Barbara Tuchman (1984) – The March of Folly

The Slippery Slope:  Why It’s Hard to Turn Back.


When does a strongly held belief become unassailable religious dogma?


Is the phenomenon under discussion (Tuchman’s “folly” or “woodenheadedness”)  a manifestation of whatever it is in our genetic psychological makeup that gives rise to religious beliefs, dogmatism, and fanaticism?


Item:  Cognitive dissonance reduction processes make us give greater weight to evidence that confirms a past or present course of action and makes us discount evidence that supports the selection of an alternate.  


Item: A powerful component of decision-making is emotion. 


Emotion is not the result of rational (logic-based) processes.  Emotion is the quick assessment the brain makes available to guide decision-making.  Emotions themselves are part of our genetic makeup. 


The particular patterns that trigger emotions are acquired over a lifetime and are established most strongly by situations that involve intense fear, anger, desire, and disgust.  Some of the most fundamental principles by which we structure our lives and our selves are established between the ages of six and sixteen, a time when our rational facilities and our experience of life are ill-suited to making well-considered choices.  Once established, such patterns are exceedingly difficult to alter in later life.  


Item:  Emotion is an essential component of practical decision-making.


In the absence of emotion, the human decision-making process, rather than proceeding efficiently and dispassionately to a clearly optimum choice as one might imagine (ref. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock), bogs down in minutiae.


The most difficult decisions are decisions among alternatives of similar valence (i.e., all desirable or all undesirable).


Arguably, folly is the result of useful processes operating in a context that renders them counterproductive. 


Item:  Agreement in Opposition is Not Consensus



“Why do we invest all [not all, really] our skills and resources in a contest for armed superiority which can never be attained for long enough to make it worth having [assumes a fact not in evidence], rather than in an effort to find a modus vivendi with our antagonist [we did find a modus vivendi with our antagonist]?”  (Chapter One, p.8)


War is an affirmative answer to the question, “Are some things worse than death?”

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