Predictability in Complex Environments – Cognitive Bias Codex

April 20, 2021 I wrote a blog post “Futuretelling” on occasion of media informing about the report “Global Trends 2040”, a product of the collective of American intelligence agencies, issued then on occasion of a new Presidential administration (the Biden administration) taking the helm. I’d like to revisit the issue, almost one and a half years later.


“Global Trends 2040” revolves around five core assessments:

Global challenges include climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions. The report stated that they are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. Their impact on states and societies will create stress, or even catastrophic shock. The report assessed the pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come.

Fragmentation flows from the predicted transnational or global challenges. Overwhelming threats will lead to a reflex breaking apart, or threatening, globalisation.

Disequilibrium was the third theme of the report. The report focusses on its effects in a widening gap between what societies, communities, and individuals expect from governance and services, and what they can deliver. Doubts in the benefits of democratic governance, the profound inability of systems of international order to provide peace, security, and other important challenges to the sixteen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations create a perfect storm.

Contestation was the fourth theme. Wealthy societies pump their reserves into handling the crisis, and into the race of getting out on the other side in the best position for competing, on economical and power levels. Conflict, violence, exodus, displacement, migration will have an effect on more developed societies. In a way, this amplifies fragmentation and antagonisation.

Adaption being the final theme, it means that profound changes will ultimately end in a new equilibrium. The question is how such a new system state may look like. Or, how much of our current one is left, and what will be the new reality.

To me, the core statement of “Global Trends 2040” is that we are passing through a phase of profound global system change, or paradigm change.


That was spring 2021. “Global Trends 2040” was written during the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was somewhat easy for the authors to qualify an existing pandemic as “the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II“. Then, summer 2021 brought the catastrophic events around the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taleban, and a crushing defeat of the West’s ambitions for Afghanistan over two decades. Spring 2022 saw the beginning of a war of aggression by the Russian Federation against the Ukraine. Motivation and publicly voiced rationale by the Russian President went, from the outset on, far beyond his claims related to the Ukraine, and related to overthrow the Ukrainian government. From the West’s perspective it is an attack against the West, it’s systems and it’s values. The Russian President describes this as a threat against Russia, claiming to act in self-defense. Of course, I have a clear position here joining those who state this is a brazen and aggressive move attempting to overthrow an existing order, and violating fundamental principles enshrined in international treaties. But on various occasions since then I have also acknowledged that it depends on where people live, and which cultural and historical ties they have grown up with, whether they join this assessment, or blame the West. This is a war on multiple levels, including information warfare, a war of systems against each other, a war of economies, a war of dogma how to prevail, and to govern. The physical battlefields are local or regional, information warfare happens in cyberspace, and the conflict is ultimately global.

So I wonder how the events of 2021 and 2022 would have been reflected in the wording of the report issued in spring 2021, if these events would already have been on the books of history by the time of writing. If already the pandemic posed the greatest disruption since WWII, it has only gotten worse since then.

With lightning speed, the World is continuing to change. Nobody would have anticipated, even in early spring 2021, that the situation went so haywire in summer 2021 in Afghanistan. And after that, if someone would have asked “What’s next?”, I doubt many people would have anticipated the developments in the Ukraine bringing us closer to World War III. May be, many years in the future, historians will assess that we already were in WW III. Because, even the forms and shapes of warfare have changed. Some of it started in 2001, when we began to see consequences of asymmetric warfare. And at that time, people would have found it unimaginabe that we would see conventional armies battling each other, on European soil, 21 years later.

What else do we know about battlefields of such larger warfare? I could go on about Asia and the ever increasing tension between China and Taiwan, just recently blowing up again on occasion of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, bringing likelihood of yet another massive conflict into the equation. I could refer to how we all, internationally, after 9/11/2001 made critical assessments related to terrorist attacks against nuclear power plants. Now we are finding ourselves in a situation where Russian military forces conduct their attacks using the biggest nuclear powerplant in mainland Europe as a shield. Of course, following the same logic as outlined above, two sides accuse each other of being responsible for it. From a perspective of the threat being real, and grave, even this mutual accusation, being part of information warfare, adds to how scary the situation has become.

The Doomsday Clock has, once again, moved closer to 12, with the UN Secretary General telling us August 07, 2022, that the risk of nuclear confrontation is back after decades.

