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Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions Hardcover – November 28, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0674015760 ISBN-10: 0674015762 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (November 28, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674015762
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674015760
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,141,896 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Does a human tendency toward overconfidence lead us into wars when a more realistic assessment might keep the peace?" Johnson, a fellow at Princeton's Society of Fellows, poses that question in this debut, and his answer, stretched out over eight densely written chapters, is (much more often than not): yes. Johnson hones in on different nations' decisions at what he posits as turning points in 20th-century history: WWI and the Vietnam War, which became shooting wars, and the Munich Crisis of 1938 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which did not. Johnson ties the trait of overconfidence to humankind's evolutionary past, maintaining that it is "an integral part of the human psyche." He finds the Iraq war, to which he devotes his last chapter, a consequence of that overconfidence. Johnson is meticulous in backing up his assertions, but (despite the trade-like subtitle) the book reads like an academic treatise; be prepared for arguments made solely for other experts, long stretches of quotation and dense charts.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


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)

Overconfidence and War is a fascinating and insightful analysis. Its skillful blend of history, psychology, and evolutionary biology is a model for a new kind of social analysis, one that will have increasing prominence in the years to come. (Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate)

The puzzle of why countries go to war is a puzzle only for those who assume that humans are calculating machines. Dominic Johnson provides a scientific foundation for understanding how humans really make decisions about the most important questions they face. We need more books like Overconfidence and War. (Stephen Peter Rosen, Harvard University)

This is an important book, both timely and of enduring value. It traces in detail the dreadful connection between self-deception and human warfare and suggests the kinds of thinking we must guard against if we are to avoid war. Read this book in hopes of a better, more conscious day-a day when we will not blunder so easily and stupidly off the first cliff inviting us to war. (Robert Trivers)

Dominic Johnson's attack on the war puzzle is novel, convincing, and appealing. Steeped in sound biology and a detailed account of key well-documented conflicts, Overconfidence and War marks an important advance in the long-anticipated integration of political science and evolutionary theory. (Richard Wrangham, co-author of Demonic Males)

Johnson applies the logic of evolution to international relations. Following one of his mentors, the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, he suggests that overconfidence might once have been helpful in war and conflict. On the ancient African savannah, it was actually rational to misestimate your own capacities: a fearsome appearance and bold tactics could intimidate the enemy and help carry the day during lightning raids on enemy camps. But today, given modern weaponry, bureaucratic planning and mass armies, a cocky disposition is as likely to be suicidal as it is glorious. Military overconfidence, in other words, is a psychological holdover--a cognitive appendix--from an earlier period in human history. It is perhaps most dangerous when it prompts a decision for war in the first place. And it could be the X-factor explaining the otherwise inexplicable in recent military history: French faith in the Maginot line, Hitler's drive into Russia, the American failure to heed the lessons of French defeat in Vietnam. Most humans are prone to overestimating themselves, but leaders (who are inordinately ambitious and, by definition, have suffered few recent professional setbacks) are especially susceptible. Fittingly, the cover of Johnson's book features George W. Bush in the famous flight suit, flashing an exuberant thumbs-up. (Christopher Shea New York Times Magazine 2004-12-12)

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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Alexander Kemestrios Ben on February 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Johnson scores a Vince Carter windmill on this book.

He cogently explains why international warfare is so damned hard to irradicate. On top of this, he combines structural historical theories with darwinian theory. A brilliant synthesis and one more indviduals need to consider. Finally, he writes clearly, forcefully, and with eloquence. There is no hint of the "I am smarter than you and I will prove it" syndrome with Johnson. Nope. Short and to the point.

His basic idea is that war can be explained, in part, by positive illusions. Individuals have been shown to possess positive illusions about many things, such as their intelligence, athleticism, sexiness, etc. Don't buy it? Do this quick thought experiment: ask 100 random people to rate their intelligence from 1 to 10, with 5 anchored as average. How many people do you think will pick 2 or 3? QED!

Johnson explains the adaptive advantages of having positive illusions. These might include motivation to take action, unwillingness to quite, etc.

After using darwinian theory to explain why humans have positive illusions (that is, to anchor the proximate in the ultimate), Johnson proceeds to apply positive illusions to instances of warfare.

The case studies are well chosen, well researched, and illuminating. I don't want to spoil the book, so I will not give away the details. However, if you want to know why the U.S. has such an insanely hubristic foreign policy, and why that foreign policy may bring us ruin as a superpower, read Johnson.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By 1. on September 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Dominic Johnson has written an excellent account of how overconfidence is engrained in our genetic code and leds to foreign policy debacles in the modern era. In the cases of Vietnam, the First World World War, and Iraq, overconfidence was the prime reason for these foreign policy disasters because all of the main characters in these cases ignored conflicting information and stifled dissent. Johnson argues that overconfident leaders believe that they can win any unwinnable conflict due to engrained genetice traits. However in the Munich and the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaders consulted with other members of the government, and this helped to diffuse any overconfidence amongst those in the cabinet. Some rightwinged readers might be offended by Johnson's praise of Chamberlain, but they should realize that both Britain and France lacked any significant ground forces during the Munich crisis to confront Germany. Moreover the nuance and willingness to listen to other viewpoints allowed John Kennedy to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and save the world from nuclear destruction as mentioned in Johnson's book . However leaders that are narrowminded and overconfident such as L.B.J and G.W. Bush seemed unwilling to listen to contrary advice and prevent the nation from sufffering in two quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. The main weakness of Johnson's book is that he skims over the reasons why the general public seems to have intially supported the fiascos in Iraq,Vietnam, and the First World War even when the casaulties began to pile up. I would reccomend this book to anyone who thinks that Bush's "strong," character is a plus in foreign policy while Kerry's "nuance," is a weakness.
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8 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Terence C. Burnham on March 4, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My friend and colleague Dominic Johnson has written a great book.

This is pathbreaking work, which along with Harvard Professor Stephen Rosen's "War and Human Nature" will change the fields of political science and international relations.

Overconfidence and War has three unique features:

1. Grounds Political science in genetic evolution and modern Darwinism.

Dr. Johnson examines how an evolved human nature can be adaptive for ancestral humans and catastrophic for industrialized humans. Give a caveman nuclear weapons and what do you think would happen? Exactly.

2. Provides great summaries of key wars & conflicts.

Dr. Johnson's chapters covering individual conflicts are better than most books on the subjects.

3. Clear thinking = clear writing.

Dr. Johnson proves that being smart and well-educated doesn't mean being unreadable. The writing is concise, eloquent, and fun to read.

An excellent work. Well done sir.

Terry Burnham
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