The Fallacy of Centralized Direction

The fallacy of centralized direction explains why we often overestimate how well we can predict future actions of others. This fallacy suggests that when we evaluate actions or policies of others, we often see a centralized direction where it doesn’t exist.[1]

The Need for Control and Predictability

Games of ChanceAn underlying reason for this is our psychological need for predictability—we intuitively don’t like the idea of randomness and chance. Generally, as psychologist Ellen Langer observed, people act as if they can control outcomes which they obviously couldn’t; Langer called this effect the illusion of control.[2] Even in games of chance, such as dice throwing, people like to fool themselves thinking they can influence the outcome or able to find some pattern. In a 1967 study, James Henslin reported that dice players behave as if they are controlling the outcome: if players want low numbers, they will roll the dice gently, and if they want higher numbers, they will toss it harder.[3] In Henslin’s study, some even believed they could control the dice with words and actions. (When Henslin asked them for some advice on how to succeed better, one of the players advised him, “Talk to ’em! Talk to ’em when ya shoot![4]).

Therefore, when we are evaluating events, this need for predictability and control leads us to subconsciously reject the possibility that they happen because of chance, so we try to find some pattern and predictability.

The Fallacy of Centralized Direction in Action

The fallacy of centralized direction can substantially impair our strategic thinking, analytic judgment, and decision-making. Corporate analysts, for example, may look at random actions of companies and mistakenly infer carefully coordinated policies and centralized direction, thus overestimating the company’s strategy and capabilities. If coupled with the halo effect, the fallacy of centralized direction may cause massive overestimates.

Policy analysts will often overestimate statements made by government officials thinking they must be part of the centralized direction, thus underestimating the possibility that they may have been unintentional or inessential.[5] Intelligence analysts may fail to see inconsistent policies as weaknesses, thinking that actions not matching a centralized direction must be the result of deceit.[6]


[1] Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999) p. 131.

[2] Ellen J. Langer, The Illusion of Control, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328 (1975).

[3] James M. Henslin, Craps and Magic, American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330 (1967).

[4] Ibid p. 319

[5] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976) p. 320

[6] Richards J. Heuer, Jr., Psychology of Intelligence Analysis (Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, 1999) p. 132.