Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics

Dominic Johnson received a DPhil from Oxford University in evolutionary biology, and a PhD from Geneva University in political science. Drawing on both disciplines, he is interested in how new research on evolution, biology and human nature is challenging theories of international relations, conflict, and cooperation. His new book, Strategic Instincts: The Adaptive Advantages of Cognitive Biases in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 2020), challenges the common view that human cognitive biases are unfortunate errors or mistakes that lead inevitably to policy failures, disasters, and wars. Rather, it argues they are adaptive heuristics that evolved because they helped us make good decisions, not bad ones. Under the right conditions, these “strategic instincts” continue to lend a competitive edge in international relations. His previous books are: God is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human (Oxford University Press, 2015), which examines the role of religion in the evolution of cooperation, and how cross-culturally ubiquitous and ancient beliefs in supernatural punishment have helped to overcome major challenges of human society; Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Tierney, examines how and why popular misperceptions commonly create undeserved victories or defeats in international wars and crises; and Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Harvard University Press, 2004), which argues that common psychological biases to maintain overly positive images of our capabilities, our control over events, and the future, play a key role in the causes of war. His current work focuses on the role of evolutionary dynamics, evolutionary psychology, and religion in human conflict and cooperation. Dominic is also Co-Director of the Oxford Martin School Natural Governance Programme.