Self-Deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’


During his captivity, Lt. Vincent Eyre, one of the few survivors of the annihilation of the British army in Afghanistan in 1842, wrote an account of the disastrous campaign that still serves as a warning against undue optimism in military operations. Eyre noted that, prior to the slaughter of some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians, senior leaders largely ignored warnings of the security situation on the ground and the military’s unpreparedness in Kabul. As a result, he concluded: “A fearfully severe lesson was necessary to remove the veil from the eyes of those, who, drawing their conclusions from their wishes, would consider Afghanistan a settled country.”

The tendency to perceive our current and future actions and performance in an overly positive light is a form of self-deception common in human behavior, including military history. That we tend to rate ourselves as “better than average” is a well-researched phenomenon. Human inclinations toward overly optimistic judgments about the future, inflating potential benefits and downplaying risks, are also wellrecognized. Positive illusions about our own performance and about the future are arguably important for physical and mental health, but cause problems when they diverge too far from reality.

Norman Dixon identified four common factors of military failures: overconfidence; underestimating the enemy; ignoring intelligence reports; and wasting manpower. While overly pessimistic estimates of an adversary are surely problematic, overestimating one’s own capabilities and performance appear to be the more consistent and costly default. A review of military operations from the world wars to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan provides insights into how individuals and organizations harbor overly optimistic perceptions, minimize threats, and make invalid assumptions about their own capabilities. Such self-deception has battlefield consequences, and is not necessarily confined to a specific rank level, unit, service or nation. In promising contrast to this historical trend, the current U.S. National Defense Strategy provides an opportunity to realistically consider battlefield failure and avoid unfounded optimism and intellectual unpreparedness for the next war.

Motivated Misperception

All warfare is based on deception — so the adage goes. This appears to apply to both deception by an adversary as well as deception by ourselves. Barton Whaley, a leader in the study of military deception, defines self-deception as “can see but won’t.” In this way, self-deception is motivated misperception: People maintain a preferred narrative even in the face of conflicting information. The motivation could be incentives to report positive news, the effort and discomfort of changing one’s mind, personal investment and ego attached to early statements, or simply hubris.

In October 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur assured President Harry Truman that the Chinese would not militarily intervene in the Korean War and, if they did, they would do so in such small numbers as to be easily defeated. Despite multiple warnings of China’s intention to act, and evidence of Chinese forces operating in North Korea, MacArthur and his senior intelligence officer disregarded such warnings, insulated by a headquarters staff that appeared to have defaulted to agreement with the commander. The defeat of the 8th Army at Yalu River, followed by a fighting withdrawal from North Korea that cost the lives of thousands of U.S. and other U.N. soldiers, showed just how unprepared MacArthur and his staff were for the scale and severity of Chinese offensive operations. This “self-imposed disaster” was not based on an absence of information but a disregard of information that did not fit the commander’s favored perspective: can see but won’t.

Optimism Bias

The United Kingdom’s Iraq Inquiry, published in 2016, is particularly critical of the Ministry of Defence’s optimistic reporting and disregard of information that conflicted with an overly positive narrative. Throughout Britain’s engagement in Iraq, the inquiry notes, leaders displayed “a tendency to focus on the most positive interpretation of events.” While commending the British military’s can-do attitude, the inquiry argued this optimism bias caused many in leadership to ignore negative reporting from within the ranks, which in turn led to an inaccurate understanding of the security situation, poor decisions and missed opportunities. Visits to Iraq by the prime minster, foreign secretary, and chief of defense staff revealed a situation very different from what had been reported.

The problem was not an absence of information but how that information was interpreted and understood. Leadership viewed negative events as isolated occurrences rather than indications of a broader trend. In late 2003 and early 2004, for instance, increased attacks across Iraq were not recognized as part of a violent insurgency that would directly impact the British deployment in southern Iraq. Instead, the British focus was on withdrawing and handing over control to Iraqi security forces, just as the security situation deteriorated. Civilian and military senior leadership were well aware of the strains on the concurrent deployment of U.K. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, with evaluations of the security situation in Iraq influenced by the desire to reduce troop numbers.

‘Turning the Corner’

In 2017, Gen. John Nicholson, then-head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, claimed the United States and Afghanistan had “turned the corner” and were “on a path to win.” His assertion was met with skepticism given the security situation on the ground, with some observers noting that such statements had been made by his predecessors throughout the conflict. Senior leaders’ positive statements about operational progress cannot help but influence thinking within their organizations and, whether intentionally or not, impact the way subordinates report. Despite efforts to get beyond the inflated and inaccurate Vietnam-era method of estimating the number of insurgents killed, the military struggled to identify useful ways to measure the success of counter-insurgency operations. The lack of unambiguous metrics make it tough to overcome the tendency toward optimistic assessments or positive interpretation of data. A RAND report reviewing counter-insurgency assessments in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests senior leaders emphasized the more positive aspects of reports, whether or not such optimism was warranted. In a finding echoing the British experience, a CNA report on military operations assessments argued that military commanders’ reports to policymakers “often reflect an optimism that is either not present in or even counter to internal, bottom-up assessments.” Overt pressure to demonstrate progress in Afghanistan was also observed during Afghan Interagency Operations Group meetings, with assessments modified “to indicate up the chain of command that progress was assuredly being made.”