I could refer to the many developments in Africa, and since I am not a paid professional analyst with own staffing resources, my list of critical developments in the World would be highly selective, and certainly biased. Of course, it would include a whole chapter on instability in the Western Balkans, where I spend much of my time.

So, what can be said about “What’s next?” now, mid summer 2022?


The almost natural reflex is about looking around and to assess specific situations, specific countries or regions, and to attempt making predictions about how things may remain stable, or not. But more often than not, previous developments have taught us that destabilisation, system change, conflict and war occur almost to the surprise of professional analysts, and intelligence systems. The short term developments may be subject to correct analysis, like intelligence organisations unequivocally warned about Russia being serious about invading the Ukraine, once there was enough evidential data. But that was a short-term prediction, being put out into the public domain only from end of 2021 onwards, also in order to convince those who still, until February 23, 2022, doubted that Russia would follow-through on building up her military power alongside the borders of the Ukraine. Did we have enough data to predict this already, say in April 2021, at the time when “Global Trends 2040” was issued? From what I know through publicly avalable information, I would doubt it. So, this is not about “I told you so”.

The same will be the case related to anything up in the future, any new conflict development, where we then, again, will ask ourselves with hindsight whether we would have been able to predict it. In a highly complex and unstable environment, the fault-lines of where conflict arises next, and which physical or virtual dimension it takes, are difficult to predict medium-term, and impossible to predict long-term.

However, this makes the highly abstract level of “Global Trends 2040”, which I summarised above so profoundly valuable. Because, whilst we cannot be sure about “What’s next?”, we can be reasonably certain about that we have not reached rock-bottom. “Global Trends 2040” predicts a fundamental paradigm change and a war of systems, not a state of “rock bottom” from where things might recover to an old or only slightly changed equilibrium.


One of my favorite Youtube channels is called “Veritasium”. The channel is run by Derek Muller. Veritasium is covering a broad range of subjects, based on scientific evidence. According to its own website, “Veritasium is a channel of science and engineering videos featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science.” You will find a vlog as of August 2, 2022 there, called “The 4 things it takes to be an expert“. This piece is amazing:

In attempting to answer the question which experts have real expertise, the vlog includes a long list of references related to scientific evidence for its statements. The four things that make somebody a real expert, in ANY field of expertise, are based on long and ardous training, the vlog talks of a rule of thumb of 10.000 hours. In order to become an expert, one has to go through many repeated attempts with feedback. At one point of the video, Veritasium refers to a sample of 284 people who make their living on offering analysis or commenting on complex issues related to politcal and economic trends. These people were followed and questioned over two decades. The results, in a nutshell, are sobering. Any so-called expert with only education, but without extended feedback loops, was doing terribly. These “experts” were not significantly better in their predictions than non-specialists.

Watch the vlog. But what is the issue here? At least, that we have to be very careful in attempting to make predictions. And secondly, that we need to have a healthy and limited expectation in relation to what pundits will tell us. In my own self-assessment, I would certainly qualify for the 10.000 hour rule in relation to my own field of expertise (peace & security). But it would not make me believe that I would be able to find anything more than short-term answers to the question “What’s next?”.

Something which is called “cognitive bias” adds to the problem. This is what is behind the picture attached to this blog, and you can find the picture in wikipedia’s list of 188 cognitive biases, grouped into categories and rendered by John Manoogian III. In essence, according to the website teachthought, “a cognitive bias is an inherent thinking ‘blind spot’ that reduces thinking accuracy and results inaccurate–and often irrational–conclusions.” The graphical summary is listing 180 (!!) of them.

With having said that on our limitations to predict the future reliably, I will finally come back again to “Global Trends 2040”. What I, in sum, subscribe to, is the general statement about a time of system change which “Global Trends 2040” has, in my view correctly, deducted from available assessed information, which we call intelligence.

After President Nr 45 of the United States of America took power, I would find it comparatively easy to anticipate the scenarios that were possible to happen, and my worst case scenarios were pretty much along the lines of what we witnessed, until including January 06, 2021, and what we see coming up as a continuing threat for democracy in the United States, until today.

But compared with the complexity of fragility which we experience, this prediction was a piece of cake, since it was largely based on a psychological analysis of a person with multiple personality disorders, adding perhaps some deeper understanding about American society because I was embedded there for five years and listened and learned a lot.

Asking the question “What’s next” related to what we experience since then, I only know it will get worse, but I don’t know how, meaning “What’s next”. This is not a Doomsday attitude. Rather, it is a personal statement about the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in, these days.

