analysis of Multiple Options

The authors of this article do not believe that the mind’s demonstrable tendency to focus on the first workable solution is necessarily a boon to effective decisionmaking. Probably no other human mental trait has led to more needless combat casualties and military defeats. The reason is that it closes the mind too quickly to better-equally workablealternatives.

Questioning Our Impulses

Because of these troublesome mental traits, blindly following intuition when the stakes are high can be risky and deadly. But since intuitive decisionmaking is the battlefield norm, our only recourse is to make intuition more reliable. And how do we do that? By not blindly obeying our intuitive impulses; by instead asking ourselves why we should follow these impulses. This forces the intuitive process into the open-into our conscious mind-where we can, in effect, crossexamine our intuition.

This cross-examination can be effectively accomplished in minutes, or less, by asking ourselves (or discussing with a comrade) a series of generic, but pointed, questions. For example: Why do I intuitively prefer this option? What are the other options? Which option accomplishes my task the quickest? Which most effectively? Which is safest for my Marines?

Here’s a hypothetical example:

The infantry company’s advance has been halted by a well-defended enemy machinegun atop a hill 100 meters ahead. Time is critical. The company commander’s orders are to reach a more distant objective in 30 minutes. Failure to do so could endanger the larger mission and expose the company to even greater danger.

The commander’s immediate reaction to this situation, based on his previous combat experience, is to call in artillery to neutralize the enemy position. This solution probably pops into his head because he has used it before, and it worked then. But before doing so, he quickly asks his XO, “What are the options?” They instantly [in 10 seconds] generate three: the company’s own organic weapons, direct support artillery which is on call, and an air strike.

He then asks, “Which option is speediest?” His own weapons arc immediately available. Artillery fire can be arranged in less than 2 minutes. The closest air support is 15 minutes away. He eliminates air strike; too slow. [5 seconds]

“Which is the most lethal?” [Which has the most explosive power and accuracy?] Artillery can be used to suppress, neutralize, or destroy the target. Company weapons can do the same, though less quickly and with less lethality. Artillery is favored. [5 seconds]

“Which exposes the company to the least casualties?” Company weapons expose the troops to direct enemy fire. Artillery requires no such exposure. Artillery is favored. [5 seconds]

He goes until artillery. Total time expended: 25 seconds.

In asking these questions, the commander enabled (compelled) his intuitive, analytic power to focus on each alternative-which we humans are unconsciously disinclined to do. He thus gained conscious control over the analytic process and placed himself in a better position to decide on the most advantageous course of action. In this case he decided to go with his initial impulse, but the questioning gave him confidence in that decision. By laying bare the reasoning behind his intuitive impulse, he replaced unconscious “satisficing”-the mind’s preferred way of deciding-with an explicit comparison of the pros and cons of several other courses of action using the same decision criteria.

By consciously searching for and considering alternatives to the option favored by our intuition, we may discover equally or more effective courses of action that intuition, in its search for the first solution that satisfies the requirement, would have missed. Thus the company commander, by challenging his intuition, could have decided instead to bypass the enemy position using smoke to screen the movement without directly attacking the enemy. And when the action was over and the commander was asked, “Why did you make that decision?”, he could say, “After weighing the options, I concluded it was the quickest, most effective, and safest option under the circumstances.” This is by far a more comforting, certainly more professional response than, “Because I had a gut feeling it would be good enough.”

It is insufficient simply to run the questions through one’s mind as a mental checklist. The human mind is so quick to take mental shortcuts below our threshold of consciousness that the hidden pitfalls of intuitive decisionmaking can still compromise the quality of our decisions. To be effective, the process of questioning must either be (a) spoken aloud to another person who can question assumptions (biases) or (b) written down on a piece of paper or with a stick in the dirt so it can be seen.

All of us are under pressure to make quick, effective decisions, and no one is under more pressure than a leader in combat. But the authors assert that making decisions in combat is not an “either/or” choice between a deliberate decisionmaking process and a spontaneous intuitive one. Rather, intuitive decisionmaking can be significantly improved by augmenting the intuitive process with a few simple techniques normally associated with deliberate decisionmaking. These techniques, such as posing a series of pointed questions to challenge one’s intuitive choices as the company commander did in the example, serve to identify hidden biases, expand the array of possible options, confirm the wisdom of intuitive insights, and increase confidence in the efficacy of the final decision.

Repetition of decisionmaking by itself will, of course, improve that skill to some extent but not to the degree possible by mastering these techniques and regularly applying them. As Maj Richard N. Jeppesen said in his 1986 Chase Contest winning essay, Programming Inconsistency, “practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent that which is practiced.” Therefore these techniques should be imbedded in every decision opportunity Marines encounter in training situations and daily operations of Marine Corps units. Indeed, repetition of the techniques is needed to overcome a lifetime of our relying on unchallenged intuition.

The Marine Corps can easily formulate a standard systematic sequence of questions for battlefield situations. Marine leaders can then practice these questions over and over again in tactical decision games, tactical exercises without troops, and field exercises until the questions and their proper sequence become second nature. Making the attributes and consequences of alternatives explicit and visible will strengthen the intuitive process and result in better decisions on the battlefield.