The Psychology of Intelligence and October 7 Disaster

The psychology of intelligence (Archive: Pixabay)

The October 7 assault from Gaza marked the complete collapse of Israel’s intelligence apparatus. At the heart of this breakdown was the failure to grasp that Hamas is planning a large-scale offensive. Israel’s intel chiefs did not think it could happen.

Information published since October 7 indicates that the outlook of the IDF and security services was too optimistic. This was the case despite numerous warning signs.

Among other things, the IDF’s Intelligence Branch managed to get hold of the full Hamas invasion plan long months beforehand. Still, the army strongly believed that Hamas had no desire or ability to launch a war. In essence, the failure was psychological, rooted in the mindset of Israel’s defense establishment.

Israeli psychologist Ofer Grosbard says that the IDF needs intelligence officers with a mild tendency toward depression to counter inflated optimism. Studies have shown that such individuals have a better than average perception of reality, he wrote.

As it turns out, anxious people who are mildly paranoid are more suitable for intelligence work.

The pessimistic mindset

Intelligence officers must be adept at recognizing patterns and discerning subtle clues that may indicate emerging threats. This involves not only a keen grasp of geopolitical landscapes but also an acute awareness of human behavior and psychology.

Within the realm of intelligence work, certain psychological traits can significantly enhance an individual’s effectiveness. Pessimism, for instance, equips researchers and analysts with the ability to foresee potential threats and worst-case scenarios, such as the October 7 assault.

Moreover, pessimism is closely linked to enhanced risk assessment capabilities. In the bottom line, Israel’s risk estimates were detached from reality and backfired badly.

Similarly, mild tendencies toward depression can contribute to a more realistic and grounded assessment of situations. Individuals with these tendencies are often more introspective and analytical, and view reality with less certainty.

Grosbard noted that the IDF Intelligence Branch mostly comprises young people, who tend to be more arrogant and certain. In this respect, Israel could benefit from the insights of older intel analysts, who are less likely to see the world in black and white.

Overall, a pessimistic outlook fosters a heightened sense of vigilance, enabling intel officers to remain alert to subtle cues that might elude more optimistic analysts. A pessimistic mindset encourages a cautious approach, ensuring that all possibilities, no matter how unlikely, are considered and prepared for.

The value of paranoia

Paranoia, which is generally perceived as a negative trait, has a unique value in intelligence work. A moderate level of paranoia can sharpen an individual’s awareness of potential threats and deceptive behaviors.

Given the critical role of deception in the Hamas game plan, paranoid intelligence officers would have likely doubted at least some of Israel’s basic assumptions. This included the perception that Hamas was deterred and that its actions indicated a wish to avoid a large conflict.

In such cases, heightened suspicion drives intelligence officers to question assumptions and verify information rigorously, reducing the risk of oversight. Paranoid tendencies can act as a safeguard against complacency, promoting a more meticulous approach to information gathering and analysis.

Indeed, one of the gravest Israeli failures was complacency in the face of evidence that Hamas was intensively training for a cross-border raid. In fact, the IDF stopped collecting tactical intel about Hamas operations and commanders, based on the estimate that an invasion was impossible due to Israel’s massive border barrier.

IDF needs to change

Overall, scientific studies and psychological theories offer compelling evidence that pessimistic and mildly paranoid individuals often excel in intelligence work. This can be explained through several key areas of psychology, including cognitive biases, risk assessment, and situational awareness.

As the IDF and other intelligence arms investigate the October 7 fiasco, Israel’s defense chiefs would do well to consider the psychology of intelligence as a key factor.

Part of the problem is that the IDF tends to promote officers who are assertive and confident to senior roles. Various reports suggest that retired intel chief Aharon Haliva, who presided over the October 7 failure, often displayed arrogance and over-confidence while dismissing opposing views.

Now, Israel’s defense establishment must rethink the way it promotes and appoints officers to critical posts, especially in the field of intelligence. An IDF Intel Branch that is more pessimistic and cautious is what Israel needs as it prepares for even greater threats and dangers from the direction of Hezbollah and Iran.