The nuclear policy community can look to various other fields, including social psychology, systems engineering and data science, to help navigate complexity and mitigate uncertainty.
Chief decision-makers often look to history to inform their decisions, but the uniqueness of each crisis and the increasing complexity of nuclear weapons policies make it challenging to identify what kind of approach politicians should take in a crisis, especially when it is fast-moving. New approaches, such as complexity studies, will allow nuclear policy communities to better understand the issues in a different way.
For far too long, decision-makers developed their policies and strategies on the basis of rational parameters. This led to the formation of nuclear policies (such as mutual assured destruction and nuclear deterrence more broadly) based primarily on the assumption that decisions will be rational. Although the literature on perception, biases, systemic noise and intuition (gut feeling) has been largely ignored, it brings important considerations that should be incorporated into the strategic analysis.
As was pointed out in an earlier Chatham House study:
Decision-makers in all spheres may plan in detail, either mentally or in writing, as to how they would respond in a crisis, but they may still be required to radically adapt their plans and make critical decisions under stress or in unanticipated circumstances. In the medical sciences, for instance, surgeons are required to plan and map all alternative scenarios in detail, and must perform under stress. How doctors manage pressure in a complex surgery may provide some insights for nuclear decision-making: preparing for a crisis through training and mental visualization exercises may provide a better understanding when working under pressure. At the individual level, the ‘mental practice’ of different pathways and imagining all possible scenarios can prepare the practitioner for the unexpected. As indicated by a neurosurgeon undertaking complex cancer operations, ‘[r]ehearsing in your mind works because you’re activating many of the same neurons as you would if you were actually doing it’. In the nuclear weapons policy field, forecasting and tabletop exercises can not only help to predict possible scenarios but also assist in preparing decision-makers to make decisions under pressure.
The historical incidents examined in this paper have highlighted that both technical and human error may lead to miscommunication and misperception. When building complex systems – such as early-warning systems – the managers and designers should ensure that these systems are trustworthy. There will always be some limits to the system design and a degree of inevitability of accidents in complex systems. This does not mean that decision-makers should accept unacceptable levels of risk when such risks could be mitigated. The nuclear weapons policy community should address the level and types of risks that are acceptable, manageable, and unacceptable by nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. Such a discussion has yet to take place. Straightforward and rigorous designs, along with extensive testing and documentation, may help achieve maturity in system engineering techniques.
To reduce human error and empower human judgment, it is important to find a balance between the cognitive brain, where reason resides, and the emotional brain, where intuition resides. Through the provision of adequate mental training, decision-makers may better observe their thoughts in times of crisis and may be able to control the urge to use impulsive, vs reflective, thought processes.
While addressing risk-mitigation measures, the focus should be equally grounded across chief decision-makers and duty officers. For instance, while presidential-level hotline communication measures could help minimize miscommunication, creating risk reduction centres between nuclear weapon states, as well as between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states, would help reduce misunderstanding at the lower levels of decision-making.
A study on different types of biases in nuclear decision-making and nuclear weapons policy may also open new venues of research in the field. This paper has highlighted common cognitive biases – including confirmation and conformity biases – but there are many other psychological predispositions that warrant further analysis in the study of nuclear decision-making. For instance, there seems to be a status-quo bias in the nuclear field, whereby the individuals/decision-makers choose the current situation (status quo) over change.
Perceiving nuclear weapons as a ‘wicked problem’ and realizing that complexity exists not only in human decisions but also in organizational processes, nuclear weapons systems and the overall security environment, decision-makers need to conceptualize improvements to tackle uncertainty and complexity in the decision-making process. Below are some recommendations that may help in this endeavour:
Recommendations for policy- and decision-makers
- Policymakers and decision-makers should embrace and apply ‘system of systems’ thinking approaches that will help them to engage with, and respond to, complexity in the nuclear weapons policy arena. A ‘system of systems’ methodology examines two aspects of a problem: the nature of the systems and the nature of the participants (decision-makers) ‘in which the problem is located’. It examines problems in term of a simple vs complex dichotomy. In a complex system where decision-makers are in a ‘unitary relationship’, they share similar values, beliefs and interests. When decision-makers are in a ‘pluralistic relationship’, however, ‘although their basic interests are compatible, they do not share the same values and beliefs’. The nuclear weapons policy field confronts the latter problem. Although states share basic interests – for instance, in preventing the use of nuclear weapons – they differ in their assumptions, knowledge and beliefs. While tackling this type of problem, as the systems scientist Michael Jackson points out:
- To find solutions in nuclear arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, it is necessary to study the interactions between these disciplines and other fields, and with the security environment. Small changes in one area may lead to extensive changes in another.
- Decision-makers should train duty officers for them to better understand heuristics and biases in their decisions; and there should be a closer scrutiny of impulsive decision-making. Training of duty officers should not only involve going through the standard operating procedures and checklists that a duty officer should follow in normal times, but should also cover critical thinking in times of crisis. Empowering officers and operators through mental skills training that involves behavioural and psychological insights offers them the opportunity to realize and acknowledge differences between insights, instincts, facts and evidence. This may help deliver a better-informed information assessment.
- Providing alternative options and information for reporting to multiple chains of command, to avoid critical information being discarded, may help with reducing bias in group thinking. Moving away from bureaucratic organizational structures based on hierarchical rules to a circular system of information and intelligence collection with feedback loops may allow officers to raise their voices and make counter-arguments in peacetime, which would then help reduce the circulation of misinformation in times of crisis.
- Setting up risk reduction centres between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states could help ease tensions and address issues of misperception at lower levels of decision-making, especially in times of crisis. All type of notifications (e.g. of missile tests) could also be handled by these centres.
- Policymakers and decision-makers should practise – and ask for – greater transparency about past cases of near nuclear use and should learn from archived material in order to better manage complexity and uncertainty in nuclear weapons decision-making.
- In the current security environment, several nuclear weapon states deliberately maintain a level of ambiguity in their nuclear postures, indicating that this would help deter an adversary and that ambiguity would leave room for reconsideration of actions in times of crisis. Others call for transparent nuclear postures, including the implementation of a ‘no-first-use’ policy. One potential pathway for helping to reduce risks might begin with a collective analysis of nuclear postures with considerations of cognitive biases and systemic noise.
Recommendations for the nuclear policy community
- By bringing mathematical modellers and scientists of complexity systems together with nuclear weapons policy experts, the nuclear community can develop a multidisciplinary approach that could help generate innovative strategies for tackling nuclear weapons policy problems and help reduce tribalism in the nuclear field. Modelling approaches from different fields of study can provide alternative pathways for policymakers.
- Future research could include examining nuclear risk reduction through the lens of complexity sciences. In parallel to the system of systems analysis, a study focusing on a set of problems, how they interact with each other and with the overall security environment, and alternative pathways and solutions to these problems would be a worthwhile research area.
- Similarly, an assessment of the impact of complexity in nuclear deterrence policies, and of whether increased complexity helps or impedes nuclear deterrence postures, presents another opportunity for further research. This would also help to answer questions around the added complexity from emerging and disruptive technologies.