Review: The Psychology of Strategy

I am sometimes prone to hyperbolic praise of books and authors (as I am to equally equally hyperbolic criticism of them) so take this with an grain of salt. But I can say without further reservation that Kenneth Payne’s The Psychology of Strategy is a book that might just help us repair and rebuild what is sadly an increasingly broken discipline.

Payne, a trained political psychologist, uses political psychology to analyze the ways in which the US blundered in Vietnam. As Payne notes, the methodology is not scientific — it merely uses well-known psychological notions as a way to frame possible explanations for strategic decisionmaking. However, the work does open up some room for a broad explanation of strategy as a cognitive activity.

Several themes emerge that I feel are very important: cognitive and evolutionary underlays to strategic decision making, the importance of strategy as a group activity, and pathological problems in modeling the opponent.

First, as my professor William Kennedy has observed in his work on fast and frugal decisionmaking in agent-based models, agents should be assumed to have rapid and resource-efficient modes of decision behavior that correspond to meeting needs in the decision environment. More broadly, anyone modeling human behavior should not assume that humans are purely random or general-purpose computers. Too often strategy assumes the strategist as a kind of disembodied strategy machine that lacks any broadly cognitive or “hardwired” mechanisms of decision behavior. Payne’s book focuses expressively on both strengths and weaknesses in human rationality and its impact on military decisionmaking.

Given that Lawrence Freedman’s book has looked at distinctions of different design idioms for strategy (e.g. “strategy from below” of Marx and Gramsci and others vs. more traditional military-strategic behavior), one interesting follow-on research topic would be to understand what kind of images of human decision behavior each of Freedman’s strategic design idioms seemingly presume.

Second, agents respond to how both the external environment (nature and other agents) as well as their own behavior affects their state. Strategy is implicitly cast as an individual activity in both standard conceptions of a “master strategist” or a game-theoretic agent, but the problem is that strategy is a messy group activity characterized by reciprocal causation. Agents may seek esteem within the group or be influenced by group norms, but their actions also influence the group state as well as the external environment.

Payne successfully argues that while to political scientists this is subsumed into “groupthink” or “bureaucratic politics” or even “two-level games,” that conception fails to get at the cognitve and emotional implications of strategic decision behavior. I thought this was a particularly apt criticism given that levels of analysis in social science research concerning this is terminally inconsistent. The use of social psychology and identity theory is particularly of interest here.

Finally, conceptions of the “enemy” and how it will respond to adversarial stimulus are frequently wrong, sometimes horribly so. This comes out especially during the sections on airpower in the book. A big challenge, which I think is under-explored by strategic researchers, is showing how a system of one agents can reason about how to impact and effect the other adversarial system in the manner desired. Payne looks at this quite a bit, but due to the focus of his book on the US one does not see how it is reflected in opponent behavior.

On the whole, despite Payne’s own admitted limitations, his book is an prominent template for how strategy might be rebuilt. Instead of a heroic image of the strategist or the strategy-making organization that we will be perpetually disappointed by, focus on the nature of strategy-making as it often is: messy, biased, fraught with emotion, and a product of our own very own flawed humanity.

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