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Getting the Gist Requires Expertise

August 21, 2019

When the trees block the view of the forest, the consequences can be dire.  A recent paper in Policy Insights in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences looks at one component of the 2002 decision to invade Iraq as an example where policy makers had the details but not the context needed to make an informed decision on whether to invade. The paper also demonstrates how adherence to a concept known as Fuzzy Trace Theory could make sure future decisions are well advised and grounded in context. 

In “Communicating Meaning in the Intelligence Enterprise,” author David A, Broniatowski, an associate professor at the George Washington University, outlines the importance of communicating not just details (verbatim) but also putting those details in context (gist).

In the Iraq example, the intelligence community learned of Iraq’s attempt to purchase 60,000 high-strength aluminum tubes measuring a specific dimension and thickness.  Its conclusion, that Saddam Hussein was attempting to launch a uranium enrichment effort, was inaccurate in part because recommendations to policy makers were not appropriately contextualized. 

In any analysis, including those concerning U.S. security, policy makers need context, ideally from subject matter experts, or they are likely to “draw incorrect inferences, missing the proverbial forest (gist) for the trees (verbatim).” Indeed, Department of Energy engineers ultimately concluded that structural defects in the tubes would have precluded their use in nuclear weapons production.

Broniatowski makes several recommendations intended to guard against future misinterpretations.  Among those, he suggests that the intelligence community develops “a cadre of professionals who excel in communicating the gist of analysis products to decision makers.” 

This recommendation is based on policy insights including the importance of putting detailed analysis products in context such that they communicate meaningful insight.  Without context, “any detailed information may be prone to misinterpretation,” he states.

Gists that communicators choose to share with policy makers should capture the views held by experts in the field.  When the experts don’t agree, communicators should seek out an “overarching integrative gist” to integrate the views from the various experts.

Broniatowski also recommends that people who excel at gist communication “should be identified, trained and retained.”

Fuzzy Trace Theory is not only inexpensive, Broniatowski points out, but also stands to provide “significant benefits to stakeholders across the intelligence enterprise…and ultimately, to the agencies’ mission of public service.”


Drawn from “Communicating Meaning in the Intelligence Enterprise” in Policy Insights in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, accessible for free until September 30, 2019.

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