Strategy: Risky business

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, and thinking, mostly slowly, about the many ways in which the psychology of decision-making relates to strategic studies. In fact, Kahneman himself occasionally suggests military illustrations for his and others’ research on decision making.

Some readers may have come across prospect theory – Kahneman and longtime collaborator Amos Tversky’s groundbreaking research that won Kahneman a Nobel prize in Economics. I like the theory because it it’s evidence based, and comprehensively undermines the rational actor, expected utility models that were the basis of my undergrad education in social sciences.

In a nutshell, prospect theory holds that we don’t much like losing. In fact, we dislike losing a whole lot more than we like winning stuff. Truly, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Moreover, when we are faced with losing something, we are more disposed to gamble on retaining it than we are when faced with a gamble to win something. We are, in the jargon, risk acceptant when in a domain of losses.

Stay with me, because there’s a strategic application to this that I’m by no means the first to see (Levy and Thompson point it out in their book Causes of War, for example). Whether we consider ourselves as in the domain of losses or gains depends entirely on what our personal reference point is: the outcome with which we are satisfied. That might be the status quo ante bellum, for example. But it might not be – we might consider the status quo to be unjust, and the true reference point to be a situation that is more balanced in our favour than the present conditions suggest. In such a situation, we are, prospect theory holds, more likely to gamble on risky ventures than if the present situation were more advantageous than our perceived reference point.

So far, so Nazi Germany gambling like a mad thing against improbable odds in the 1930s. Your goal, as Kahneman says, is your reference point. And for Hitler, bent on revenge and prepared to bet the farm on restoring Germany to its proper place, that was pre-1918 Germany, or perhaps Germany after 1,000 years of the glorious Third Reich.

A second aspect of Kahneman’s research programme shows how we typically overweight improbable events. In expected utility theory, the standard social science model, the expected value we will derive from some gamble is proportional to the probability of that gamble paying off. It’s simply the probability of the payoff multiplied by what the payoff means to us – in terms of pleasure or pain.

In the real world, however, psychologists have found that our sense of proportion is skewed towards improbable events. We weight these much more heavily in deriving the expected value of an outcome – good or bad. It’s this that makes terrorists tick – we are most unlikely to be killed by them, and yet we spend a fortune to protect against their pinprick attacks – overweighting the improbable, in part because it seems so vivid, and easily brought to mind. The distortion happens at both ends of the probability spectrum – where things are nearly impossible, and conversely where there are almost certain, you can bet we’ll be overweighting that bit at the end, compared to what a theoretically rational actor would do.

Combining these two fundamentals of cognitive psychology gives Kahneman a quadrant that looks like this:

Modified from Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011, p. 317


Let’s go through it:

1. Think about the top right cell here. You’re in a domain of losses – some way distant from your reference point – you know, the political goal that Clausewitz told you to keep in mind at all times. Now, the enemy attacks, and does well. As things stand, you face the near certain prospect of defeat. There’s a 95% chance you’ll lose the war and with it your whole empire.

The enemy meanwhile makes you a peace offer that any rational actor would approve of. You will lose much of what you control. In fact, you will lose the exact expected value – 95% of your empire. You should take that certain deal, right? Rather than fight on crazily in an (almost) lost cause and risk losing the lot? 5% of empire is better than zero percent of empire, after all. That’s the rational thing to do, no?

Prospect theory says you are disposed to gamble. You hate losing, after all. What’s more, there’s a high probability of the event happening, and that distorts your weighting such that you are insensitive to the overwhelming probability of defeat. You overweight the benefits associated with that slim, 5% chance of victory, and not losses consequent on the attack. Prospect theory and the bias induced by improbable events are working in the same direction. Even if the enemy offered terms that let you keep 10% of your empire, you might still gamble, well against the odds to lose nothing.

2. What about the cell bottom right? Overall, it’s still the case that things have been going badly, viz your initial reference point. You’re in that domain of losses. Now the enemy has attacked, and you once again face the prospect of losing. But it’s not armageddon out there – there’s now only a low probability of your total defeat, if you don’t accept terms.

Here comes the enemy negotiator, and he’s offering a sensible terms, at least to a rational actor. He only wants 5% of your empire, and you get to keep your head. He’s not likely to beat you, is he? Surely you should gamble on almost certainly not losing the war?

