Reading time: 9 minutes
I will tell you a story. A story about men and machines. And about how an engineer saved the world from a nuclear apocalypse, making a choice that, although many believed came from the heart, was actually the natural result of experience.
It was 1983, the Cold War was rampaging and a man that most of the world had never heard about would have become the greatest hero of all time.
It was the night of September 25th, when a 44-year-old colonel from the military espionage sector of the Soviet Union’s secret services arrived at the command center of the early warning satellites, from which he coordinated the Russian air defence.
His job was to analyze and verify all the data coming from a satellite, in case of a possible American nuclear attack. To do this, he had at his disposal a simple and clear protocol, which he redacted himself. After the appropriate checks, if positive, it was his precise duty to alert his superior, which would have immediately started a solid nuclear counterattack on the United States and allied countries.
Just after midnight, at 00.14 of September 26, 1983, all alarm systems fired up and the message “Imminent nuclear missile attack” appeared on the screens. A missile was launched from one of the bases of the United States.
The official checked the data, asking for visual confirmation from the air, the only thing the satellite could not check because of the weather. In spite of the confirmations, he concluded that there must had been a mistake: it wasn’t logical that the US had sent a single missile if they were actually attacking the Soviet Union.
Thus, he ignored the alert, considering it a false alarm. But, a few moments later, the system showed a second missile. Then a third.
From the second floor of the bunker he could see, in the operation room, the large electronic map of the United States with the flashing light indicating the military base on the East coast, from which the nuclear missiles were launched.
In that moment, the system showed another attack. A fourth nuclear missile, followed immediately by a fifth.
In less than five minutes, five nuclear missiles were launched by American bases towards the Soviet Union. The flight time of a intercontinental ballistic missile from the United States was just twenty minutes.
After detecting the objective, the alarm system had to go through 29 security levels for confirmation; the official started to have strong doubts as the security levels were passes. He knew that the system could have malfunctioned. But could the entire system be wrong, for five times, nonetheless?
The base strategy principle of the Cold War would have been a massive launch of nuclear weapons, a simultaneous and overwhelming strength of hundreds of missiles, not the launch of five missiles one after the other. There must had been a mistake.
Error or strategy?
What if it wasn’t? What if it was an astute American strategy?
The colonel had five intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles travelling towards the Soviet Union and just ten minutes to take the decision to inform the Soviet leaders or not… He was fully aware of the fact that, if he would have alerted of what the systems were confirming, he would have caused WWIII.
120 people, officials and military engineers, were waiting for his decision. Never before in history, nor later, the destiny of the world would have been more in the hands of a single man than in those ten minutes. The future of the world depended on his decision, while he was negotiating with himself about pressing the “red button” or not.
He thought: “Americans still do not possess a missile defence system and they know that a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is equivalent to the immediate annihilation of their people. And, although I do not trust them, I know that they are not suicidal”. The colonel knew that, if he was wrong, an explosion 250 times larger than the Hiroshima one would have been unleashed on them in just a few a minutes, but he was able to remain calm and have the courage to listen to his instinct and conform to the logical conclusion suggested by common sense.
He decided to report a system malfunction.
Paralyzed, the 120 men at his command counted the minutes remaining for the missiles to reach Moscow. Until, a few seconds before the predicted arrival, the sirens stopped and alarm lights turned off.
He had taken the right decision. And he had saved the world.
This man, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, found himself in front of a choice. Excluding the rationality of a machine in favor of intuition, typical of a human being. And he was right.
Intuition, experience, action
What many actually don’t know is that Petrov’s choice was much more reasoned than what we like to think romantically. Petrov’s intuition, if that’s how we want to call it, was not magic at all: the choice was the direct and natural result of experience.
To use the words of American psychologist, Marines and Army consultant, as well as expert in decisional processes in emergencies, Gary Klein: “Intuition is experience in action. The secret is in the translation”.
When we are faced with a decision in situation of emergency, an alarm turns on in the head that, as it happened to Petrov, makes us act impulsively. The experiences we lived are unconsciously tied together to form a plan. In the moment we live a new situation, this generates contacts that lead to the recognition of well-tested plans. Recognized the pattern, the sense of the situation is clear. Whoever takes decisions based on intuition is often not aware of having made a decision nor what led them to those specific choices, action is immediate and without hesitation.
Experience is a fundamental factor, but not sufficient. Klein managed to identify the nature and the goal of the different mental processes. These are incredibly fast mental processes that are based on sensemaking: giving a meaning (interpreting) many little clues and peculiarities tied to the situation we are facing.
From this, Klein’s definition “intuition is experience in action” is born, in other words the connection between context interpretation and subsequent immediate action. The more experiences we have lived in a specific field, the faster we recognize those clues (most times unconsciously), those peculiarities that lead us to frame the situation (sensemaking) and choose the type of action we consider the most appropriate.
There wasn’t a happy ending for Petrov. Russia couldn’t allow the United States and the population to know what had happened, they warned the official for not having conformed to the protocol and they transferred him to a position in a lower rank. Not long afterwards, he was forced to an early retirement. He lived the rest of his life in a humble 2-room apartment in the suburbs of Moscow, surviving on a small pension of 200 dollars a month, in absolute solitude and anonymity. Until, in 1998, his commander in chief, Yuri Votintsev, who was present that night, revealed what happened, the so-called “Autumn Equinox Incident” caused by an extremely rare astronomical conjunction, in a book of memoires that accidently came into the hands of Douglas Mattern, president of the international organization for peace “Association of World Citizens”.
After verifying the veracity of the story, Mattern looked himself for this unknown hero, to give him the “World Citizenship Award”. The only clue on where to find him he got from a Russian journalist, that warned him that he would have had to go without an appointment, since neither the phone nor the doorbell was functioning. Find a trace, among an infinite row of grey apartment complexes 30 miles from Moscow, wasn’t easy.
One of the residents he asked for information answered: “You must be crazy. If it really existed a man that ignored a warning for a nuclear attack from the United States, he would have been executed. At that time, a thing such as a false alarm did not exist in the Soviet Union. The system was never wrong. Just the people”.
On the second floor in one of the buildings, he managed to find him, who came out, unkept and with a long beard. After recalling the story, the man would say: “I don’t’ consider myself as a hero; just an official who performed his duty with conscience in a moment of grave danger for humanity. I was just the right person in the right place at the right time”.
After learning about this event, American and Russian experts calculated what the entity of the damage would have been, based on the weapons at their disposal at the time. And they came to a frightening conclusion: between three and four billion people, directly or indirectly, had been saved by the decision taken by this man that night.
“The face of the planet would have been disfigured and the world as we know it would have ended”, one of the experts claimed.
For this reason, being aware of how we take decisions can make the difference.
- Klein G., The Power of Intuition
- Gigerenzer G., Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious
- Kahneman D., Tversky A., Judgement under uncertainty. Heuristics and biases, Science, 185, 1974