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Overconfidence and the Russia-Ukraine War
28 Aug 2023

The RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture by Professor Dominic Johnson, S. Rajaratnam Professor of Strategic Studies, RSIS; and Alastair Buchan Professor of International Relations and Fellow, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, United Kingdom; was held on 28 August 2023. Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, Dean of RSIS, moderated the lecture titled “Overconfidence and the Russia-Ukraine War”.

A major paradox in international relations is the widespread fear and anxiety that underlies the security dilemma in times of peace, and the prevalence of overconfidence or “false optimism” on the eve of war. This phenomenon is no better illustrated than in Russia’s concern for its security and its ill-fated invasion of Ukraine in 2022. While the hugely more powerful Russia, and many outside observers, expected a quick victory, a year later their early gains have been reversed and they have become bogged down in a long and bloody war against a hardened opponent with strong allies. However, while this is a new war, it is an old story. Historians and political scientists have long identified overconfidence as a cause of war, from the Peloponnesian War in classical times to the Crusades, to World War I and Vietnam, and to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet overconfidence, as well as the fear and anxiety that reign in times of peace, remain poorly understood.

Professor Johnson draws on history, psychology, experiments, and models to make three arguments: (i) Overconfidence on the eve of war can be accounted for by the “Rubicon Theory of War”, which describes a significant shift in people’s susceptibility to cognitive biases before and after making a decision; (ii) Meanwhile, exaggerated fear in times of peace can equally be accounted for by the “negativity bias”, which describes how threats and negative events have much greater effects on our perceptions than do positive ones; and (iii) Coexistence of these biases dramatically increases the potential for conflict, since decision-makers simultaneously exaggerate the severity of threats they face and yet exhibit overconfidence about their capacity to deal with them. Professor Johnson explores these phenomena in historical cases, how they are playing out in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, and then conclude by considering their implications for our perceptions and misperceptions — and the likely consequences — of new geopolitical competitors emerging in other regions today.

Watch the Distinguished Public Lecture here:

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