…but still, what if that 5% came good? You’d lose everything. you focus on that 5% chance , in fact, you over-focus on it. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so remote. The overweighting of remote possibilities kicks in, and you become, on balance, risk averse. Of course, a savvy enemy negotiator knows you’re going to worry about that small chance – and he can exploit that worry, and drive a harder bargain. Perhaps you give up 10% of your realm. Still, better safe than sorry. Effectively you’ve bought some insurance against regime change.

3. What’s going on top left? Now the boot is on the other foot – you’re ahead of the curve. ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners are streaming from your castle. And you are on the attack, and have a 95% prospect of winning the war and your enemy’s total unconditional surrender. That’s almost certain, right? So when the enemy comes crawling to you, what do you do?

You’re risk averse, of course. You’re in the domain of gains, already ahead of your reference point. You can gamble on getting more, through driving home this latest attack, but there’s an outside chance you’ll lose the battle if you do, and gain nothing. What’s more, the distortion induced by the certainty effect – operating very close to absolute certainty of winning – means that more attention than is strictly ‘rational’ gets focused on that slim residual chance of losing. Discretion is the better part of valour here, for sure. And the enemy, knowing that, can drive a hard bargain. If you settle, you still get a decent chunk of real estate, but you are likely to settle for much less than a rational actor would, with a keener appreciation of how unlikely defeat is, and more stomach for the fight.

4. In the last cell, you are still in the domain of gains, and mounting an attack. There’s only a five percent chance of it paying off, but boy, if it does! You win the whole caboodle.

Prospect theory says that in a domain of gains, you likely to be risk averse. But here, it’s just so tempting… the possibility effect – the slim possibility that victory might be yours, draws your attention disproportionately to it. Here comes the enemy negotiator, and he offers you a settlement to call off the attack and cease fighting that’s bang in line with the expected value – 5% of the gain you might make. A rational actor would accept. You know what happens next.

A game two can play:

There are a number of implications for strategy of this sort of research. We like to think of strategy as being an intensely practical activity, using force instrumentally to link ends, ways and means.

A good strategist, we sometimes argue, should be a rational thinker, carefully judging the threats and assigning resources to meet them. In war, when the likely costs exceed the benefits, the rational actor draws stumps. If two rational actors with matching assessments of probabilities are fighting, we can see war as a negotiation with a rational, mutually acceptable outcome. Even if the information on payoffs and probabilities is initially uncertain, fighting is one way of providing the belligerents with a clearer picture.

But if two real, human actors are at war, things are more complicated. We can – for example – imagine someone in the top left pitched in battle against someone in the top right. The actual settlement, and the course of fighting depends, among other things on where those initial reference points are; on what their respective sensitivity to the being in a domain of losses or gains are (which depends, among other things, on emotions); and on how extreme the probabilities associated with the various strategies are.

Model that, if you can, my quantitative chums.

In a paper under review, I argue that prospect theory is one aspect of cognitive psychology among others that can explain why states fight on past where you would think a rational actor would call it quits. Let me know if you want a shufty.


45 thoughts on “Strategy: Risky business

  1. Mike Few says:

    Without arbitration, this is a lose-lose game or a hybrid of hawk-hawk. Also consider

    1. Are both teams playing same game?
    2. Is there perfect information, or can you misread opponent through bad signals?
    3. If arbitrated, can a fair settlement be reached?

  2. Mike Few says:

    For real life scenario, can I use deception or feint to maneuver from single-move zero-sum to multiple move attrition (live to fight another day)?

  3. Quintin says:

    A really useful post Ken – and potentially a missing piece of the puzzle for me (from at least one perspective). Please pen me in for that shufty if you could.

  4. Mike Few says:

    I wrote this three years ago in an article called “Nature Redux.” Still holds true today?

    “Conceptual blocks confound the most informed as the scientific method and unproved theorems cloud the framing. Specialization in learning separates emotion and utility as mutually exclusive. Is the function of my heart not intertwined with my brain? These experts proclaim today’s problems as too complex, hostile, dynamic, and confusing and dub them wicked, messy, and irreconcilable. The experts seek to minimize the consequences instead of solving the problem. Muddling through towards emptiness as secondary and tertiary effects dovetail into the wretched social conflict left unprovoked- the meta-game is hidden by the blinders of our lack of creativity.”

