Wednesday 1 October 2014

The psychology of the USS Vincennes incident

A fascinating long extract from cognitive psychologist Viki McCabe’s recent OUP book Coming to Our Senses: Perceiving Complexity to Avoid Catastrophes has just been published on the UTNE website. The extract is headed Structural Perception in the USS Vincennes Incident and deals with the errors in perception by the captain of the ship that led to the shooting down of Iran Air flight 655, and what caused those errors. The following are brief extracts, but the whole piece deserves to be read:]

At 9:54 am on July 3, 1988, the US Navy cruiser Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air’s Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board. It was the ninth worst incident in aeronautical history and to make it even worse, the decision that led to these deaths was based on a theory of the situation rather than on supporting evidence. (...)

When this incident began, the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters in violation of international law and had been mixing it up with several Iranian gunboats. At 9:47 a.m., a distant blip—an airplane lifting off from Bandar Abbas airport—was picked up by the Vincennes’ radar, whose crew responded immediately with a standard Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) query. They received a Mode 3 Commair response, which indentified the plane as a commercial airliner. But during the gunboat fracas circumstances on the Vincennes had become chaotic, and in the confusion the crew ended up providing mixed messages—one speculating that the blip could be an enemy F-14 fighter jet and another insisting the blip was a civilian plane.

“In the cramped and ambiguous combat environment of the Persian Gulf…the captain chose to rely on his own judgment.” He reportedly ran a simulation of the situation in his mind where he tried “to imagine what the pilot was thinking, what the pilot’s intent was.” His belief—that without direct evidence, we can nonetheless deduce what someone whom we do not know and cannot see is planning to do—could qualify as magic thinking. Yet without checking further, the captain developed the theory that the plane was an F-14 fighter and that it was diving directly at the Vincennes.

A simulation is not the situation itself. It is only a theory of the situation. A key point is that no one else actually saw this theorized threat. In fact, a crew member standing right behind the captain later “testified that he never saw indications that the aircraft was descending.” Further, the commander of a nearby frigate, the USS Sides, reported that his radar showed an ascending, not a descending plane. That plane was not only much larger than a fighter jet, but it was also flying in Iranian airspace over Iranian territorial waters on its regularly scheduled twice-weekly flight from Tehran, Iran to Dubai, United Arab Emirates via Bandar Abbas, Iran. The radar-tracking systems of the Sides and the Vincennes both covered that same airspace. When the record of the Vincennes’ tracking system was later reviewed, the information it showed was found to be identical to the one from the USS Sides. How was it that the captains of these two ships reported seeing such different situations? (...)

University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett testified before Congress that both the Vincennes’ captain and his crew suffered from “expectancy bias.” Expectancy bias occurs when people expecting something to happen allow this to distort their view of what is actually happening to match their expectations. Nisbett proposed that because the Vincennes’ crew believed the blip was a hostile plane, they failed to see the ascending Airbus. Instead they apparently imagined a descending enemy fighter. But expectations, like simulations, are similar to theories. All three are mental versions of situations as opposed to perceptions that reveal the situations themselves. In other words, by pointing the finger at the people involved and their possible propensities to see what they expected to “see” instead of what was actually there, Nisbett overlooked the more basic role that substituting a cognitive for a perceptual process—a theory for actual evidence—played in promoting this event. We often forget that our cognitive processes lack windows on the world. They receive their information about what goes on outside ourselves from our perceptual systems. They then translate that complex intelligence into simpler symbolic forms that are often influenced by our preconceptions, theories, beliefs, and general worldview. Without such a theory to set the stage, the captain’s and the crew’s expectancy bias would have no ground upon which to play out.

The Navy compounded the situation by creating false videos to cover up what actually happened. The Iranians were enraged at such a maneuver and accused the United States of a “barbaric massacre” and “vowed to avenge the blood of their martyrs.” There have been unconfirmed rumors that to retaliate, the Ayatollah Khomeini retained a hit man who, on December 21, 1988, blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. On November 16, 2003, the International Court of Justice concluded that the actions of the Vincennes in the Persian Gulf were unlawful. The most important fact to take away from this dismal tale is that the outcome would have been very different if the captain and crew of the Vincennes had simply put their theories aside and paid more attention to the information on the radar screen. That information revealed the true structure of this complex event in which the location of the blip, the commercial airspace on the radar, and the ascending Airbus in the sky were linchpin components.


  1. As ever, a powerful nation learns long after the event only when it is politically safe to do so.

    what we do not see amid this theorising and intellectual analysis are the bodies of men women and children floating in the blue waters of a calm sea.

    And so it goes on. As I write, US drones and planes are blowing up grain silos and farmers, and whole streets in Iraqi villages. Civilians are uncounted, the dismembered bodies un-reported and unseen.

    In years to come similar intellectual articles will be written explaining the psychology of America's current military mistakes in Iraq.

    I remember at a Haye Literary festival some years ago the former US Secretary of State for Defence, Charles McNamara admitted to a packed hall that in the massive bombing campaign of North and then parts of South Vietnam "I was wrong, we were wrong."

    McNamara's admission occurred more than twenty years after the event. And by then it was safe to say it.

    His comment went unreported in the US media.

  2. I think this an excellent presentation and highly commend it for its erudition, logic and accessibility. I wonder if Viki McCabe has considered similar in regard to aspects of the Lockerbie/Zeist investigation.