“With The Help of Social Media Memories Can Be Erased“ – Considerations on the Relativity of Truth

Preface: I read the interview with Maria Ressa (see below) and began to express my thoughts about social media manipulation during a few days in Bucharest. It turned out not to be an easy-going process, I was struggling with something that I now identify as the question “Can I find an objective truth?” In a way this felt to me like an extension of my thinking which I began with Part 1 – 3 grappling with aspects of “perception”.

The following travel to Toronto, including some severe jetlag, didn’t help me feeling comfortable with the results of my thought processes, so I let the issue lingering in my drafts folder. Now, with some rest and witnessing a beautiful spring morning in Ontario, I’ll try it again.

What is truth?

Maria Ressa has been awarded the Nobel Price for Peace in 2021, together with Dmitry Muratov, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Her journalist work is including 20 years as a correspondent and investigative reporter. The title of this blog entry includes a quote from her.

12.02.2022, the German online portal of the news broadcast “Tagesthemen” carried an interview with Maria Ressa on occasion of the Philippine Presidential elections. The elections were won by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos jr., son of the late Dictator Ferdinand Marcos sr., who ruled the country between 1965 and 1986, until he was finally ousted. Together with his family and his cronies, he stands for decades of authoritarian reign, massive corruption, and reckless brutality. The family fled their country with an estimated 10bn USD. A good summary on occasion of the 2022 elections can be found in this BBC piece.

For context: The outgoing President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte leaves a reign of shame for history, too. Most remembered will be the wave of extra-judicial killings with which he allowed the Police to mutate into a murderous gang, killing scores of people, pretending that a strong-armed fight against drug kings would necessitate this and that there would not be a need for due judicial process. I remember U.S. President Nr. 45 speaking admirably of Duterte. Which in itself does not make Duterte a likeable person, Nr 45 also fell in love with North-Korea’s dictator, and, well, his docile relationship with Vladimir Putin will never be forgotten either. Pied pipers.

The core message of Maria Ressa in this German article is that memories of decades of history can be erased, if social media is masterfully used. Not only that memory can be changed, that alternate versions of the same historical events can be created, no, Ressa says that corporate memories can be erased by social media manipulation. Disinformation campaigns on an industrial scale allow that, according to her. The BBC article quoted above would also indicate a manipulation aiming at changing the perception of history by “Bongbong” and associates for at least the last ten years.

Of course, an interview shortened for the digestion of the general public can not provide the same evidence as academic research would do. But for my thoughts it appears to be enough to rely both on the journalistic ethics behind two renowned public broadcasters and on the fact that a credible investigative journalist won the World’s most prestigious award.

The past years have established a large body of evidence that social media is used systematically for manipulation of public opinion on a gargantuan scale. Many will remember the impact of such activities in the run-up of U.S. presidential elections, 2016. The litany of actual examples would be too long to read. December 2020 I wrote about one example, explaining a NATO study on aspects of this topic.

The case of the Philippine Presidential elections is frightening. Bongbong Marcos has won in a landslide election, not by a margin. No need for Bongbong even to prepare for challenging an election as being manipulated, and to contest it. According to Ressa, Bongbong’s victory is based on a manipulation of the electorate on an industrial scale. On lies that create a narrative of Ferdinand Marcos sr. being a hero, the greatest leader of the Philippine Nation ever, and that his son, if he will win the elections, will give the money back to the poor. We will see whether he will do that. My experience would tell me that chances are slim if the whole election is already based on an epic manipulation of historical reality.

The overwhelming victory appears, strictly speaking by counting the votes, sound. Yet, the manipulation sits straight in front of our eyes: Democracy has been defeated with a never-ending stream of content on social media re-branding the image of the Marcos’ family. Phillipinos were told that the dictatorial regime was a golden age, free of crime. Which is pretty much the opposite of what is on historical record.

But, is there something like one common repository of historical records? That’s what I am struggling with here: Is there something like an objective truth?

In an Address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin on January 27th, 1921 on Geometry and Experience, Albert Einstein elaborates on the relationship between the laws of mathematics and reality: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” (Project Gutenberg eBooks, “Sidelights on Relativity”, EBook #7333).

In the case of historical truths I would transfrom this sentence into “As far as a historical record refers to reality, it is not certain; and as far as such a record is certain, it does not refer to reality.”