  5. Kenneth Payne says:

    Mike – I like that, and certainly agree that emotion is central to rationality. Meanwhile I’m in the hunt for examples, with which to populate those quadrants. I have a few already – all thoughts welcome:

    Top right – this is the problem facing terrorists, revolutionaries and desperate men in general. They are hopelessly adrift of their war aims, and have limited chance of gaining them – so are firmly in a domain of losses. Plus there is only a very, very small chance of their gamble paying off. Most likely they will lose, and so should accept a settlement that gives them little. Being revolutionaries, they don’t.

    Here is Hitler, gambling on super-weapons like the V1 and V2 rockets. Here too is Al Qa’eda – hoping against rational expectation that terrorism will fulfil their dreams of a global caliphate.

    Here too are the colonial powers of old – notably the French pouring endless resources into Indochine in the faint hope of turning things around.

    Bottom right – here you’re adrift of your overall goal, and face the remote prospect of losing big. It’s only remote, but your attention is focused on it disproportionately. When the enemy offers terms, he drives a hard bargain, but you settle for less than you would otherwise.

    Here is the US in Vietnam. There’s only a remote prospect of meltdown – you ought to bargain hard and give way only to a small degree on your aims. But you don’t because of that remote, but nagging possibility that you’ll lose considerably more.

    Top left – your war aims have been achieved, largely. And there’s an overwhelming prospect of decisive victory. Or you could settle for less and not risk more fighting. The enemy suspects you are risk averse, and can drive a harder bargain than he might, given the odds.

    Here is the US after the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 – accepting that Saddam remain in power, and not interceding when he brutally quells revolt in the provinces. Here too is the Israeli army in 1973, having boldly broken through Egyptian lines, and with Cairo at their mercy.

    Bottom left: Here again, you’ve largely surpassed your reference point, and in theory ought to be risk averse about gambles to make gains, relative to expected-utility. But the improbable chance of winning big weighs on your mind. There’s only a small chance to win the war outright, but it’s still a chance! When the enemy offers minor concessions, you are prone to go big.

    Could this be the USSR in Berlin and Cuba, in the early 1960s? The tide of Communism was running strong – successful nuclear tests, victory in China, recovery post WW2, consolidation of a sphere of influence in eastern Europe via a brutal crackdown in Hungary that the enemy conceded.

  6. Mike Few says:


    I’ll reply more later, but here’s some advice that a mentor sent me yesterday that might help (this in regards to another game theory problem that I was working).

    “It always has been a puzzle to me how one attaches probabilities to actions in wicked problem territory. After all, isn’t this why some problems are called wicked–we don’t know the probabilities of causes or their effects? Furthermore, in warfare, aka complex adaptive systems, assuming a closed system doesn’t make any sense to me. Why start with assumptions that you know are not true simply because it makes modeling easier?

    I think your case would be better served if you relied on complexity theory rather than traditional theories that assume equilibrium. Take a look at Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth that illustrates the flaws in traditional economics and illustrates how complexity economics is a better fit conceptually and practically for our complex world.

    Thus, I would encourage you to see beyond traditional issues of tactics and reframe your argument from a systems perspective. I think it offers you a sounder basis on which to frame your question and analysis. ”

    So, game theory, prospect theory, systems thinking and design methodology???

    Also, see the concept of energy expenditure and points of diminishing returns with The collapse of complex societies by Tainter (1988).

  7. Quintin says:


    After my original enthusiasm, and following much pacing about, I am no longer entirely convinced that this theory lends itself to modelling in a Boston Matrix as Kahneman had, for no other reason than that the measure rows, as well as the measure columns reflect one another. One could remove a measure row, or a measure column, and still have a full expression of the core of this theory.

    When stripped of this added complexity, the theory flies dangerously close to “stating the obvious” terrain, being inherently little more than the answer to the question: “what have I got to lose?” If the answer is “nothing”, then the risk to take an enormous gamble is mooted – there is no risk, and ending up with more than you started is practically given. If the answer is “everything”, then the risk of even the smallest gamble is disproportionately inflated – ending up with less than you started is practically a given. Perverse as this may seem, this reflects rationality in the actor.

