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5 May 2011

Osama bin Laden’s Death: Intuitive Problem-solving Lesson

After watching PBS NewsHour’s analysis, “What’s Next for U.S. Military in Fight Against Al-Qaida?” which aired on Monday, May 2, 2011, I recalled an adage from a childhood story, “Sometimes the best place to hide something is in plain sight.”

In the story, someone hid an incriminating letter in his apartment. Rather than a secret place, he kept it with his routine correspondence. The authorities never found it because they didn’t believe he would keep it there.

Bin Laden’s death highlights that we are prejudiced toward three types of solutions: logical, technological and consistent. As a result, we are prejudiced against solutions that are emotional, human and deviant.

For example, we could not emotionally believe that bin Laden would hide in plain sight and in the midst of military forces that could destroy him. Furthermore, it took the consolidation of intelligence personnel (not technology) from Iraq before we saw dynamic progress. Finally, we did not expect Pakistani real estate, zoning and building protocols to be so deviant from ours.

Here are some questions that can help overcome these three prejudices:


  • What are the emotions behind the situation and our thinking?
  • What solutions are we not considering because they are “unreasonable”?
  • How likely will people behave as they told us?


  • What vulnerabilities and limitations do our technological solutions have?
  • How can human intervention help?
  • What assessments can humans do better?


  • How closely are we expecting others to behave the way we do?
  • How much of this is because we’ve made them behave as we do?
  • What would someone with an opposing perspective think and do?

It took ten years because bin Laden wasn’t rational, our technology wasn’t omnipresent and Pakistan’s zoning protocols weren’t like ours.


Here are some related links if you’d like elaboration on these points. These two further explore how people can behave much differently than they say they will:

This one gives an example of a low-tech solution besting a high-tech one: When Best Technology Isn’t Best

This one takes a “universal good” and demonstrates how it changes under the challenge of a different perspective: Is Freedom for Everybody?

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