How Terrorism Red Flags Become Weak Signals Through the Processes of Judgement and Evaluation

Abstract

This paper addresses the question of why, in spite of their characteristics as ‘strong signals’, terrorism red flags can sometimes be missed. This represents a serious problem for counter-terrorism. By analysing the two phases of the investigative decision-making process, judgement and evaluation, we explain how the decision-making process can introduce distortions that can weaken even the strongest signals, making them vulnerable to being missed. We first examine the concept of weak signals and the challenges involved in detecting them. Then, drawing on the theoretical and empirical research in decision theory, we explain the role of the decision-making process in weakening and distorting strong signals. We present a model of the decision-making process based on prospect theory representing missed red flags as judgement and evaluation errors. We argue that the two phases of the decision-making process cause distortions in information, evidence, data and signals that are relevant to assessing an individual’s likely engagement in terrorism. We end the paper with some recommendations that can be implemented to mitigate the problems identified in the paper.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Heuristics include representativeness, availability and anchoring (Tversky and Kahneman 1974).

  2. 2.

    In reality, lower probabilities would be attached to higher and higher outcomes. This is simply due to the distribution of outcomes from different attack methods over time.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Phillips or Gabriela Pohl.

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Phillips, P.J., Pohl, G. How Terrorism Red Flags Become Weak Signals Through the Processes of Judgement and Evaluation. J Police Crim Psych 35, 377–388 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11896-019-09345-2

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Keywords

  • Weak signals
  • Strong signals
  • Red flags
  • Terrorism
  • Judgement
  • Evaluation