    As of recent, I keep on returning to a single event (like the tongue finds that chip in a tooth): Andre Beaufre recalled how he and General Joseph Doumenc (the French Chief of General Staff) were summonsed to the headquarters of General Alphonse Georges (the French Commander-in-Chief of the front) at the Château des Bondons on the night of 13/14 May 1940:

    The atmosphere was that of a family in which there had just been a death. Georges got up quickly and came to Doumenc. He was terribly pale. ‘Our front had been broken at Sedan! There had been a collapse…’ He flung himself into a chair and burst into tears.

    This emotional outburst – more typical of a hormonal teenage girl than a front commander – holds the key to so many things that were determined on that night, that I simply have to understand why the general cried – after all, the cause of this anguish was a single German infantry brigade that had been pushed across the Meuse by Guderian. In context of the Prospect Theory: perhaps Kahneman is too general to be applied in a manner to this incident, but try as I may, I cannot fit Georges’ response into that grid.

    Would still like to have an early view of that article if I may…

    • Kenneth Payne says:

      That’s great – I seem to recall similar scenes from Marc Bloch’s book… It brings to mind Seligman’s research on learned helplessness – shock induced apathy.

    • Quintin says:

      Yes, Bloch’s observation of the small team that fled in panic when they experienced a short bombardment whilst on water detail away from the trenches… I recall that point.

      However, was that not a reflex instance (a sub-conscious selection between fight and flight with flight winning that particular debate)? This raises a very good question (being one that I had not yet considered): was Georges’ a cognitive acceptance of defeat, or was he responding to reflex? My own belief is to argue that it was cognitive (as I’ve always thought of it as such without giving that proper thought), but it is worth while to revisit that assumption.

      Thank you for the pointer to Seligman… sourcing as I type.

    • Quintin says:

      At the risk of wandering off topic, I’ve taken a look at Seligman and two things occurred to me:

      First of all, Seligman is corroborated by the studies of Bronson and Eleftheriou – repeated experiences of defeat will lead to the physiological changes required for submission to become a learned behaviour.[1] What is more, Roche and Leshner show that such periods of submissiveness can be extended beyond the expected duration.[2] As Scott points out, “The memory for danger appears to be very long-lasting”[3], and this is where the application of Seligman takes a knock. Seligman’s experiments relate to a specialised form of classic conditioning, which, as we know from Pavlov, is the eventual association of a secondary stimulus with a primary stimulus by various methods of learning – introduced by subjecting a creature to repeating presentation of these stimuli in tandem. Seligman can therefore only be truly applicable in such circumstances where the creature is repeatedly subjected to associated stimuli – so Bloch’s observation of the soldiers on water-duty on the Marne may be a contention – but also not a perfect fit. But I do not think it is a fit for explaining Georges’ outburst at all.

      This emotional outbursts by supreme commanders are surprisingly common, rather than being the exception, (or something restricted to French generals) – so it is a risk to dismiss such events out of hand. What was it that caused Caesar Augustus to bang his head against door-posts as he wailed: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions”?[4] Was it the same thing that prevented Varus from complying – having himself elected suicide in the face of defeat? Was it the same thing that caused the “bug-out fever” so frequently witnessed during the Korean War?[5] Was it that what had caused the intoxicated Egyptian Field Marshall Amer to stagger about in his headquarters on the fifth night of what was to become the Six-Day War, ranting as he did about conspiracies, and demanding sleeping tablets? As Nasser rushed through that night to the headquarters to ward off a second suicide attempt by his vice-president, he too could have benefited from sleeping tablets, for he had complained earlier of insomnia and pains in his legs. At least, he still had the capacity to rush – Anwar Sadat simply refused to leave his villa.[6] Even the mighty Julius Caesar was not immune to the drag of this thing.[7] And then there was Ludendorff: the German Supreme Command during the latter phase of the First World War. As he contemplated possible solutions to the rift in his front caused by the Bulgarian capitulation, he became agitated, (ranting about conspiracies), to the extent of collapsing in some sort of seizure and had to be hospitalised.[8] And then we have the examples of Japanese and German personnel habitually committing suicide, rather than face ‘dishonour’ (how soon we forget).

