Horror movies and intelligence analysis

I’m a big fan of John Carpenter horror movies, The Thing in particular. After thinking about the movie a bit and checking out an unofficial fan site (which made me realize that I’m not anywhere near the ‘big leagues’ of fandom like I thought I was) it occurred to me that the movie could serve as an excellent vehicle for teaching many of the principles of intelligence analysis. The traditional way analysis is taught (at least as I’ve seen it in military and law enforcement circles) is to give a block of instruction and then give a highly scripted practical exercise that gives participants little opportunity to make mistakes or any encouragement do anything other than regurgitation. Also, usually blocks of instruction are taught as self contained units with few examples of how different techniques can support each other and not even much discussion of how these isolated skills fit into a coherent, systematic strategy of analysis.

Most teaching is also heavily focused on skills (which is pretty easy to demonstrate competence in) and very light on critical thinking (hard to teach/demonstrate/evaluate) and production (which is time consuming and varies considerably between agencies).

I’ve often thought that training would be more effective if it revolved around a scenario and skills could be taught around the flow of an analytical process. If done properly, this would enable analysts to see how various skills fit into the bigger picture as well as demonstrating the need for critical thinking skills throughout the process. Of course, for a scenario to be effective it would need to be rich enough to allow analysts to take different paths and end up with different results. This can be really difficult to do in scenarios with a law enforcement or military focus because participants bring their knowledge and biases to the scenario which can tempt them to take shortcuts that circumvent the skills and processes you want them to learn. It’s very difficult to counter without making the scenario large, unwieldy and very difficult to create.

I’ve thought about using a historical event as the basis of a scenario but there are some difficulties with that as well. You can’t use something too well known (like 9/11) or people who know the outcome of the event will make their analysis fit the end result. In any case, if you do use a real event you’ll have to create a host of additional information to put around it so everything you hand the trainees doesn’t have a huge (virtual) neon light on it that screams “This is relevant to your scenario! Make sure you include it!” Some information should be relevant, some irrelevant and some intentionally misleading.

So, how might this movie serve as a vehicle for analytical training?

The movie would lend itself well to acting as a training scenario because it has the following characteristics:

  • Multiple characters (12 humans and at least one ‘thing’)
  • The movie does not provide a ‘god’s eye view’ of the situation so there is information hidden from viewers
  • Ambiguous ending (so it doesn’t matter if trainees have already seen the movie)
  • Extended time line (with breaks of unknown duration where activity is only hinted at)
  • The subject matter is such that previous knowledge isn’t going to be of much help

In a 109 minutes therefore, you can have a complete scenario set up. At a minimum, the sorts of things you can teach from a scenario like this are:

The movie presents great opportunities for trainees to present the evidence for their hypothesis and argue their cases with others.

I’ve even taken the liberty of putting together a draft lesson plan for such a training…Now all I need are some guinea pigs to test it on and evaluate it.

Any takers?


Posted on 21 July 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Aleksandra Bielska

    Thank you for some very interesting thoughts. I’ve just graduated from the Mercyhurst College Institute of Intelligence Studies and we had some Intelligence Studies professors who used movies to teach law enforcement intelligence. As I was one of students exposed to such an approach, I can tell you that it really worked very well. We did not do entire movie-based scenarios as you proposed, however, we watched and analyzed short, carefully chosen extracts of various movies (for example, of the Silence of the Lambs) and movie series (NCIS, Numbers, etc.). I still remember all these exercises and lessons learned that came from them. I think this is a good indication that the approach really works. Regards

  2. Thanks for you comments…Because of the plot structure I created a training that gives the students new techniques as the film progresses as well as providing an opportunity to reinforcing skills learned earlier.

  3. TW, I just got a copy of “The Thing”. Your postings have inspired me to try to incorporate the video into a level two Investigative Analysis course. The level one course, which I wrote last november and have delivered twice in Ghana covers the basics. Association, Link, Time Event, Intel Process, Sources, Collection Plan etc. I hope to work in the movie after I do an ACH module and a Group Dynamics and Brainstorming Modules. I barely remember the movie, but based on your excellent breakdown of the potential for training I’ll be watching hard to see how to structure tasks, outcomes, goals, and objectives. Thanks for the inspiration and information. Hope all is well with you and yours. Regards, Dave

  4. Dave, Thanks for the comments! I’d be really interested in hearing about your efforts. If you get the time, please head over to my full time site (http://twshiloh.com – this one is no longer active) and let me know how it’s going. Or email me at twshiloh (at) gmail (dot) com

  1. Pingback: Olof Palme and intelligence analysis training « Intel Cloud

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