Feature Article

Heuristic Bias in Cognitive Processing of Everyday Life: A Military Perspective on Postdeployment

Taking a closer look at military decision-making following deployment.

By Shawn Schaubel, MA

Our brain interprets and processes information from numerous sources in order to reach conclusions. Human thoughts, the cognitive processes that creates intuitive behavioral responses, can occur automatically and accurately, such as martial art defense training needed in dark alleys, or they can occur inaccurately due to faulty reasoning, such as being startled by a loud noise and responding angrily at a birthday party.

Our brain observes, interprets, chooses and responds to a variety of stimuli to help people navigate their daily lives—for example, what we wear to work or to a ceremony, how we manage the level of trust to a coworker versus a stranger, or if we should take a risk or not. It is fortunate that we have systems to process this information automatically. After all, if we scrutinized every possible decision against every possible outcome, we would not have the time to do anything else. To simplify the conceptualization of the neurocognitive design, the various parts of our brain combine and function as a working process referred to as our mind, the sentient part of our sense of self.

Our mind utilizes efficient thinking strategies that are called heuristics. A heuristic is essentially a mental shortcut that helps people make decisions quickly, in their best interest, without having to spend a lot of time researching and analyzing information in each instance (Kahneman, 2011).

Unfortunately, sometimes the decisions reached are mistaken or even overtly inappropriate with grave consequences. This article will review heuristics as a bias (Williams, 2010) from the perspective of a military ethos integrating military personnel into civilian life postdeployment.

There are different types of heuristics, each explaining the principles behind why and how people base their decisions. One example is the affect heuristic. The [social] psychologist Paul Slovic developed affect heuristics to explain how “people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 103). This heuristic attempts to explain how people quickly assume, a form of accurate conclusions, how what they like in broader scenarios is a basis for what they will like in smaller related scenarios. Ironically, this allows for inversion using the same logic. For example, if one's view of their country of origin is intense, identified socioculturally as patriotism, then this inherently infers that other countries are inferior or even evil.

Fortunately, the premises derived from any of the heuristics, when confronted by facts, no matter how contradictory to the original paradigm, is not cemented. In such cases, one's “beliefs, and even [their] emotional attitude, may change (at least a little)” (Kahneman, 2011, p. 103). The challenging clinical component is working with clients to modify both of their cognitive systems. System one is the automatic system, it works fast. It “relies on intuitions, and it can be emotional. Much of the time, it is on automatic pilot” (Sunstein, 2013, p. 6). Conversely, system two is quite “deliberate and reflective . . . it insists on the importance of self-control. It is a planner as well as a doer; it does what it has planned” (p. 6). The two systems function as a heuristic device.

One of the most important aspects of understanding the different heuristics is that they are part of one's social location and a powerful sense of identity. For example, two people from the same family, neighborhood, parallel sociocultural backgrounds, unified by their zeitgeist and ortgeist, can still develop alternative heuristics. This is because there are too many variables to measure, and a heuristic can be influenced by their family traditions, culture, social norms, religious beliefs or cumulative personal lived experiences. As such, therapy can be difficult and even counterproductive if a clinician uses simplistic assumptions and compares the strength of similarities instead of actually focusing on differences when sitting with some clients. This is particularly true if civilian therapists attend to military personnel, postdeployment. Absolutely “no civilian or even veteran care provider ‘who was not there' can ever really know about the military culture and context or life in a military unit, let alone the unique experiences that have crossed that individual” (Litz, 2014, p. 195). In the aforementioned scenario, clinicians must “be mindful of the unique cultural and contextual components associated with the [phenomenology of the warrior class,] military trauma, and the clinical issues that arise from combat and operational stressors, losses, traumas, and experiences that are morally compromising” (Litz, p. 195). It is for this reason that “service members and veterans are, for good reason, suspicious of therapists who don't understand the military culture and the amount of work it takes to explain their deployment experiences and the idioms of [their] world” (Litz, p. 195).

However, as difficult as it is to find clinicians who are ‘cut from the same stone' and therefore acceptable to service personnel, it can often be harder to change the heuristics clients are dependent on for saving their life every day. Particularly since, “in the course of intuitive decision making, [military training is indoctrinated in using] mental heuristics to quickly reduce complexity. The use of these heuristics exposes [service personnel] to cognitive biases” (Williams, 2010, p. 41).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from the perspective of a life-threatening military context that triggers an unconditional “fight, flight, or freeze” response, cited in the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), is “the manifestation of traumatic Pavlovian conditioning and learning” (Litz, 2014, p. 196). As such, clinicians must be aware of military ethos themes and the role and culture-bound ways of construing those experiences that affected outcomes and narratives at the time of exposure to specific haunting war experiences. Clinicians should also be familiar with the way military-identity issues continue to play a part in adaptation to civilian life and shape or constrain recovery and healing.

Some of the themes that professionals need to be aware of are that service members are trained to be tough and stoic, value the lives of others in their group more than their own, strive to lead and have loving bonds with leaders, tend to dehumanize the enemy, and likely are full contributing members of a culture that reinforces machismo (and sometimes misogyny), all of which [can] provide advantage in battle (Litz, 2014, p. 196).