      Dragging myself back to the topic – while I am of the opinion that Kahneman does have an application in understanding some elements of the strategic decision-making process, his theory does not describe the full process – in particular, the type of conclusion indicated above. One would expect the above individuals – slotting into the top right corner of the grid – to be shouting for more grease pencils, drawing out grandiose schemes on maps… but they don’t. They flop into chairs and cry.

      [1] Bronson, F.H. and Eleftheriou, B.E. (1965), Behavioral, Pituitary and Adrenal Correlates of Controlled Fighting (Defeat) in Mice in Psychological Zoology, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 406-411.
      [2] Roche, Kerry E. and Leshner, Alan I. (1979), ACTH and Vasopressin Treatments Immediately After a Defeat Increase Future Submissiveness in Male Mice in Science, Vol. 204, No. 4399, pp.1343-1344.
      [3] Scott, John Paul (1958/1967), Aggression, (Chicago: University of Chicago), p.18.
      [4] Fuller, J.F.C. (1954/1987), A Military History of the Western World: Volume I, (New York: Da Capo), p.251.
      [5] Hastings, Max (1987/2000), The Korean War, (London: Pan), p.82 for a prime example, resulting as it did in the summary dismissal of the commander of the US 34th Infantry Regiment.
      [6] Oren, Michael B., (2002), Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, (London: Penguin), pp.286-287.
      [7] See Suetonius tr. Rolfe, J.C. (1913/1998), Volume I, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p.81 for an account on how Julius Caesar, despite his countless victories, considered suicide after a disastrous campaign in Spain.
      [8] Liddell Hart, Sir Basil (1930/1997), History of the First World War, (London: Macmillan), p.375.

    • Kenneth Payne says:


      that’s a great post – thanks. My initial response is that perhaps Seligman is indicative of apathy induced by repeated punishment – Generals who have just taken a battering have been subjected to something similar – in particular, they have lost control of their destiny – or perceive themselves to have done so. They are, perhaps, in that respect, similar to civilians under aerial bombardment. It’s that loss of control that makes the Kahneman framework less relevant in that situation – prospect theory is about decision-making – these shocked and apathetic generals no longer perceive there to be a choice for them to make – they are stunned into inaction.

      Having control, or fighting to exert it, is stressful, as Joseph Brady discovered with his experiments on ‘executive’ monkeys. Giving up control is one way of coping with stress.

      With the Bloch, I was thinking of stressed generals, rather than surprised troops – I think with the troops, experiments about relative arousal might be more germane.

      Good discussion – am learning lots.

    • Mike Few says:

      Also look at Google/Apple decision making.

      Take risks often, but when you identify failure, fail fast!

    • Mike Few says:

      Y’all’s stuff is helpful too. I like being able to chat with folks who understand both math and conflict :). My fiance thanks you too.

    • Quintin says:

      Thank you Ken, Brady proved to be a jackpot as he links these three discrete experiments relating to the orbitofrontal cortex with one another.[1][2][3]

      That fills a gap in my understanding for we now have the limbic as well as the endocrine systems covered in relation to stress, (and an understanding of how stress relates to the formation of peptic ulcers).

      The remaining piece of the puzzle is how the orbito-frontal cortex and the hypothalamus communicates. I believe it may be on the ancient sensory pathway for our olfactory sense: the OFC being implicated as the neural centre responsible for preferences (including of odours), and the hypothalamus being an end-point in the olfactory pathway (the other senses all having end-points in the thalamus).

      But I sense that we’re no longer in Kansas… So I’ll let you guys get back to risk.

      [1]Camille, Nathalie, et al (2004), The Involvement of the Orbitofrontal Cortex in the Experience of Regret in Science, Vol. 304, No. 5674, pp. 1167-1170.

      [2] Reekie, Y.L., et al (2008), Uncoupling of Behavioral and Autonomic Responses after Lesions of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 105, No. 28, pp. 9787-9792.

      [3] Wang, Jiongjiong, et al (2005), Perfusion Functional MRI Reveals Cerebral Blood Flow Pattern under Psychological Stress in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 102, No. 49, pp. 17804-17809.

    • Mike Few says:

      Again, can a change in attitude/perception be quantified? And, can peacemaking on the micro level combat continued terrorist attacks (Nigeria).

      e.g. Why Men Rebel (Gurr)

    • Quintin says:

      Interesting concept. I wonder how one could invoke that during an fMRI scan – I for one, would like to see the neural areas implicated in this.

