The Ghosts of Orientation

More on the wonders of orientation. You’d think it would be simple: take in information, form hypotheses, test in the real world, revise. The scientific method, as taught in high schools and laid out in Conceptual Spiral as a model for forming and correcting orientation.

Unfortunately, when human beings get involved, things aren’t so simple. The idea of orientation steering observation to see only what it wants to see, of avoiding, ignoring, or explaining away observations that conflict with existing orientation is well known. Google “confirmation bias,” for example, to see some fascinating research on this subject. In an extreme form, it becomes “incestuous amplification,” a term coined by Chuck Spinney years ago to refer to rowing oneself over a waterfall while explaining away the mists looming ahead, the roar of the falls, and the frantic screams of onlookers.

Typically we think of incestuous amplification as misinterpreting the data we find, shoehorning it to fit a preconceived and tightly held conviction. But even when there is no signal present, orientation can sometimes find one, anyway. Think castles in the clouds, constellations, creationism, inferring what the boss didn’t actually want, and so on. It’s also a occupational hazard of counterintelligence.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: apophenia, and a recent article in The Observer, “Why we can ‘see’ the house that looks like Hitler,” by Vaughn Bell, relates the case of a person who lived out his life believing that he could hear voices of ghosts in radio static. You might think that only people with mental problems fall prey to this effect, but research shows that we all have this tendency, to some degree. Did you ever try to play Beatles’s 45s backwards?

Statisticians, of course, create beautiful and complex mathematics to try to answer the question, “Is there really anything there, or could it just be happening by chance?” If you flip a coin 10 times and get 10 heads, is it a plugged nickel? Even if you can’t apply statistical formulae to your problem, it’s helpful to stop and ask yourself, “Is there really anything here? Could this all be a mistake?” Might save a lot of marriages.

To put this into the OODA loop sketch, we’re talking about the implicit guidance and control link between orientation and observation. But it’s a little more than that. Not only is orientation steering observation, but it is locked into a pattern of interpreting the results to support existing beliefs, and sometimes it will find what it needs, whether it’s there or not.  As John wrote in the penultimate chart of his final briefing:

Note how orientation shapes observation, shapes decision, shapes action, and in turn is shaped by the feedback and other phenomena coming into our sensing or observing window. Also note how the entire “loop” (not just orientation) is an ongoing many-sided implicit cross-referencing process of projection, empathy, correlation, and rejection.

[All of Boyd’s briefings are available from our Articles page.]

4 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Orientation

  1. In briefings John would stress observing from every possible facet … as countermeasure to orientation bias … similar diagram to simple OODA-loop with subject matter in the center and observations appearing at every point of the perimeter

    • Lynn,

      Good point!

      Of course, it’s orientation that decides when we’ve observed “from every possible facet.” One can always dismiss facets that don’t support the predetermined point of view — like “no tests” in weapons evaluations. Basically, you have to get outside the system to know if you’re observing from all possible angles. And you have to really want to know.

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