Unfortunately, that same hard-wired toughness, stoicism and dehumanization that form heuristic templates service personnel depend on in combat is not enough to reach deeper, intrapersonally or interpersonally, once transplanted into society, postdeployment (Litz, 2014). As one might imagine, a 20-year career or even a 10-year career in the military engrains a behavior and mentality, a strict thought process, that is unique compared to any other careers. One could even posit that, depending on the intensity of combat and exposure to life-threatening trauma, even a 5-year or 2-year military career can be enough to scar into existence a heuristic template that makes integration into society difficult. In the opinion of Major Blair Williams, United States Army, “exposure to [traumatic] experiences in the past generates stereotypes that are difficult to consciously break. . . we may fall victim to confirmation bias, where we actively pursue only the information that will validate the link between the two events”; thereby perpetuating their heuristic bias that either hinders or self-destructs every day integration into all aspects of society (2010, p. 45).

As posited thus far, the heuristics that service personnel rely on in combat are indoctrinated as part of their lifesustaining training, thought process, and even their identity. The training and unquestioning responses expected become the “holy grail” that troops depend on; and reinforce. This type of thinking, while highly functional in its simplicity for training and regulating troops, is devoid of evolving cognitive process, feelings and behaviors regarding both deeper or larger considerations. For example, consider “deontology, [which] is a moral heuristic for what really matters, and consequences are what really matter” for service personnel (Sunstein, 2013, p. 3). In fact, a “growing body of psychological and neuroscientific research links dual-process theories of cognition with moral reasoning” (Sunstein, 2013, p. 1).

Nurturing both cognitive and moral reasoning into a new adaptive heuristic for service personnel could reduce guilt. For example, combat personnel are often “under at least three sets of legal constraints; their country of origin, international law, and the host nation” (Keller & Katsikopoulos, 2016, p. 5). This must create a horrific stress and moral uncertainty when service personnel are confronted by armed civilians, who could also be suicide bombers. Providing field guidelines in the form of “pocket cards do not address some important concerns. The soldiers do not know if they are actually under threat and if so, what the nature and level of that threat is or how to respond” (Keller & Katsikopoulos, p. 5).

Regardless of the intensity of the training, troop comradery and patriotic zeal, the idea of having to err on the side of caution, since that predominantly infers personal injury, the dejection of losing a ridge, or becoming a prisoner of war must feel counterintuitive to a soldier's system one and system two heuristics.

The incredible paradigm shift transitioning from combat deployment to civilian life must be disconcerting. Even if the service personnel only served for two years, there is a fundamental change in the heuristics used in their everyday life. This could explain why so many are corralled into [private] security jobs, corrections and other law enforcement careers. It would be difficult for a soldier trained or engrained in evolutionary survival heuristics for combat focused on end results trying to shift to a civilian paradigm of serving customers wielding a[n opposing] heuristic that is indecisive and picky looking for the cheapest deal. Instead of being confronted with simple decisions, even if they are intense, service personal in society are suddenly forced to navigate numerous superficial, existentially empty, choices presented by companies as “necessary.” Their life goes from having a distinct meaning, a sense of purpose, and striving for excellence to safely trying to find to fit in and to be accepted after their service.

Ultimately, civilians are trained for months-and-months, even years, to be transformed into elite service personnel for the many branches of the Armed Forces. However, when it comes to postdeployment, they are flown home within 13 to 18 hours without the same depth or length of preparation. Fundamentally, the reconstruction and transition of heuristics being used by service personnel not only requires extensive time, but also equally specific training.

Understanding the different types of heuristics to better understand how unique clients are, their cognitive, emotional and moral perspective they use as a template, is a quintessential part of being both client-centered and culturally competent. As previously stated, it is critical for clients who are service personnel to know their clinician is either “cut from the same stone” or familiar in the military ethos and idioms. An adaptive thought process is required beyond “psychological heuristic approaches applied to problems of understanding information about health conditions and making informed decisions about treatments. These heuristics [should be] based on knowledge from the psychology of thinking, perception and emotion, and also from social psychology” (Keller & Katsikopoulos, p. 10). The exclusivity of the various warrior classes makes their culture unique and vibrant, but it also makes the transformative shift to civilian life both counterintuitive and even feel foreign.

About the Author

Shawn Schaubel was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but moved to British Columbia at 19 years of age to pursue a career as a fighter pilot. He is retired from the Canadian Armed Forces. Schaubel has a BA, honors, in both psychology and therapeutic recreation. He uses his wilderness experience and education to design and facilitate culture based innovations in the outdoors to work with at-risk aboriginal children and youth. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a master's in social work, focusing on aboriginal studies and trauma. Passionate about social justice and working as a trauma specialist, Schaubel entered his third year of a PsyD in clinical psychology, with great emphasis on picking a dissertation topic. He is working closely with Mark Russell, PhD, at Antioch's Institute of War Stress Injuries, Recovery and Social Justice. Schaubel is researching dissertation ideas and how he can contribute to the “warrior class” (military, police, paramedic, firefighters, etc.) in Canada and internationally.

For further information, please contact Shawn Schaubel, Antioch University-Seattle.


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