Sunday, July 26, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell on Gallipoli and the Problem of Overconfidence

In his essay in The New Yorker entitled ‘Cocksure: Banks, Battles and the Psychology of Overconfidence’ Malcolm Gladwell shares and ruminates on this story:

In “Military Misfortunes,” the historians Eliot Cohen and John Gooch offer, as a textbook example of this kind of failure, the British-led invasion of Gallipoli, in 1915. Gallipoli is a peninsula in southern Turkey, jutting out into the Aegean. The British hoped that by landing an army there they could make an end run around the stalemate on the Western Front, and give themselves a clear shot at the soft underbelly of Germany. It was a brilliant and daring strategy. “In my judgment, it would have produced a far greater effect upon the whole conduct of the war than anything [else],” the British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith later concluded. But the invasion ended in disaster, and Cohen and Gooch find the roots of that disaster in the curious complacency displayed by the British.

The invasion required a large-scale amphibious landing, something the British had little experience with. It then required combat against a foe dug into ravines and rocky outcroppings and hills and thickly vegetated landscapes that Cohen and Gooch call “one of the finest natural fortresses in the world.” Yet the British never bothered to draw up a formal plan of operations. The British military leadership had originally estimated that the Allies would need a hundred and fifty thousand troops to take Gallipoli. Only seventy thousand were sent. The British troops should have had artillery—more than three hundred guns. They took a hundred and eighteen, and, for the most part, neglected to bring howitzers, trench mortars, or grenades. Command of the landing at Sulva Bay—the most critical element of the attack—was given to Frederick Stopford, a retired officer whose experience was largely administrative. Stopford had two days during which he had a ten-to-one advantage over the Turks and could easily have seized the highlands overlooking the bay. Instead, his troops lingered on the beach, while Stopford lounged offshore, aboard a command ship. Winston Churchill later described the scene as “the placid, prudent, elderly English gentleman with his 20,000 men spread around the beaches, the front lines sitting on the tops of shallow trenches, smoking and cooking, with here and there an occasional rifle shot, others bathing by hundreds in the bright blue bay where, disturbed hardly by a single shell, floated the great ships of war.” When word of Stopford’s ineptitude reached the British commander, Sir Ian Hamilton, he rushed to Sulva Bay to intercede—although “rushed” may not be quite the right word here, since Hamilton had chosen to set up his command post on an island an hour away and it took him a good while to find a boat to take him to the scene.

Cohen and Gooch ascribe the disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—a failure to take into account how reality did not conform to their expectations. And behind that failure to adapt was a deeply psychological problem: the British simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they might have to adapt. “Let me bring my lads face to face with Turks in the open field,” Hamilton wrote in his diary before the attack. “We must beat them every time because British volunteer soldiers are superior individuals to Anatolians, Syrians or Arabs and are animated with a superior ideal and an equal joy in battle.”

Hamilton was not a fool. Cohen and Gooch call him an experienced and “brilliant commander who was also a firstrate trainer of men and a good organizer.” Nor was he entirely wrong in his assessments. The British probably were a superior fighting force. Certainly they were more numerous, especially when they held that ten-to-one advantage at Sulva Bay. Hamilton, it seems clear, was simply overconfident—and one of the things that happen to us when we become overconfident is that we start to blur the line between the kinds of things that we can control and the kinds of things that we can’t. The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).

At Gallipoli, the British acted as if their avowed superiority over the Turks gave them superiority over all aspects of the contest. They neglected to take into account the fact that the morning sun would be directly in the eyes of the troops as they stormed ashore. They didn’t bring enough water. They didn’t factor in the harsh terrain. “The attack was based on two assumptions,” Cohen and Gooch write, “both of which turned out to be unwise: that the only really difficult part of the operation would be getting ashore, after which the Turks could easily be pushed off the peninsula; and that the main obstacles to a happy landing would be provided by the enemy.”

Most people are inclined to use moral terms to describe overconfidence—terms like “arrogance” or “hubris.” But psychologists tend to regard overconfidence as a state as much as a trait. The British at Gallipoli were victims of a situation that promoted overconfidence. Langer didn’t say that it was only arrogant gamblers who upped their bets in the presence of the schnook. She argues that this is what competition does to all of us; because ability makes a difference in competitions of skill, we make the mistake of thinking that it must also make a difference in competitions of pure chance. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. As novices, we don’t trust our judgment. Then we have some success, and begin to feel a little surer of ourselves. Finally, we get to the top of our game and succumb to the trap of thinking that there’s nothing we can’t master. As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance. The British were overconfident at Gallipoli not because Gallipoli didn’t matter but, paradoxically, because it did; it was a high-stakes contest, of daunting complexity, and it is often in those circumstances that overconfidence takes root.

Read the entire article:
Malcolm Gladwell, Cocksure: Banks, battles, and the psychology of overconfidence, The New Yorker, 27 July 2009.

Dr Geoff Pound

Geoff can be contacted by email at geoffpound(at) on Facebook and Twitter.

Image: “The invasion required a large-scale amphibious landing, something the British had little experience with. It then required combat against a foe dug into ravines and rocky outcroppings and hills and thickly vegetated landscapes that Cohen and Gooch call ‘one of the finest natural fortresses in the world.’”