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How Spies Think: 10 Lessons in Intelligence – David Omand

4th September 2021
how spies think book cover


How Spies Think is about how to apply the intelligence analysts’ way of thinking in day-to-day life. He aims to empower people to make better decisions by learning how intelligence analysts think and make people more resilient to manipulation. I am attracted by the title and would like to see if I could improve my decision making skills with this book.


David Omand is a British former senior civil servant. He was the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator. He served for 7 years on the Joint Intelligence Committee. Other positions that he held include Permanent Secreatary of the Home Office (1997 to 2000) and Director of the Government Communications Headquarters (1996 to 1997).


How Spies Think has a total of 11 chapters and an introduction (Why we need these lessons in seeking independence of mind, honesty and integrity). The 11 chapters are divided into 3 parts.

Part One is An Analyst Sees: Four Lessons in Ordering Our Thoughts. The 4 chapters here are Lesson 1: Situational awareness. Our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary and incomplete, and is sometimes wrong, Lesson 2: Explanation. Facts need explaining, Lesson 3: Estimations. Predictions need an explanatory model as well as sufficient data, and Lesson 4: Strategic notice. We do not have to be so surprised by surprise.

Part Two is Three Lessons in Checking Our Reasoning and contains 3 chapters. The chapters are Lesson 5: It is out own demons that are most likely to mislead us, Lesson 6: We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind, and Lesson 7: Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking.

Part Three is Three Lessons in Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence. There are 3 chapters in this part. These chapters are Lesson 8: Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side, Lesson 9: Trustworthiness creates lasting partnership, and Lesson 10: Subversion and sedition are now digital.

Part Four only contains one chapter and it is A final lesson in optimism.


How Spies Think is about recognizing the weaknesses in our way of thinking and gives the readers suggestions for improvement. The author introduces the SEES model, which stands for Situational awareness, Explanation, Estimates, and Strategic notice. Before we delve into the SEES model, let’s us explore some of the author’s insight.

Sound thinkers try to understand how their unconscious feelings as individuals, as members of a group and within an institution might affect their judgement. To prevent cognitive failures, the author recommends to be open about the risk of bias within a group. There are a lot of biases that human race has. One such example is confirmation bias where humans are more likely to embrace highly targeted appeals even if they are based on false information, as long as they appear to reinforce their core beliefs.

One interesting thing in this book is the Bayesian method of reasoning. It involves adjusting our prior degree of belief in a hypothesis on receipt of new evidence to form a posterior degree of belief in it. It is helpful when we are trying to piece together what is going on by looking at fragmentary information from a variety of sources.

We can gain information from sources that are open to anyone, provided sufficient care is taken to apply critical reasoning to them. However, we need to avoid the human instinct to explain away information that does not fit the prevailing narrative.

Context is needed to infer meaning but meaning is a construct of the human mind, thus liable to reflect our emotionally driven hope and fears as much as it represents an objective truth. Reality has no blank spots: the problems we encounter are not with reality but with how well we are able to map it.

The answer we get depends upon the question we asked. We can do the following recommendation to test our assumptions when looking for an answer: Ask if I make this assumption, am I making myself worse off in terms of chances of success if it turns out not to be sensible than if I had not made it?

The aim of true partnership is to arrive at a position of mutual advantage where all parties benefit, so we can genuinely say that gains are shared. It does not necessarily mean sharing equally but returns must commensurate with the effort put in over the long term. When it comes to give and take, it may look like you will do most of the giving and the other party the taking. However, this is the same for the counterparty. Engendering lasting cooperation from others in one’s own life boils down to one’s trustworthiness. Once suspicion has taken hold, it breeds yet more suspicion.

I have also learned about BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement) which I feel is useful. The concept is that it is always better psychologically to be prepared to advance to a known position than to retreat into the unknown. By having in mind what we definitely want to achieve in a negotiation, we might be able to get what we want even if the negotiation does not go well.

The author also teaches the readers on how to spot a conspiratorial loop. It is the requirement for ever more elaborate reasoning to explain away contrary evidence.

Now, let us explore the SEES model which is used by the intelligence analysts.

Situational awareness = what is happening and what we face now.

Explanation = why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.

Estimates = how events may unfold under different assumptions.

Strategic notice = what future issues that may come to challenge us in the long term.

By approaching problems with this SEES model, the author assures us that we should be able to have apt solutions or at least have an inkling of how the situation would develop. Some important developments are like ships that have not yet put to sea – they may never come to threaten us if pre-emptive measures are taken early enough.

This book includes the history of UK intelligence agency. The author also discusses the importance of intelligence community and gives the best case and worst case scenarios of the power of internet.

The author intends this book to be a guide to thinking straight, not a manual for bad behaviour. He also wants us to live safely in the current digital world as what we do in cyberspace bleeds back into the real world. I appreciate the discussion in the book, especially on Bayesian method. The lessons in the book definitely will make me reflect on my behaviour and I would try my best to implement the SEES model in my life.


  1. The evidence rarely speaks for itself.
  2. Our knowledge of the world is always fragmentary and incomplete, and is sometimes wrong.
  3. Assumptions have to be made, but circumstances can change and what was reasonable to take as a given may not be with time.
  4. We look but do not see the danger, just as in everyday life we can hear but not listen.
  5. Do not believe what you want to believe until you know what you need to know.


3 out of 3 stars

Interested in How Spies Think?

You may get the book from through the link below*.

Get the print book from Kinokuniya Malaysia here

*Disclosure: The above link is an affiliate link. Thus, I may earn a small commission when you purchase the book through the link.

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