  8. Mike Few says:

    Here is a real world example to build on to Quintin’s comment.

    A while back, I was working in a village in Iraq that had been previously used as an AQI training camp and had remnants of the shadow gov’t that we were attempting to clear. While AQI controlled the town, they had mock trials resulting in public beheadings.

    After we killed the local bombmaker, we recovered videos of the beheadings. It was disgusting. All the townspeople including the elders, gathered in the local square to cheer on their neighbors being beheaded.

    What do you do at this point? What can you do with “these” people? Are they acting b/c they are grateful for the Islamic State of Iraq or were they reacting to a sense of fear that they did not want to be the next one beheaded?

    How can there be any form of truth or reconciliation?

    Since we had occupied the town, established a patrol base, and gained semi-state of control, I as the military commander became the arbitrator.

    For step one of my attempts to assist in reconciliation and further the peace process, I brought in the Sunni leaders and made them watch the video. My hope was to inflict a sense of shame on them by forcing them to confront the truth of what they were involved in.

    It worked.

  9. Chirality says:

    I haven’t had time to read the comments but just wished to comment on the statement that this “comprehensively undermines the ‘rational actor’ .” That this model, using actors based more on prospect theory, perhaps might provide a more real world strategic tool?

    Although I think we have to clearly define what you mean by ‘rational actor’, I would argue that the rational actor of strategic theory does exactly what you are suggesting already. To quote Mr. Rainsborough:

    “Strategic Theory assumes the existence of rational actors. To be considered rational, actors must exhibit behaviour that is consistent with the attainment of their desired end.”….

    [here comes the key element]

    …”The assumption of rationality does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all decisions always produce the “correct” or maximum outcome for the actor”

    i.e. (in my interpretation) rational actors are human, with emotions and bias. The ‘rational actor’ does not need to be in ‘themselves’ a rational or logical being. They only need to be rational in the wish to attain their desired ends; that their behaviour confirms this. So I would suggest that Hitler was a rational actor but far from being rational in some of his actions, emotions, e.t.c.

    • Mike Few says:

      If we hold this to be true (I think it is), can we simplify rational actor and rational choice to this statement,

      People are people, and they sometimes act crazy.

      If yes, then how to quantify?

      EV = X +/- 15

      with 15 being the standard deviation for crazy?

    • Mike Few says:

      For a practical exercise, drink 15 pints tonight at the pub and measure how your judgement changes with each drink :)

    • Quintin says:

      Mike, I cannot convince the long suffering ethics committee that this is in the interest of science…

    • Mike Few says:

      Tell them that it’s Ben Franklin (and the Greeks) preferred methodology! The funny thing is that I don’t drink.

  10. Mike Few says:


    Another constraint on applying the individual game theory to the meta-level.

    -Every senior leader has his/her Machiavelli influencing/advising

    E.G. Petreaus/Crocker team had Emma Sky, David Kilcullen, and Odierno

  11. Ever forget to read a blog for a few weeks, then come back, slap your forehead and say, “Why don’t I read KoW every day?”

    We addressed this issue a few weeks back on our own blog, when we wrote about “The Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, a deliberately provocative title. Since then, I have dived a bit deeper into Kahneman, though I haven’t picked up his book yet.

    I think the issue is developing better modeling systems for the our respective armies. Basically, military social science still treats the enemy as a rational actor. So we assume that “if we kill enough bad guys” then the bad guys will rationally assume that being a “bad guy” will make you short for this world.

    Unfortunately, both the prospective theory and Kahneman’s “fast thinking” aspects come into play. So even if there is a five percent chance to win, but you win huge, then you play the game. I think Kahneman’s research has a lot to say about military science/strategy, and I am excited to see what else comes about.

    • Chirality says:

      Back to my comment on definition of ‘rational actor’ above….

      Plus, (as a civilian observer with a dim view of both the western civilian/political and military grasp of what strategy really is) I still find it hard to believe that senior military staff would really take on the basic military social science model you suggest – the basic assumption that kill numbers solely will make the difference in the enemy’s will to fight. It’s political unreality to the n’th degree.

      Strategy is about dealing with and exerting influence over dynamic uncertainty and complexity – including human uncertainty and complexity.