This leaves many people very confused. In my belonging to a group of people, I do establish and participate in a historical context about what happened which is based on a common framework through which the members of this group identify. If the framework is very different between two or several different groups of people, their interpretation of what happened in the past can have little or no common grounds. And always when two or several different explanations clash in a discourse, we try to identify an objective yardstick against which we construct our argument why we believe we hold the truth. And we fail on agreeing on the same yardstick, the same objective measuring rod. The results can include so many divergent views, like two different groups entirely disagreeing on whether historical events were constituting a genocide, or not. The result being that the shared reality of such different groups differs in so fundamental ways that coexistence is the best option, always with the threat of violent discourse looming.


There is nothing new in the above. The new aspect, insofar as my writing goes, relates to the claim that systematic social media manipulation can entirely change the public record of history. Again, the past is filled with examples how systematic disinformation campaigns can establish new perceived realities within a group. Being a German national, I like to refer to disinformation campaigns undertaken by the ilk surrounding Hitler. Goebbels for sure is an example of masterful application of deceit and the use of manipulation in order to control the German populace.

But is there something new stemming from the ubiquity of social media of these days? If the general method of manipulation through disinformation is a tool which has been used for millenia in order to control populations for the benefit of a ruling elite, what is the new dimension which comes from social media?

Maria Ressa, in that “Tagesthemen” interview, also refers to the manipulation machine used by Russia in relation to the situation on the Krim, and in the Ukraine: She claims that the first step is about oppression, and the second step is about extinguishing memory. Based upon the experiences she has made in her home country, the Phillipines, she anticipates the same method being utilised in the context of Russias intent to aggressively usurp the Ukraine. She claims that social media have the effect to divide and to radicalise. Thus, she challenges the argument that social media is a tool vital for guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Instead of being used to allow free speech, according to her the algorithms used by Twitter, FaceBook, Tic Toc, and so many more, they make sure that priority will be given to content which is distributed broadly, preferably even virally. Of course, this is the ad-driven business-model behind social media enterprises. According to Ressa, therefore the distribution of facts will always loose against the distribution of lies, hate, and resentment. Drowning the news related to factual reporting, Ressa then states that the result is an entire loss of a shared reality.

The yardstick of a common historical record has unalterably changed, the division has been established, power can be exerted by controlling the perceived reality. Ressa makes the case for a global threat for values including democracy, but she also hints at, perhaps in my view, the biggest threat of our contemporary times: That we will disagree about the climate crisis as a consequence of global warming.

Which is, probably, on top of the list of global challenges which require a joint reality framework holding true for all people and nations on this globe.


As so often, I have no simple answer. Because there simply is no simple answer at all. We tend to simplify, and to go to extremes. Which always amplifies the problem once a complex system is brought out of its previous delicate state of balance, whilst we do not know how to create a new balance, instead of the entire system collapsing.

So, who is right? Maria Ressa with claiming that social media has the potential to destroy realities, and the underlying framework allowing for democracy, or Elon Musk, who has repeatedly tweeted that taking Nr 45 off Twitter has been one of the biggest mistakes, and that this is all about guaranteeing the freedom of speech?

I am still navigating through the depths of this question, and personal consequences. Should I maintain my Twitter account (which is a microscopic grain of sand in the Twitterverse) once Musk owns Twitter? What I know is that I would be extremely careful about listening to a person who happens to be the richest person in the world, who is able to just buy a social media firm in a snap, take it off from the stock market in order to make the changes of his liking, and then to put it back on the stock market. Why should I trust somebody who has one single intention: Using things for a business model based on profitmaking? Why should I believe that a statement about freedom of opinion is unbiased, if the motivation behind is purely enterprise-driven, and the methodology being used is taking every single accountability mechanism offline?

Also not new. But for me, the new thing is that one person has the potential to make a decision that has global implications on a level unheard of in history, whilst any mechanisms of public accountability appear to be on national level, and to some extent on a level of international organisations, but where the credibility of these international organisations is under massive systematic attack.

I will tell you if I stay on Twitter.

Justice Being Served

In my writing on the general theme of my blog – Peace & Security, Trauma & Reconciliation – I often attempt to create a conduit from the impact of personal trauma towards the effects which it has on the scale of communities, or societies. You can find some comprehensive thoughts on this in my articles on (1) the impact of trauma on individuals, (2) the trauma of children in conflict and war, and (3) the impact of trauma on communities and societies ravaged by conflict and war.

