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Heuristics and Biases in Military Decision Making

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Journal article

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CARL VON CLAUSEWITZS metaphoric description of the condition of war is as accurate today as it was when he wrote it in the early 19th century. The Army faces an operating environment characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.2 Military professionals struggle to make sense of this paradoxical and chaotic setting. Succeeding in this environment requires an emergent style of decision making, where practitioners are willing to embrace improvisation and reflection.3 The theory of reflection-in-action requires practitioners to question the structure of assumptions within their professional military knowledge.4 For commanders and staff officers to willingly try new approaches and experiment on the spot in response to surprises, they must critically examine the heuristics or rules of thumb by which they make decisions and understand how they may lead to potential bias. The institutional nature of the military decision making process MDMP, our organizational culture, and our individual mental processes in how we make decisions shape these heuristics and their accompanying biases. The theory of reflection-in-action and its implications for decision making may sit uneasily with many military professionals. Our established doctrine for decision making is the MDMP. The process assumes objective rationality and is based on a linear, step-based model that generates a specific course of action and is useful for the examination of problems that exhibit stability and are underpinned by assumptions of technical-rationality. 5 The Army values MDMP as the sanctioned approach for solving problems and making decisions. This stolid template is comforting we are familiar with it. However, what do we do when our enemy does not conform to our assumptions embedded in the process We discovered early in Iraq that our opponents fought differently than we expected.

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  • Administration and Management
  • Military Forces and Organizations

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