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Military officers: superstitious?


A new blog friend, Konrad Talmont-Kaminski, a naturalist philosopher in Poland, shares an interest in bounded rationality. He is thinking hard about superstition and the question was posed to me:

Given the connection between stress and superstition the army must be a good place to run tests. Do you think the military are among the more superstitious groups of people?

my first thoughts, without trying for a formal definition of superstition, or pretending to know any of the literature, are these: 

i think we are very “superstitious” in the sense that we have invested a lot of belief in “rules of thumbs” and the received wisdom of very successful leaders in the past. We take up their advice with religous fervor.

What I find interesting is that this is also a culture that places a very high value on rational, analytical control to achieve certainty. Yet, when the stress levels go high and you must choose in the absence of certainty, military officers revert even more quickly and stubbornly to the chestnuts of the past.

An example: we revere Clauswitz and Jomini, studying them carefully. In what other profession that idealizes certainty and modernity do you see the leading philosophers living in the 19th century? Is their content really that timeless or has our culture placed them on such a high pedestal and invested such emotion in being right that we are locked into this “superstition”?

At the same time, based on my experience in combat, I have seen how soldier latch on to rituals to help keep themselves alive on the next mission, even when the rational mind must be certain that it is not related to reality in any way.  In the same way, we read all the time about professional athletes who repeat all the behaviors they performed before their last win. 

Ken Dryden, the goalie from the Montreal Canadiens, describes that phenomenon well in his terrific book, “Behind the Mask”.  The rule in the clubhouse was “Don’t change the luck!”.  People need explanations for uncertainty and chaos.  The more the uncertainty, the stronger the need for an explanation no matter how ludicrous. And if the ludicrous belief becomes socialized, then it can achieve “Revealed Truth” status , I think.

I am probably not using superstition in the formal sense but this is the paradox I see.

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  1. November 4, 2008 at 6:59 am

    I guess that the examples I find the most interesting and relevant to what I am doing have to do with how soldiers behave superstitiously in combat – this is the direct analogue of what Malinowski said about deep-sea fishermen being more superstitious than their atoll fishing brethren. I guess the possible research to be carried out in this respect is obvious. Take two groups of soldiers – one front-line troops and the other consisting of support troops – and compare how superstitious they are. It would also be good in that context to control for the size of groups they work in, given the alternative thesis that superstition has to do with communication. But I would imagine that gets taken care of by the normal unit structure within the army. The comparison with sportsmen is very much condign – Stuart Vyse in his Believing in Magic (the single best book on the psychology of superstition for my money) at length examines sports superstitions and pressure appears to be the common link.

    The other points you raise I am less clear on what to say about. As for “rules of thumb”, I do not think that is necessarily superstitious. Indeed – given that I think rationality is ‘heuristics all the way up’ – I see in this just a recognition of how we do cope with the world. What I do find very interesting is what you say about officers reverting to “the chestnuts of the past” under pressure. Again, this is not necessarily irrational. It may well be that under pressure there is no time to use the analytical tools at hand and it is necessary to make do with simple heuristics. In that context, Clauswitz may be truly valuable in having clearly formulated such ‘fast and frugal heuristics’, to use the Gigerenzer phrase.

    Finally, you ask – In what other profession that idealizes certainty and modernity do you see the leading philosophers living in the 19th century? Well, philosophy, for one. Indeed, the line that we are only writing footnotes to Plato is often spoken approvingly. And, yes, I do have a problem with that. If I thought it true I would have long ago changed jobs to something that pays rather better.

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