Psychology Makes the Strategist

Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I have a new double-book review up at Strategy Bridge. This time both books were written by the same person: King’s College (London) professor of war studies Kenneth Payne. The books are his 2015 The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War and his more recent Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI. Here is how I introduce the topic:

A new science of human behavior has emerged over the past two decades. This new science has linked together the research of neuroscientists, cognitive and evolutionary anthropologists, decision theorists, social and cross cultural psychologists, cognitive scientists, ethnologists, linguists, endocrinologists, and behavioral economists into a cohesive body of research on why humans do what they do. Research in this field rests on two propositions about the human mind. The first, that the mind is embodied; the second, that it is evolved.

When behavioral scientists say the mind is embodied, they mean the mind is a biological thing and the study of decision making cannot be divorced from the architecture of the biological machinery that makes the decisions. Their research suggests most of the mind’s machinery works under the hood, below the level of conscious awareness. Researchers have their favorite object of study: for some it is hormones and emotions, for others it is specialized cognitive modules evolved in the deep human past to solve problems faced by our hominid ancestors, and for yet others it is culturally created cognitive gadgets impressed into the biological structure of brains at an early age by the societies in which we grew up. When behavioral scientists say these attributes of human psychology are evolved, they mean only that, as a biological thing, the human mind was created by the same evolutionary process that crafted the function and form of every other living thing. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (as one famous biologist declared several decades ago), and this is as true for the study of the human mind as it is for the study of bacteria or butterflies.

What does this have to do with war or strategy? Everything, answers Kenneth Payne, professor in the War Studies department at King’s College London. In the last three years, Payne has published two books on the subject. The first, The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War, uses the Vietnam War as its central case study; the second, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence, extends the themes of the first book deep into the wars of humanity’s evolutionary past and forward into the less human wars of its future. The reasoning behind Payne’s books is simple: strategic decision making is human decision making. Like all aspects of human behavior, powerful insights about the nature of strategy can be gained by viewing it through the lens of behavioral science. [1]

I am extremely sympathetic to Payne’s approach (this is why I jumped at the chance to get review copies of his two books). Any theory of military strategy that is not informed by behavioral science on the one hand and organization science on the other is a dead end. This is not a new insightas Payne writes about at some length in his books (and I mention in a footnote in this review) Clausewitz was obsessed with the psychological aspects of war and built his theory of war around them. The difference between Clausewitz ‘s day and our own is that we have a much stronger understanding of how the mind works than was available at the turn of the 19th century. It seems foolish to ignore this new knowledge. Clausewitz certainly would not have.

I encourage you to read the rest of the review. Payne’s books are interesting—they cover everything from warfare among chimpanzees to the role emotion plays in political decision making to the implications of using AI to augment human decision making in battlebut as I argue, I think they may be less useful for what they prove (for as Payne admits, they prove precious little) than for the avenues of research they open up:

Payne’s books are full of small asides that—if properly investigated—could become their own books. Here are three potentially fruitful research questions that occurred to me as I read through these two books.

1. In one of the more intriguing passages of the The Psychology of Strategy, Payne suggests:

Insofar as honour is the goal for states embroiled in war, the fighting itself can tend to the ritualized and stylized, rather than the conception of ‘total’ war offered in parts of Clausewitz’ writing.… Display and attention to rules become integral parts of strategy. Societies have more latitude to fight according to their cultural precepts, rather than to adjust them in pursuit of efficiency. They can acquire armed forces and develop ways of fighting that seem in tension with strategic conditions facing them.

The contrast Payne sees between wars of honor and more total conceptions of war has striking parallels with patterns military historians have described independently. J.E. Lenden, Pier Mackay, and Stephen Morillo have described this exact contrast in their analysis of different wars between the polis of ancient Greece, the kings of medieval Europe, and the European empires of the 18th century. But if stylized wars of honor are a real phenomena, what determines when armies and states fight them instead of wars dominated by fear or interest? Why were the first ten years of the duel between Athens and Sparta defined by Greek honor norms, when these same norms had so little power to shape behavior in the later years of the conflict? What, in short, can the study of human psychology teach us about the durability of norms of war?

2. Cross-cultural psychology is a burgeoning subfield of psychology. Psychologists, and more than a few anthropologists, have discovered human beings from different cultures often have different cognitive profiles, including the psychological biases they are victim to. As anthropologist-cum-psychologist Joseph Henrich noted, “Many researchers want to study those psychological processes that make us uniquely human. The problem is, at this point, there has been so little systematic comparative experimental research across diverse populations that we currently lack any reliable way to know when we are tapping innate psychological processes, or the products of centuries of cultural evolution.” 

This critique is relevant to almost all the evidence Payne presents. Indeed, Henrich and a team of cross-cultural psychologists suggest in a forthcoming research article that optimism bias, one of the biases Payne discusses at length, is not similarly manifested in East Asian and Western populations. One must ask: Is Payne’s psychology of strategy really just the psychology of Western strategy?

This may cause some to question the utility of Payne’s entire work. In contrast, I see it as an opportunity to extend Payne’s general research program. For the last three decades scholars have tried to create viable theories of strategic culture that might explain patterns in the strategic decision making across cultures. While this literature has been plagued with many problems, one of its key failings is that most of it fails to explain how strategic culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. This literature also fails to describe the mechanism by which culture actually changes decision making.

By refocusing these debates on cognitive differences of decisions makers, progress may be possible. Psychology might be the missing key to the puzzle. It is easy to imagine a robust line of research that attempts to ferret out which elements of human psychology are most relevant to strategy, tests through laboratory and field studies which of these elements are cognitive gadgets unique to certain cultures and which are genetically ingrained human universals, and then uses these results as a lens through which to test strategic history.

3. Another new and fascinating line of research in the behavioral sciences is the study of what researchers have dubbed folk sociology. As cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer has described, “In all human societies, people have some notion of what social groups are, how they are formed, what political power consists of.” Linguistically, this folk sociology is expressed through metaphors. For example, we talk about groups of people as if they were unitary agents (“the American administration is angry with China”), and we talk about political power as if it were a physical force (“the Republicans bowed under popular pressure” or “the Conservatives crushed Labour”) even though neither of these things is true. Despite its inaccuracy, this way of talking is natural and appears in multiple languages. Boyer and his compatriots suggest this is because the cognitive resources we use to understand these concepts originally evolved for other purposes—in this case, understanding the behavior of actual unitary agents and intuitive models of physics, respectively. They have traced many ways in which this folk sociology has a powerful effect on the way humans understand and interact with political institutions and economic markets.

Is there such a thing as folk strategic theory? If Payne is correct, and warfare was a source of selection pressure throughout the evolution of humanity, then it is likely we have developed cognitive modules that channel or understanding of violence, strategy, and war into certain metaphors and mental conceptions.[2]

Readers interested in the citations for the various books referenced and quotations reproduced in this section should read the footnotes of the original piece over at Strategy Bridge. If the topic strikes your fancy, also consider purchasing Payne’s two books.


[1] Tanner Greer, “#Reviewing The Psychology of Strategy & Strategy, Evolution, and War,Strategy Bridge (18 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

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