‘Conspiracy of Optimism’

Overly optimistic judgments are not limited to military operations. A recent speech by a former Australian defense minister noted that during the mid-2000s, Australian Defence Force senior leadership was providing the government guidance about Joint Strike Fighter delivery dates and the feasibility of keeping an aging F-111 aircraft fleet operational. The minister observed that the F-111 “drop dead” retirement date was extended even in the face of new problems emerging with the fleet, while the plan to deliver the first F-35 squadron to Australia by 2012 relied on a number of questionable assumptions. Instead of realistic assessments, the minister described being faced with “a conspiracy of optimism.” Ignoring this “no problems” advice from the Australian Defence Force and recognizing the likely delays in the project (which subsequently did occur), the Australian government initiated the procurement of Super Hornets to prevent a gap in national air defenses. In this case, the minister avoided the effects of the conspiracy of optimism by overruling the defense hierarchy.

Conspiracies of optimism are not necessarily deliberate. Instead, they reflect a military “can do” mentality and an ethos of optimism ingrained in military culture. The ability to move beyond difficulties is critical to military success, but presents problems when such a perspective becomes divorced from reality. Organizational incentives for positive reporting, zero defects and box-checking are reinforced through career advancement or simply avoiding negative attention, a point long recognized as a problem in the U.S. military. This is made worse by a human tendency to select information from positive rather than negative sources, reinforcing unrealistic optimism. The cognitive tendency toward confirmatory evidence and organizational preferences for positive reporting make organizations more likely to favor sources of information supporting the view that a project is on track; a plan is working; or an initiative is effective. The preference for avoiding negative information and feedback results in organizational silence, in which people avoid reporting concerns or issues.

Avoiding Negative Feedback

A 2015 U.S. Army War College report highlighted a culture in which the Army placed unachievable demands on units and individuals while simultaneously encouraging — however tacitly — the false reporting of successful completion of tasks. One of the authors noted that reactions to the report’s findings appeared divided between those at the post-brigade commander level and those below: “We saw anger and denial from the senior ranks and ‘no kidding’ from the junior ranks.” Such a response from senior leadership appears to encourage self-censorship or suppression of anything but overly positive reporting.

A much-anticipated U.S. Army lessons learned report on the Iraq War has rightly brought into question “the entire defense establishment’s capacity for self-reflection and analysis.” Yet even weeks before the study – commissioned in 2013 and completed in 2016 – was released, it seemed there was still “institutional resistance to having so much dirty laundry aired.” This aversion to criticism cannot help but undermine confidence in the entire lessons learned process and raise suspicions that the focus is on avoiding embarrassment rather than improving military performance.

This aligns with Micah Zenko’s argument that bosses don’t consciously surround themselves with “yes men” and women — rather, people just learn to say “yes,” remain silent, or qualify dissent to the point that it doesn’t make a difference. In the military, such a culture can cost lives and battles. Considering the disastrous Battle of the Somme in World War I, Winston Churchill wrote that the most common explanation for mistaken policy was staff telling senior leaders what they wanted to hear. Consequently, “the outlook of the leader on whose decisions fateful events depend is usually far more sanguine than the brutal facts admit.” Organizational preferences for maintaining positive illusions mean dissenting voices are likely to remain rare; a desire for positive reporting at the top of a hierarchical organization quickly establishes itself at all levels. But genuine dissent appears to result in better decisions and more critical evaluation of information and perspectives, in contrast to contrived dissenting approaches such as designating a “devil’s advocate.”

Failure Is a Genuine Possibility

If over-optimism promotes self-deception, then recognition of the genuine possibility of failure in conflict encourages both humility and realism. The latest National Defense Strategy provides at least some potential for countering self-deception and over-confidence. In an early review, David Barno and Nora Bensahel identified the document’s most important sentence: “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” They described the document as a clear warning shot by then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The strategy makes clear that the United States could actually lose future wars, a significant break from previous iterations which tended to acknowledge increased uncertainty, complexity, and challenges from state and non-state adversaries without recognizing the potential for battlefield defeat. Mattis has previously called out military theories that did not align with battlefield realities; hopefully such a realistic outlook continues under his successor.

In the absence of recent combat against a near-peer adversary, America’s defense establishment risks reinforcing the tendency toward individual and organizational over-confidence. Exercises and simulations provide a useful but imperfect understanding of what actual state-on-state conflict will look like, with the potential to ignore or minimize uncomfortable results. The National Defense Strategy notes that the U.S. military “will have to out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate” state and non-state adversaries. Achieving such intellectual preparedness requires a willingness to confront reality, however uncomfortable.

