Understanding how an enemy's political leaders communicate is an important part of winning wars. The current game of cat-and-mouse being played by Bush and bin Laden offers a new kind of war, asymmetric conflict on a large scale, and thus the opportunity to examine leaders' communications in a new context. Still, the basic parameters of the game are as they always have been: both Bush and bin Laden would like to know what the other has in store for him next, and it would also be nice if the rest of us had an idea what to expect.
Alas, no one has yet found a scientific way to predict a leader 's next actions. Indeed, saying that we might be able to predict what our own or others' leaders will do in an international crisis based on what they say in public sounds like an easy way to be laughed out of the room. But psychologists Peter Suedfeld and Dana C. Leighton have offered an intriguing, not laughable, suggestion there may one day be a way in the results of a study published in the September 2002 issue of Political Psychology. I ran into their study by accident while searching for another article, and insofar as anything called an "integrative complexity analysis" can be a pager turner, this is it.
Integrative Complexity Explained
Integrative complexity," sounds like a difficult concept to grasp, at first. In the article's jargon: integrative complexity "reflects the degree to which the source of communication perceives several dimensions and points of view relevant to the topic (differentiation) and the degree to which such characteristics are seen as related to each other (integration)."
Unpacked, though, the concept isn't so tough. It means: how well can someone see all kinds of different facts and issues related to one topic at hand and how well can they connect the dots between them, or prioritize them? By studying how people speak, we can find out a lot about these cognitive processes. And here's why this may be important in the context of international relations:
- According to the authors, our ability to think in a complex way indicates "how" we think, not just "what" we think. It is easy to spin the content of what we say (the "what"), less easy to manipulate the structure of what we say (the "how"). If we can actually score the structure of someone's thinking, we have at least a partial index of their true intentions—even those they themselves may not be aware of. I, for one, would love to know what terrorists are thinking and presidents are pondering.
- We all think more simply under stress. Crisis paralyzes us and makes it difficult to process as much or as well as we usually can. World leaders are no exception. In fact, they're worse. According to studies, in the lead up to wars leaders tend to exhibit lower complexity than their advisors. This makes sense – the more responsible you are for the outcome of a decision that may have truly life-or-death consequences, the more likely you are to be stressed and think less clearly.
Measurements of complexity integration may help us predict what leaders might do next. The authors report that studies have shown decreased complexity by national leaders "reliably" shows up just before wars are declared. Even more precise, "leaders of nations that launch surprise strategic attacks show a significant complexity decrease occurring between 3 months and 2 weeks before the attack."
- The authors emphasize that both high and low complexity have up- and downsides. While "complex information processing" may lead to a better grasp of the problem, it can also produce "information overload, self-contradiction and confusion." Simple processing, on the other hand, can lead more rapidly to a neat resolution of problems. But it can also fail by leaving out crucial information.
The authors chose public statements in both speech and writing from Bush, bin Laden and also those who advised and supported, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Taliban? Al Qaeda advisors.
They then scored the complexity of statements before 9/11 (to create a baseline score for each leader); those in the first three days after the attack; statements during the coalition building period (19-25 September); and during the counterattack in Afghanistan between October 7th and 14th.
In general, all of the coalition players combined generally processed in a more complex way than the terrorist group combined. The authors say that of the four parties studies, bin Laden's baseline was by far the lowest. Blair's was the highest, though it took a nosedive before rising again after counterattack began. Bin Laden's complexity deteriorated somewhat before rising again.
Bush, contrary to the authors' expectations, barely wavered. but functioned nearly at the same level of complexity throughout the period studied. This consistent low complexity may be due to a "stable cognitive style" (by comparison, President Clinton's complexity "changed unpredictably across situations"). It could also be due to Bush's political beliefs: studies that moderate conservative politicians often have lower complexity than moderate liberals, who have more "value conflict," requiring higher complexity to resolve. . The authors also suggest Bush may have been under stress as early as the problematic 2000 elections.
Bin Laden showed a similarly consistent low complexity. The authors suggest that this may reveal a "stable personality characteristic," which would be in keeping with "fanatical devotion to an extremist ideology." Indeed, "religion-based fanaticism may lead to less flexible cognitive processes than political ideology," in general. Or, bin Laden may suffer from "chronic disruptive stress from his years of illness and surreptitious activities."
Cited: "Early Communications in the War against Terrorism: an Integrative Complexity Analysis" by Peter Suedfeld and Dana C. Leighton. In Political Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 3, Special Issue: 9/11 and Its Aftermath: Perspectives from Political Psychology. (Sept. 2002), pp. 585-599.