Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Todd Schmidt currently serves as an active-duty military service member.  He can be found on Twitter @Dreamseed6 and hosts his scholarly work at www.toddandrewschmidt.com.  His views are his own.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature, nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.

National Security Situation:  U.S. challenges to waging conflict in the cognitive domain.

Date Originally Written:  April 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  June 22, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author’s body of scholarly work focuses primarily on the influence of military elites on national security through the lens of epistemic community theory. This article is written from the point of view of an international relations/foreign policy scholar assessing challenges in future conflict through the lens of political psychology.

Background:  Humans live in bounded reality – a reality bounded by cognitive limitations[1]. Humans see the world they want, not as it is. The complexity of the world triggers information overload in the mind. Coping with complexity, humans use mental shortcuts to filter information that informs decision-making. Mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, are influenced by personal human factors.

In political psychology, human factors include emotions, belief systems, culture, education, psychological/behavioral attributes, and experiences that filter the overwhelming information to which humans are exposed[2]. Information filters reinforce perceptions of reality that conform to values and beliefs, or “operational code[3].” Filters act as cognitive limitations in the mind and the cognitive domain, which creates vulnerabilities and permits influence.

Current operational environments witness adversaries increasingly avoiding conventional conflict and achieving their objectives through other means of influence. The consequence is a future of persistent, unending great power competition that resides in a gray zone between war and peace. Adversaries will challenge U.S. power in this gray zone to erode strategic advantage and influence action. According to military doctrine, adversaries currently deploy capabilities “in all domains – Space, Cyber, Air, Sea, and Land” to challenge U.S. power[4]. This doctrine denies the cognitive domain.

Significance:  The cognitive domain will gain prominence in future strategic environments, conflict, and multi-domain operations. The cognitive domain of war has been explored and contested for centuries. Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu refers to winning war through intelligence, information, and deception; attacking enemies where they are least prepared; and subduing adversaries indirectly without fighting. To win campaigns of influence in the cognitive domain requires achieving cognitive superiority.

Current Chinese military doctrine recognizes the importance of cognitive superiority, particularly in pre-kinetic stages of war. In pre-kinetic stages, unconventional “attacks” in the cognitive domain will shape how adversarial populations think. Human capital will be targeted. Targets will include societal weaknesses, social networks, and cyber and information systems. By weakening or defeating “systems” across all domains, below the threshold of kinetic conflict, an adversary’s strategic advantages, defenses, and deterrent capabilities are compromised[5].

Cognitive superiority is achieved through education and professional development, organizational learning and adaptability, technological advantage, and leadership. Taken together, these means translate into the ability to gather, decipher, process, and understand tremendous amounts of data and information faster than the enemy. Fusing and communicating knowledge faster than a competitor ensures the ability to disrupt enemy decision-cycles; influence their perceived reality; and impose U.S. will.

Option #1:  The U.S. improves public education, which includes a reevaluation of its investment in human capital, education systems, and professional development.

Risk:  Public education and pursuance of tertiary education will continue to fall behind U.S. allies and adversaries[6]. American society will be targeted by misinformation and influence campaigns; and bombardment by opinions masquerading as fact. The public will be challenged in discerning the origination of attacks, whether they originate domestically, outside sovereign borders, or through complicity. Finally, a trend of hyper-politicization of public policy related to education will result in low prioritization, under-funding, and a society dispossessed of the cognitive complexity to question and discern truth.

Gain:  Future generations, a population of which will serve in the armed forces, will have an educational foundation that better provides for the ability to detect and discern misinformation. Those that choose to serve will be better-equipped for achieving intellectual overmatch with adversaries that the joint force requires[7].

Option #2:  The U.S. invests in organizational learning and adaptation.

Risk:  Organizations that fail to learn and adapt in a manner that creates advantage and innovation, particularly in complex, competitive environments, are challenged to maintain relevance[8].

Gain:  Organizational learning and adaption is enabled by a professional, educated, trained workforce[9]. Investment in organizational learning and adaptation builds a healthy organizational culture reinforced by professionalism, common ethos and values, and competitiveness. Such characteristics are imperative to understanding complex challenges in uncertain environments[10].

Option #3:  The U.S. invests in technological innovation and advantage.

Risk:  Adversaries will forage and steal intellectual property. They have done so for decades, unhindered and unpunished[11]. American business, venture capital, and entrepreneurs, as well as the U.S. economy as a whole, will be unnecessarily impeded in the ability to compete in a world economy, threatening U.S. national interests.

Gain:  American entrepreneurial spirit is motivated and sustained by the advantages and rewards of a market-driven economy. The profit and gain achieved through investment in and maintenance of technological innovation and advantage fosters economic productivity. Taken together, these dynamics incentivize public policy that creates and fosters healthy, competitive, and profitable business environments and practices[12].

Option #4:  The U.S. Government incentivizes ‘unity of effort’ through public-private partnerships.

Risk:  Liberal democracies and free market economies may resist a perceived ‘militarization’ of the cognitive domain. Public officials may lack the intellectual curiosity or political will to recognize, understand, and engage in the cognitive domain to protect U.S. interests. Private-sector leaders and the public may be wary of partnering with the government. Leading a synchronized ‘unity of effort’ across governmental institutions and the private-sector is an incredibly challenging and complex task.

Gain:  With safeguards to civil liberties, the synergy between public- and private-sector efforts to achieve cognitive superiority would overcome adversarial incursion, influence, and competition in the cognitive domain.

Other Comments:  In a future epoch, the current era will be considered transitional and revolutionary. In this revolutionary era, the U.S. will be required to continually assess and ensure that adversaries and the strategic environment do not outpace the intellectual capacity of leaders, government, and society to understand and harness the age in which we live.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Mintz, A. and K. DeRouen. (2010). Understanding foreign policy decision making. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cottam, M., E. Mastors, T. Preston and B. Dietz. (2016). Introduction to Political Psychology, 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge.

[3] George, A. (1969). “The ‘operational code’: A neglected approach to the study of political leaders and decision-making.” International studies quarterly. 13:2. 190-222.

[4] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (2018). “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028.” TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Portals/14/Documents/MDO/TP525-3-1_30Nov2018.pdf

[5] Laird, B. (2017). “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict.” Center for a New American Security. March 20. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control

[6] OECD. (2019). “United States.” Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/education-at-a-glance-2019_1e0746ed-en#page1.

[7] Joint Staff. (2019). “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education and Talent Management. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/MECC2019/jcs_vision_pme_tm_draft.pdf?ver=2019-10-17-143200-470

[8] Darwin, C. (1859). The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Reprinted in 1957. New York: Random House.

[9] Schmidt, T. (2013). “Design, Mission Command, and the Network: Enabling Organizational Adaptation.” The Land Warfare Papers. No 97. August. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://ausa.org/files/design-mission-command-and-networkpdf

[10] Pierce, J. (2010). “Is the Organizational Culture of the U.S. Army Congruent with the Professional Development of Its Senior Level Officer Corps?” The Letort Papers. September. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2097.pdf

[11] Department of Justice. (2020). “Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases.” Press Release. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/harvard-university-professor-and-two-chinese-nationals-charged-three-separate-china-related

[12] Gill, I. (2020). “Whoever leads in artificial intelligence in 2030 will rule the world until 2100.” Brookings Institute. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/01/17/whoever-leads-in-artificial-intelligence-in-2030-will-rule-the-world-until-2100