Following the collapse of French armed forces against the Germans in 1940 in just six weeks, Marc Bloch, a French historian and military officer turned resistance fighter (shot by the Nazis in 1944) began investigating why France had suffered such a rapid and total defeat. Bloch obtained accounts of military leaders at the most senior levels freezing under pressure, unable to act decisively in the face of unexpected and unanticipated enemy actions. These examples reinforced his conclusion that the French military leadership had proved incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. The German victory was a triumph of intellect; the Germans had out-thought the French in pursuing a new way of fighting. Bloch lamented leadership’s failure to learn obvious lessons from Germany’s new tactics against Poland — which would be used against France eight months later. The overestimation of their defensive strategy and ability to withstand and counter a German attack ultimately cost the French their freedom.

Avoiding the Trap

History provides suggestions for avoiding conspiracies of optimism. In World War II, the Allies’ preparation for Operation Overlord (the Normandy campaign) reflected a genuine recognition of the risk and consequences of failure, the limitations of Allied military capabilities, and the extent of German military capabilities. Allied preparations applied hard-earned lessons on the practical difficulties of achieving successful amphibious landings against a well-prepared adversary. Joint command arrangements, realistic training, new technologies, and a massive deception campaign reflected preparation grounded in realism rather than over-optimism.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership reflected his genuine concerns about the scale, scope, and difficulties of the operation. Eisenhower actively applied lessons of unity of command to Overlord, drawing on his own successes and failures leading operations, and reflecting an openness to critique. Major James Goodson, a U.S. Army Air Force fighter pilot, described Eisenhower’s approach as “a lesson in leadership and motivation.” At a meeting to discuss fighter aircraft support on D-Day, Goodson recalled Eisenhower actively seeking everyone’s feedback: “No officer was too junior, no comments were too inappropriate to be listened to.” The general’s philosophy toward critique was evident in words and actions: He saw it as a duty to raise concerns and no one was above criticism. In keeping with this attitude, as president, Eisenhower expressed frustration at his civilian staff’s unwillingness to challenge or disagree with him face to face, declaring, “If I’d had a staff like this during the war, we’d have lost it!”

Another example of avoiding the conspiracy comes from the British experience in the Falkland Islands. At first, the U.K. government’s overly optimistic judgments that Argentina would be unlikely to undertake military action over the disputed islands led to decisions on significant defense funding cuts, including the announced withdrawal of Britain’s sole naval ship in the south Atlantic. Failing to recognize how these actions would be interpreted, the British were entirely surprised by the Argentine invasion of the islands in 1982. Subsequently, however, the British were able to make a realistic assessment of the limits of their force projection and acknowledged gaps in intelligence on the Argentine military. Britain’s government and military recognized the enormous challenges in deploying a task force 8,000 miles from home with sufficient naval, air, and ground forces to successfully retake the islands. Early setbacks and recognized unpreparedness reinforced a realistic outlook, avoiding over-optimism. Ultimately, victory resulted from the British overcoming their cognitive bias after initial losses and eventually out-fighting their adversary in difficult conditions.

Common to these examples were genuine recognition of potential defeat, appreciation of the limits of one’s own capabilities, and acknowledgement of the adversary’s potential capabilities. These factors tempered optimism and enforced a level of humility leading to realistic planning, preparation, and adaptation. In both cases, the unambiguous risk of military failure overcame the inclination toward over-optimism.

Reality Bites

The U.S. military already conducts realistic training and evaluation of fighting performance as well as displaying a readiness to learn from operational failures. The chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force’s response to a critique of leadership and management also provides encouragement. However, such a culture needs to permeate the entire organization. The U.S. military should not squander the opportunity provided by the National Defense Strategy to consider a future in which failure is a genuine option. Asking the question How do we avoid our own conspiracy of optimism? seems a good place to start.

At an individual level, decision-makers should structure their information intake to avoid overly optimistic interpretations. At the organizational level, leaders need to ensure that incentives for reporting of bad news or contrary views are stronger than incentives for maintaining organizational silence. It’s not enough for leaders to say “My door is always open” — an open-door policy alone is inadequate for breaking through hierarchical layers and organizational impediments for obtaining alternative sources of information. Leaders need to recognize the human and organizational default toward positive news and actively engage, seek out and reward alternative and contrary perspectives to ensure that decisions are grounded in reality. Problems, issues and challenges are usually well-understood and well-known within organizations, but will be underreported if they are perceived as negative or not adhering to the perceived desired narrative. The challenge for any military is not only to avoid being deceived by its adversaries, but also to avoid deceiving itself.

Positive illusions of military capabilities are easier to maintain and reinforce in a culture that promotes good news. Encouraging and accepting only positive internal feedback and analysis might be a comfortable short-term strategy, but risks surprise on the battlefield, where an adversary will welcome the opportunity to deliver a catastrophic and undeniable reality check. Leaders should pause to consider what Mao Zedong reportedly said about MacArthur before the Chinese entered the Korean War: “An arrogant enemy is easy to defeat.”


Charles Vandepeer gained operational experience with deployments to the Middle East serving as an intelligence officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He has a Ph.D. in political science, has worked as a civilian defense scientist and holds lecturing and research positions at a number of universities in Australia and the United States. Charles is the author of Asking Good Questions – A Practical Guide.

Image: 10th Anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Commemorative Book, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons