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CCH Seminar Series 2023 – Wed 22nd March, 11am – Joan Beaumont

11am, 22nd March 2023
Burwood: C2.05.01
Waurn Ponds: IC2.108
Zoom link here.

The psychology of military decision making

Tantui camp, Ambon: Three-quarters of the prisoners of war there had died by the time the camp was liberated. (AWM)

Despite many innovations within the historical discipline in recent decades, Australian military historians have remained wedded to the archival written record, empiricism and the hegemony of the narrative. Rarely have they ventured into the interdisciplinary world of behavioural psychology to explore why the national military leaders made the decisions they did.  It is clear that at times of crisis, such as Australia faced in 1941-42, decision making was not necessarily rational, but was shaped by emotions, intuitive preferences and biases of which the decision makers themselves were possibly unaware. This paper attempts to explain the catastrophic decision to send over a thousand Australian to death or captivity on the island of Ambon by drawing on the renowned analysis of decision making by the Nobel-prize winning Israeli-American behavioural psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. It applies to the case study of Ambon his argument that humans have  two modes of thought: ‘System 1’ which is fast, instinctive, automatic and emotional; and ‘System 2’ which is slower, more deliberative, and more logical, but arguably less persuasive. Such analysis, perilous though its inferences may seem, enables us to appreciate how it was that Australian leaders persisted with a strategy that they knew to have no chance of success. It also enables us to address the need for military historians—and indeed historians of all genres—to employ the insights of other disciplines and acknowledge the human element that shapes national decision-making and policy formation.

Joan Beaumont is Professor Emerita at the Australian National University and visiting fellow at Deakin. She is currently writing a history of Australia in World War 11, the third in a trilogy of Australia’s ‘long war’, of which her Broken Nation (2013) and Australia’s Great Depression (2022) are the first two volumes