Thursday, October 4, 2018

Do Your Homework: How Intelligence Professionals Can Use Role-Playing to Anticipate Decisions

Thomas, V., Magnotta, S., Chang, H., Steffes, E. (2018) Role Playing in a Consumption Context: An Experiential Learning Activity Focused on the Consumer Decision-Making Process. Marketing Education Review, 28(2), 89-97. 


The authors in this study, in an attempt to move away from lecture towards a more interactive activity, employed role-playing in a marketing class for their students. Previous literature had cited the benefit of experiential learning as encouraging learning through experience and in this context the authors wanted students to learn about the external and internal influences on a consumer's decision-making. The authors conducted the activity after a review of the steps in the consumer decision-making process but prior to the identification of factors that influence the process. Omitting the identification of these factors was critical to the success of the activity since it gave students the opportunity to realize these factors during the role-playing activity.

The students were assigned roles as either a consumer, sales assistant, or cashier in a retail bookstore. Students were able to share their assigned roles with other students (i.e., consumer, sales assistant, cashier), but were not allowed to share their characters' motivations. For example, one consumer was in a rush to buy a textbook needed for an exam the next day and another consumer had time to spare and was browsing for a book that would impress his or her upcoming date. For the sales assistants, one was motivated to impress the boss while another was motivated to do as little work as possible. These underlying motivations were not shared with others, as these were the factors the students were supposed to realize throughout their interactions in the role-playing activity.

After the students completed the role-playing activity for a short time, the students were asked to guess what each others' underlying motivations were in the activity. In the ensuing discussion, the class identified the influences on consumer behavior they experienced or observed in the activity (time constraints, need for belonging, quality of interaction with sales assistant, etc.). A post-test survey of the participants revealed several statistically significant findings regarding the activity. The students had positive impressions of the activity for contributing to learning, had found the activity to be engaging, and recommended using the activity in future classes for learning.


The positive perceptions regarding the learning process through role-playing speaks volumes to the power of role-playing in understanding another's behavior. The role-playing activity offers an appealing alternative to the lecture-style of learning in the classroom and shows promise for anticipating another person's or organizations' decisions in an intelligence capacity. However, several differences make role-playing in the classroom difficult to apply to an intelligence capacity.

The first difference is that for the classroom the setting was physical and students were able to rearrange the room to reflect a typical bookstore. For intelligence professionals, the settings may not be physical but rather theoretical situations (e.g., company executives making decisions in a changing or emerging industry, international politicians making policy decisions).

Another difference is that the students were likely already familiar with the experience of making decisions while shopping in a retail bookstore. Due to their position and responsibilities as intelligence professionals, these professionals are likely not familiar with the experience and process of making decisions at the corporate- or political-level

Finally, in this activity the students were assigned clearly defined motivations to direct their behavior in the activity. However, for intelligence professional those motivations may not be clearly defined and will require more research to understand the person or organization of interest, the situation, and the factors at play.

Role-playing activities show promise for anticipating a person's or organization's decisions in an intelligence capacity, however are innately more labor-intensive in intelligence. In order to overcome the labor barrier that may discourage the use of role-playing, intelligence professionals will need to have a strong intelligence gathering system in place that provides an up-to-date and accurate understanding of the person or organization, their motivations, and the theoretical setting/situation.
With this system in place, the initial labor required to conduct the activity is reduced and intelligence professionals can use role-playing more often and more effectively.


  1. I agree with you when you say that an accurate understanding of the adversary should be known. I think trainees who are delegated for the task are purposely put in the simulations due to their knowledge on the task in place. If someone is going to the Middle East, it is obviously advantageous if the force speaks the language, understands the culture, and knows the people they are dealing with in order for the operation to be successful. Before presenting, presenters usually know the audience they are presenting to and interests they may have, in order to prepare.

  2. Due to the fact that role playing relies so heavily on adversarial knowledge at an intimate level, I question whether it is even practical. How do you adjust role playing for an adversary whose behavior patterns are too sporadic to accurate develop?

    1. I agree I think it has its limitations. But I'd argue the same for any methodology that is heavily focused on the adversary.

    2. Billy,
      Unfortunately using role-play with an adversary whose behavior patterns are difficult to anticipate will require a strong understanding of their preferences and influences. But since these adversaries are more difficult to understand, role-playing may not be the best approach.

  3. A lot of the articles I read through talked about role playing success in the medical field and in the classroom. I think Billy and Chelsie both bring up a good point that the adversary is unknown or if the their motivation is unknown is that effective role play. In most intelligence situation that knowledge is unknown. Do you still think it is an effective method to use in intelligence as far as national security issues?