On occasion of a few other articles I have also mentioned that this is not only academic writing, but that my own processing of personal trauma is entangled with this process. It is a source of personal experience, a source of strong personal motivation, but also a source of profoundly subjective views. Objective viewpoints, entirely separating the observer from the observed, they are impossible, not only in quantum mechanics. From quantum physics we know that in literally no aspect of examining and explaining the world the observer can be separated from the observed. In human sciences we know this, of course, too. The knowledge about this fact is forcing me to always step back and critically examine my own attempts to come up with the best shot at how I try to make sense of this world.

One morning end of January 2022 I woke up after a good nights sleep. I managed to keep my busy thoughts silent during the first minutes, enjoying my morning routine of making the first coffee, feeding my cat, and beginning my day with a little mindfulness exercise. It worked pretty well, I began my day in calmness.

After which I went into my morning routine of reading the news, over my second coffee. This story showed up on my screen: “DR Congo court sentences 51 in trial over 2017 murder of UN experts“, from the French news agency France24. A few minutes later, my balanced approach towards the day, a Sunday morning, was over. I had to sit down and to understand why I was feeling complex emotions, and a strong nausea in my stomach. Over the years I have learned to better understand these signs of a traumatic reaction. In such a situation I try to sit still and to embrace this reaction in a gentle way, instead of mentally running away from it.

There are reasons why I reacted so strongly. I am connected to this story. I was involved in attempts from United Nations Headquarters’ in New York to deal with this horrific murder. I had privileged sight on videos taken by some of the perpetrators, documenting the last minutes and seconds before and when these U.N. experts were killed. I was involved in efforts investigating this situation, and such involvement happened on so many other awful occasions before in my line of work: My more than two decades of international work include a huge amount of personal trauma I have happily piled up. I do know that this leads to a mechanism called re-enactment. I am re-enacting my own previous trauma. My work on this since many years has given me tools with which I can mitigate the effects.

I remember those days in 2017 with all diplomatic efforts on highest levels conveying the message that we, the international community of humanitarians, peacekeepers, diplomats, expected justice being served. I remember my boss of that time, a United Nations Undersecretary General, reporting to us after he returned from a field visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had left the message with Congolese politicians that “this will not go away easily”, that it requires a sustained effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.

I also remember that I assessed the chances for justice being served under extraordinary circumstances as being slim. I contributed to our efforts assisting investigative authorities, sending own forensic experts working in my Division, helping Congolese investigators and prosecutors. Over time, hopes of seeing this crime being solved and perpetrators being sentenced, it faded. Until I saw this story, end of January 2022, give or take five years after the brutal murder act.

02 May 2022, I am working on a set of texts which I will partially or entirely publish here, depending on whether the statements in these texts have a connection to my general theme of this blog (see above). In this context, I am working on explaining why, in my experience, there is literally no memory of any situation I have been in which does not have links to the emotions I felt at the time of the event. One hypothesis I am following in this context is that these emotions can de-link from the events which caused them. As “emotional memories” with no connection to an event causing them, they “linger around”, come up when triggered, influencing my emotional and cognitive setup. This, I suspect, is especially true in situations when I am exposed to what we call “trauma”.

Which would explain the feeling of grave nausea when I read the article about Congolese authorities sentencing 51 individuals connected to that murder which I, like many other events in my professional career, can not forget.

My next blog article will include thoughts on the inseparability of emotions and perceptions, communication, and memory. It will be pretty methodical, I hope I can make that one an interesting read.

In this view, this draft article which I found unfinished when opening my WordPress editor, it is a teaser on more general observations to come.

But I’m ending here by stating that justice can be served, and like here, it may contribute to my healing. As a matter of fact, it does. I must continue to believe in this, and whilst I have no sight on how professional the investigation and application of the legal process by Congolese authorities has been, or whether there was negligence, faultiness, or willful instrumentalisation of legal due process, I must believe that justice is possible as a concept, and as a part of reality, and that hopefully the real perpetrators have been sentenced.

There are new atrocities happening in 2022. As happened all those years in between, whether in Myanmar, Afghanistan, now the Ukraine, in so many places in the Middle East and Africa, and elsewhere. I must continue to believe in the possibility of individual and collective justice, otherwise there are only new wounds, but no healing, and no scars.