Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage

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Anyone who has found themselves searching for their house keys when running late for an appointment, will be in no doubt that the perception of time is wholly relative. In those moments, when every second counts, time seems to accelerate, filling the available space on the clock face at an exponential rate.

At times like that, our behaviour becomes increasingly irrational; we look for the lost in the same place, time and again searching in seemingly impossible places; in my case, the fridge or the dog’s bed are particular favourites. Then, out of the blue, recall kicks in and in a Damascene flash the ‘safe place’ is revealed; as memory triumphs, the time between the ticks of the second hand slows, the mind and body relaxes, and logical thought returns. This phenomenon, the cause of panic and poor decision-making in domestic life, can be replicated in the battle space and is at the heart of the struggle for what is termed ‘information advantage‘. This article will examine what happens to the quality of human decision-making when pressure is applied, the advantages to be gained from manipulating an opponent’s perception of time, and how that might be achieved in real terms. 

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Israeli Nobel laureate, Dr. Daniel Kahneman posits that when faced with a problem the human brain has two replies; the first, System One Thinking, is lazy and instinctive, most likely used when under pressure, or paradoxically when little invested in the outcome, the second, System Two Thinking, is analytical and complex, carefully assessing the available data; typically, this is called upon when time and conditions permit. System One decisions are, as a result, often wrong, based as they are on prejudice and unconnected experiences, they are the type of conclusions that make searching the oven for car keys seem a sensible option. If Kahneman is right, and he has gathered a lifetime of evidence supporting his thesis, then pressure applied to an opponent will force them to use System One thinking, a type of thinking which often leads to poor decisions and increases the perception of the passage of time.

Making an opponent lean on System One, depleting the quality of their decision-making by applying pressure to constrict their perception of time is classic manoeuvrism; winning by not fighting. An examination of decision-making using John Boyd’s OODA cycle proves somewhat instructive, if not entirely comprehensive. Boyd theorised that decisions are made using a sequence of actions: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA), these can be coincidental, but they are always part of the decision loop. Essentially, Boyd’s theory runs that to defeat an opponent, better decisions must be made faster, we must get inside our opponent’s decision loop, this is at the heart of information advantage – the gobbledegook which accompanies that phrase is nothing more than window-dressing which, either by the negligent use of language or by design, acts to exclude wider understanding.

possible counter to this theory – that the essence of winning is making better decisions faster and thence translating them into actions just as precipitously – is that advancing technology will imminently allow machines to think faster than humans, without having to resort to System One Thinking. It is tempting to believe that the technical possibility of decision-making by artificial intelligence and machine learning will remove the need for human input or supervision, but that time is further away than is imagined in the minds of presentists and determinists. Machine-learning and artificial intelligence are unlikely to play a part in kinetic decision-making, at least without human intervention or oversight, until targeting and judgement have been significantly improved. Western morality will require considerable technological advance before it trusts the robot with lethal force, indeed that could be a lifetime away. As long as a human remains in or on the loop, it will be possible to place pressure which will force System One thinking.  

Back to John Boyd; his first action, Observe, offers perhaps the simplest way to alter an opponent’s perception of time and consequently the quality of their decisions. In his excellent 2018 book, The Eye of War, Dr Antoine Bousquet analyses how camouflage, concealment, and deception have played a key role in the history of warfare for centuries, and explores how today these skills must now also include disguising oneself from the discovery of heat, radiation, and electronic signatures. This is further amplified by the requirement to remain hidden on the post-modern battlefield, particularly underground, highlighted in Dr Raphael Marcus’ book, ‘Israel’s Long War with Hezbollah: Military Innovation and Adaptation Under Fire‘. The rapid development of subterranean warfare and the power of electronic camouflage remains poorly understood and somewhat unpractised by Western armies. The cause of this collective ignorance is either a result of political distaste, cultural and intellectual arrogance, or anti-intellectualism. Whatever the cause, Western armies would do well to pay as much attention to the lessons of Hezbollah’s Operation Truthful Promise and the Israeli responses, Operation Density and Peace for Galilee, as they do to the German Fall Gelb and Soviet Bagration.   

As important as it remains to disguise one’s presence, the secret to confusing the enemy is to create multiple options and dilemmas for them. This is done by both displaying that which you wish your enemy to see and by offering both attractive and unattractive targeting options. This is not a novel concept, perhaps the most well-known example of a historic scenario occurred during the Second World War, Operations Fortitude North and South used physical and virtual methods to create an imaginary army in Eastern England, the purpose of which was to deceive the Germans into leaving sufficient forces in the Pas de Calais to resist a second invasion, thereby keeping their reserves away from Normandy. It is important, though, to invite as well as discourage; a fine example of this is provided by the action of Australian and British forces at Tobruk in April 1941, luring Rommel into an area of apparent defensive weakness in order to destroy him.  For our purposes, Observe should not be seen merely as a defensive measure, instead it represents an opportunity to distract, disrupt, and dislocate with multiple options, compressing time and forcing poor and rushed decisions.

Orient – making sense of what is observed – represents another opportunity to squeeze an opponent’s perception of time. In order to understand what they are seeing, the enemy must use their understanding of the world in which they operate, together with the communications and information technology with which they are supplied. Just as that which is observed can be disrupted, dislocated, or pre-empted, so can the ability to understand what has been seen. In an article for War on the Rocks in 2018, Alexandra Stickings and I laid the case for the effect on the Western model of satellite-enabled precision effects caused by a loss of space capability. Whilst, the wholesale loss of satellite, and indeed cyber, infrastructure in a military context is increasingly unlikely (both because of mitigation and the increasing certainty of retaliation) elements such as spoofing and the temporary removal of capability enable the manipulation of time and hence the quality and speed of decision-making.

Decide and Act are no less important opportunities for those seeking to manipulate an opponent’s decisions. It is important, of course, to understand that this denial of cognitive capacity is not a one-way street, the enemy is not a target. For political and cultural reasons, the West’s opponents can make decisions at a speed and of a type which cannot be matched. Using tactics, techniques, and procedures, this advantage can be limited, but can only be turned around by dislocation of command and control architecture. The denial of time and the degradation of decisions may also seem to favour activity in the ‘Grey Space’,  but this is a fallacious perspective. ‘Grey Space’ activity is an enabler of conventional activity; of itself, it is little more than traditional political manoeuvre – espionage, sabotage, mis- and dis-information, they are then a means to an end not an end in themselves, the end is conventional military action.

In conclusion, the mystique surrounding the current buzzwords of information advantage and manoeuvre is unnecessary and counter-productive, it is simply the cognitive degradation of an opponent’s ability to act. Degrading the enemy’s cognitive ability is not the end, rather it is merely an enabler for military action – part of the plan, not the plan itself. Time flies, but it flies higher and faster for the confused and blindfolded. 

About the author

Paul Barnes is a serving Warrant Officer in the British Army and uniquely a CGS’ and CAS’ Fellow. He was the British Army Fellow at RUSI from 2018-19, the first non-commissioned soldier to be so appointed. He continues an affiliation to RUSI as a member of the Advisory Board on Military Science. He has written widely, is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild and runs the ‘War Talks’ series in the UK.