Culture And The Challenge Of Mirror Imaging

Analysts in the IC are often called on to explain the behaviors, motives, and intent of actors outside of the United States. Explaining human behavior and interpreting thought is extraordinarily difficult even within one’s own culture, but it adds an extra dimension of complexity when we discuss persons whose cultures we don’t share. Mirror imaging, or assuming others think like we do, can flaw analysis, and it is a challenging mindset to overcome. Here are some suggestions to help deal with this potential obstacle.

  1. Above all, understand persons who do not share your culture do not necessarily think as you do. Your subject likely has unique values, mores, and norms and responds to different stimuli. The individual is willing to pay higher or lower costs than you are, and is willing to accept different returns. What seems logical to you may not seem logical to him/her. Your subject probably doesn’t share your expectations, or seek your same results. Cultural and personal psychology are not universal.  
  2. As you proceed with your analysis, keep a critical eye for bias. This can be tough because we might not even be aware of our preconceptions. It is useful to work with a peer who is assigned to a different portfolio because he or she may be able to review your data with fresh eyes.  
  3. Use structured thinking techniques. The value of formal methodology is it slows and breaks down the analytical process, so you can examine each element in relative isolation.  
  4. Identify a true subject matter expert. This means seeking guidance from persons who grew up in a culture, not just those who studied a country or subject academically or who have been assigned to a portfolio for a long period of time. This can be a fellow analyst, investigator, or linguist, or it can be a contact from a working group or peer developed from an inter-agency partnership.  

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