Denial and Inflation

D

Red teaming is useful for articulating the possible. That said, when something is possible it doesn’t mean it’s likely; it just means it can be done or it could happen. The following questions are among those that still need to be answered.

  • Is it economical, and to whom?
  • Is it feasible, and to whom?
  • Is it preferable, and to whom?
  • How likely is it to be undertaken, and by whom?
  • How likely is it to succeed?
  • What consequences are likely to ensue?
  • How easy is it to counter?
  • How expensive is it to counter?
  • Will the possible responses lead to other advantages or disadvantages, and to whom?

Simply admitting it’s possible, then, is only the first step, but it’s a very important one.
      In cases of denial, one or more stakeholder of influence denies that the threat exists or is possible. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including

  1. lack of or too much information;
  2. misinterpreted, undervalued, or overvalued information;
  3. a skeptical or dismissive disposition;
  4. an arrogant disposition;
  5. a position or reputation that is challenged or undermined by the existence of the threat; or
  6. a hidden or political agenda that is challenged or undermined by the existence of the threat.

We’ve listed these in order of increasing challenge. Red team findings can most easily address points 1, 2, often 3, and sometimes 4; points 5 and 6 can resist even the most persuasive red team findings.
      Stanley Hooker shares a case of denial from his 1984 book Not Much of an Engineer. Speaking of the V-2 rocket threat during World War 2, Hooker observed

It is odd that the best scientific advice offered to the Prime Minister in 1942-44 was that such a rocket was quite impossible. Great efforts were made to stop any serious consideration of such a weapon, even after they began falling on London!

      Threat inflation is, in many ways, the opposite of denial. In cases of threat inflation, one or more stakeholder of influence trumpets a threat beyond its reasonable likelihood or consequence. Much like cases of denial, this can occur for a very similar list of reasons, including

  1. lack of or too much information;
  2. misinterpreted, undervalued, or overvalued information;
  3. an overly gullible or uncritical disposition;
  4. a position or reputation that is validated or furthered by the nonexistence of the threat; or
  5. a hidden or political agenda that is validated or furthered by the nonexistence of the threat.

As before, we’ve listed these in order of increasing challenge. Red team findings can most easily address points 1, 2, and often 3; points 4 and 5 can resist even the most persuasive red team findings. In cases of inflation, the list of questions cited at the start of this post are particularly useful for tempering inflation with a dose of reality. (They can also help temper denial; read them from both perspectives and see.)
      Whether a case is one of denial, inflation, or neither is often unclear at the time. Additionally, one stakeholder might exhibit denial while another exhibits threat inflation. This underscores the importance of objective, informed, and skilled red teaming as well as the importance of packaging the red team’s findings clearly using risk-based language. Situating the red team’s efforts within the broader system context is also useful for tempering both denial and inflation.
      Ironically enough, addressing denial and inflation directly isn’t the red team’s job; rather, the red team’s job is to look at the problem as objectively as possible, regardless of contextual considerations of denial and inflation. Put differently, the red team should assess the problem objectively, while the sponsor should present the results objectively. If the presentation counters cases of both denial and inflation, more’s the better.
      Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that even red teams are susceptible to biases that can induce denial and inflation. The best red teams red team themselves to identify and counter these biases. And how do you help ensure that you’re counted among the best red teams? By starting with the first set of questions listed above and by reading Red Team Journal regularly, of course!

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