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Overconfidence and War

Overconfidence and War

The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

Dominic D. P. Johnson

ISBN 9780674015760

Publication date: 10/29/2004

Opponents rarely go to war without thinking they can win--and clearly, one side must be wrong. This conundrum lies at the heart of the so-called "war puzzle": rational states should agree on their differences in power and thus not fight. But as Dominic Johnson argues in Overconfidence and War, states are no more rational than people, who are susceptible to exaggerated ideas of their own virtue, of their ability to control events, and of the future. By looking at this bias--called "positive illusions"--as it figures in evolutionary biology, psychology, and the politics of international conflict, this book offers compelling insights into why states wage war.

Johnson traces the effects of positive illusions on four turning points in twentieth-century history: two that erupted into war (World War I and Vietnam); and two that did not (the Munich crisis and the Cuban missile crisis). Examining the two wars, he shows how positive illusions have filtered into politics, causing leaders to overestimate themselves and underestimate their adversaries--and to resort to violence to settle a conflict against unreasonable odds. In the Munich and Cuban missile crises, he shows how lessening positive illusions may allow leaders to pursue peaceful solutions.

The human tendency toward overconfidence may have been favored by natural selection throughout our evolutionary history because of the advantages it conferred--heightening combat performance or improving one's ability to bluff an opponent. And yet, as this book suggests--and as the recent conflict in Iraq bears out--in the modern world the consequences of this evolutionary legacy are potentially deadly.

Praise

  • Dominic Johnson shows that international conflicts need not escalate into long, costly wars -- if decision-makers rely on well-vetted information and avoid wishful thinking. He provides a lucid, convincing analysis of the disastrous consequences when normal confidence gives way to arrogance, causing leaders to believe their own propaganda, assume superiority, and deny facts.

    —Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School Professor and author of Confidence: How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End

Author

  • Dominic D. P. Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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