Monday, December 12, 2016

Maybe Trump is right to skip daily intelligence briefings

tfw too intelligent for daily intelligence briefings
President-elect Trump has received a fair amount of criticism lately for his announcement that he will forego the usual daily intelligence briefing once in office, instead delegating the task to his VP Mike Pence. Trump's stated rationale is that he's "like, a really smart person", and listening to the same basic information day after day is a waste of scarce time.

This is certainly a break with past administrations, but is it really such an Awful move that we should get worked up over it? I don't think so, and here's why.

The vast majority of the time, daily news events are unimportant. Most things that receive reporting attention never go on to matter in a huge way. If you only checked in with current events once a week instead of once a day (or multiple times a day), you probably wouldn't miss much. Classified intelligence is obviously not the same as a daily newspaper, but it inevitably shares this signal-to-noise problem.

Figuring out in advance what's important and what's not consumes the collective daily brainpower of millions of journalists and analysts--and yet there's still no reliable alternative to simply "wait and see". Institutions like daily newspapers and daily briefings are essentially mechanisms to cope with this limitation: by regularizing search around an arbitrary criteria ("things that happened yesterday"), you hopefully get a set of unbiased data that is very likely to include facts that will go on to become important. Even though you don't know which facts are useful, you can be confident that you've captured useful facts.

So what does this have to do with Trump? My theory is that he's deeply internalized this signal/noise problem and understands how it can interact with negativity bias to produce bad decisionmaking outcomes. Obviously.

Skipping daily briefings is meta-rational

It's been widely reported that Trump's beliefs and preferences are highly dependent on whatever information he's consumed most recently. It's also self-evident that Trump is not psychologically immune to negativity bias--that is, he tends to prioritize negative information over positive information of an equivalent magnitude. Being asymmetrically sensitive to recent negative data in a job where you're exposed to massive amounts of negative data that are also unimportant seems like a recipe for overreaction.

By having VP Pence do the daily briefings, Trump is merely establishing another gatekeeper institution to tighten his information filter; it's a quantitative shift instead of a qualitative one. President Obama gets a briefing once a day instead of two, three, ten times a day for fundamentally the same reason: tradeoffs.

In a certain sense, daily intelligence briefings function like insurance: pay a little cost every day in terms of time and attention, so that when crises happens you kinda sorta know what's going on. As the filter tightens (fewer briefings, shorter etc), you'll save on daily costs but must devote more time getting up-to-speed on the actual crisis days.

Whatever you think about the magnitudes of these costs and benefits, it's not obviously true that a 15-minute daily briefing totally nails the optimal balance of baseline knowledge and time costs. It's complicated! Maybe for Trump the benefits of reducing overreaction risk are worth the loss of control. Maybe he's not so good at maintaining baseline knowledge but is stronger at rapid assimilation (i.e. the conversion of time costs to knowledge are more efficiently allocated towards day-of cramming vs. anticipatory study).

Perhaps Trump has concluded that the Presidential Daily Briefing is more about media play and political risk-hedging than real decisionmaking utility: if something awful happens, the president wants to be able to say they were prepared and not caught off-guard.

I don't know if this shift is a good idea or not, but given Trump's historically atypical cognitive profile, it seems only natural that some administrative structures should change to better-suit his needs and optimize decisionmaking outcomes.

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