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Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics

In Strategic Instincts Dominic Johnson shows how an evolutionary perspective offers the crucial next step in bringing psychological insights to bear on foundational questions in international politics.

 

 

Abstract

A widespread assumption in political science and international relations is that cognitive biases—quirks of the brain we all share as human beings—are detrimental and responsible for policy failures, disasters, and wars. In Strategic Instincts, Dominic Johnson challenges this assumption, explaining that these nonrational behaviors can actually support favorable results in international politics and contribute to political and strategic success. By studying past examples, he considers the ways that cognitive biases act as “strategic instincts,” lending a competitive edge in policy decisions, especially under conditions of unpredictability and imperfect information.

Drawing from evolutionary theory and behavioral sciences, Johnson looks at three influential cognitive biases—overconfidence, the fundamental attribution error, and in-group/out-group bias. He then examines the advantageous as well as the detrimental effects of these biases through historical case studies of the American Revolution, the Munich Crisis, and the Pacific campaign in World War II. He acknowledges the dark side of biases—when confidence becomes hubris, when attribution errors become paranoia, and when group bias becomes prejudice. Ultimately, Johnson makes a case for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and consequences of cognitive biases and argues that in the complex world of international relations, strategic instincts can, in the right context, guide better performance.

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    Book cover for Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics
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Professor Dominic Johnson is Alastair Buchan Chair of International Relations, Co-Director of the Oxford Martin School "Natural Governance" Programme