      And, “takes EVERY factor into account” according to Joly de Maizeroy. This surely means inclusion of human factors?

      War is, “….an expression of popular passions….” according to Michael Howard. How then can strategy assume a linear, deterministic view of the rational actor? Conflict is intrinsically a human, emotional, and biased act. Strategy is not strategy without taking this into account.

      Bernard Brodie said, “A sovereign nation determines for itself what its vital interests are and its leaders accomplish this exacting task largely by using their highly fallible and inevitably biased human judgement to interpret the external environment” i.e. Grand ‘Strategy’ allows for the human element within the label of ‘rational actor’.

      Perhaps in my final analysis what I am saying is that the process of what people are calling ‘strategy’, and using a false model of the rational actor, is not in fact what strategy is. It’s a false, bastardised, management consultancy concocted version. This false version of falls so far short of what ‘strategy’ really encompasses, at least to my mind.

      The problem now is that the understanding of what strategy is is so ubiquitously misused. In reality strategy has been out of fashion in western civilian and military leadership for a good number of decades. Maybe a discussion of how strategy, real strategy, can be re-inculcated into western governance is the question to ponder. Where can the next generation of leaders get a grounding? Does anyone do a degree in strategic theory or strategy anymore?

    • Mike you are sooooo responsible for distracting me with interesting things to read. Sounds good. BTW, I haven’t finished that doc you sent to watch, but I will. I saw one of the groups I want to say on 60 minutes years ago, but it will be interesting to see it in a different context.

  12. Mike Wheatley says:

    A wonderful piece.

    If i understand it correctly, does this suggest a COIN theory based on emphasising to the insurgent (or enemy in general) what they have to lose?

    E.g. convincing them that violent Islamism runs the risk of discrediting Islamic fundamentalism as a whole, and leading to a secularist backlash. Hence, the region not only failing to become a place of fundamentalist Islam – “failing to make a gain” – but of ceasing to be Islamic at all – “losing what you already have”.

    Or, in other words:
    a theory of COIN that strives to make the insurgent proud of what they have, so they are more afraid of losing it.

    (Or have I missed the point?)

    • Mike Few says:

      Mike, excellent point, but I would submit that it is the wrong question. Instead of searching for a better COIN theory, perhaps it is time to ask how we can better be expending our energy (intellectual capital, resources, time, effort, etc)?

      One lesson from the past decade is that there is limited gains shortly after a regime change from external intervention (COIN, CT, FID, etc…).

      In some ways, trying to develop a better COIN theory is akin to trying to figure out how to win back your ex-girlfriend that doesn’t love you or force your brother who’s an alcoholic to stop drinking. Ultimately, you can beg, coerce, attempt to influence, intervene, etc, but the choice is not left to you.

    • Mike Wheatley says:

      Well, yes – war is an opposed activity, and the other side is at least potentially your equal.
      Whilst you are trying COIN, they are trying PRIN (Pro-Insurgency) and C2IN (Counter-Counter-Insurgency, trying to convince you to give up on COIN).

      But perhaps you have hit on a method for testing this?
      Get two samples of alcoholics:
      For sample group A, try and mitigate their behaviour by emphasising what they will gain by changing.
      For sample group B, emphasise what they will lose by not changing.
      Measure what approach is most effective.

  13. Clement Guitton says:

    Maybe the answer is in the comment, but would you have a couple of reference for that sentence? ‘In the real world, however, psychologists have found that our sense of proportion is skewed towards improbable events.’
    It is fairly intuitive – I would just like to dig further.
    Thanks a lot!

  14. Mike Few says:

    Mike Wheatley- opposition groups are not conducting Prin or C2in, they rebel to 1. Take over gov’t, 2. Change policy and power sharing, or 3. They wish to separate and form a semi-autonomous or new state.

    • Mike Few says:

      “the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.” Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr (1977) Robert Kennedy and His Times

      “…they [counterinsurgent] should be aware, too, that aid programs and various other attempts to raise the people’s standard of living have never yet yielded the desired results.” RAND, COIN symposium, 1962

  15. Pingback: What we’ve seen so far: The Year 2012 in Review | Kings of War

  16. “Strategy: Risky business | Kings of War” was extremely enjoyable and helpful!

    In the present day society honestly, that is challenging to manage.
    Thx, Shaun

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