We try to look at mental models in history through the lens of people who got it right, but once in a while, it’s beneficial to examine a model through the lens of those who got it wrong.
In this case, let's take a look at the remarkable series of misjudgments that resulted in the British losing their American colonies.
Our list of mental models includes 24 models in the human nature + judgment category, and at least seven of those were a factor in the British being driven out of America. Sometimes it helps to understand how great the consequences of these very human tendencies can be. And, perhaps more significantly, how a large group of people can succumb to them at the same time.
Bias from Incentives
Money, the root of stupidity.
In the mid-18th century, the British had a parliament, but it was very different from what exists today. As Barbara W. Tuchman describes in The March of Folly, the House of Commons was made up mostly of second sons of the nobility – the landowning class. Urban centers such as London were poorly represented, and not surprisingly Parliament tended to pass laws that were primarily good for its members.
A lot of the issues which ultimately led to the revolution were about money.
The British wanted to tax the colonies, as Tuchman explains, so they would at least pay for their own defense, which was costly. The colonists felt that, with the exception of trade tariffs, the British had no right to tax those who were not represented in Parliament.
So part of the reason Parliament passed incendiary legislation, taxing, for example, stamps and tea, was so that the members of parliament, the landowners, could pay less tax. This was short-sighted — an incentive that could never be realized. As Tuchman describes, some more thoughtful dissenters pointed out that the cost of collecting the taxes from the hostile colonists was more than what the taxes would bring in.
We have written before that “Our inability to examine the situation from all sides and shake our beliefs, together with self-justifying behavior, can lead us to conclude that others are the problem. Such asymmetric views, amplified by strong perceived differences, often fuel hate.”
One of the things that Tuchman points out a few times is the complete ignorance of the British when it came to the sensibilities and interests of the Americans. And we can’t blame this on the distance or comparative slow speed of communication. Tuchman highlights what is most startling is those in positions of power in the Parliament literally had no desire to understand the colonists’ position. “That the British were invincibly uninformed – and stayed uninformed – about the people they insisted on ruling was a major problem of the imperial-colonial relationship.”
Parliament did not seek the advice or opinion of those Brits who had spent time in the colonies as Administrators, nor did it interview the well-educated and thoughtful Americans who were in London, such as Benjamin Franklin.
Due to their own sense of superiority, the British nobility believing they were the pinnacle of humanity, allowed their dislike of the colonists to distort the policies they pursued. (Remember history doesn't repeat but it rhymes.) As Tuchman writes, “Attitude was again the obstacle; the English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality.”
You certainly don’t declare war on people you admire and respect.
To stubbornly pursue a course of action in the face of evidence that it will eventually blow up in your face is denial. We all do it, but to do it as a political group can lose you a war.
The American revolution did not start without warning. There were years of attempts by the British to assert control over the colonies. As Tuchman describes, they would institute taxes then rescind them, only to reinstate them later. The colonists had the same response every time. They rejected the ability of the British to tax them. It was total denial that kept the British trying.
The British passed a series of acts, called the Coercive Acts that seemed designed to piss off the Americans. But in reality, it was more about the total inability of the British to see the situation clearly. Tuchman says, “if Britain had really been pursuing a plan to goad the colonies to insurrection in order to subjugate them, then her conduct of policy becomes rational. Unhappily for reason, that version cannot be reconciled to the repeals, the backings and fillings, the haphazard or individual decisions.”
As we mentioned earlier, the cost of bringing in the tax was more than the tax itself. And if taxation was the issue that was driving the colonies to war, then why keep doing it? Denial is likely part of the answer.
“When we feel uncertain, we all tend to look to others for answers as to how we should behave, what we should think and what we should do.”
This is social proof.
The House of Commons was not a homogenized unit; there were dissenters to the British approach in the American colonies, though these voices were always in the minority. Some people argued against the taxes and the war, offering alternatives to Parliament to act in the interest of keeping the colonies part of the empire. But the majority followed their peers.
Added to this was the fact that, as Tuchman describes, the situation in America wasn’t a hot issue for most British. The nobility of the House of Commons was frequently more occupied with the various social scandals that occurred in their ranks.
What this helped to create was a situation of largely uninformed people responsible for voting on legislation that could have significant impacts. It is a human tendency to look to the majority for guidance on behavior when we are unsure about what to do. It is always easier to go with the majority than to oppose it. In the House of Commons, it was easier to vote with the majority than to take a stand against it, particularly if one wasn’t all that interested in the issue.
We tend to stick with the first conclusion we reach. Because of our commitment to our own narrative, it becomes very hard for us to change our minds once we form a definite opinion. This involves us admitting we made a mistake — something we avoid, as it can challenge our very sense of self.
The core issue that started the conflict between Britain and the American colonies, which eventually led to the war, was, as Tuchman describes, the absolute conviction of the British that they had a right to directly tax the colonies, and the equal conviction of the American that no right existed.
At the beginning, the Americans did attempt some compromise. The British, however, never did.
Despite the dissent, the cost, and the effects, the British never reexamined their first conclusion. It became layered with other issues but remained at the core of their position. Tuchman demonstrates that “they persisted in first pursuing, then fighting for an aim whose result would be harmful whether they won or lost.”
Their first conclusion, the right of the British state to tax the American colonies, was never abandoned or modified in light of what enforcing it would actually result in. Even if it were true, the absolute nature of their position prevented them from finding a compromise. This bias was a contributing factor in the result the British finally had to accept. The loss of the war.
Partnered with the first conclusion bias, this one essentially reinforces the pain. This is what causes us to “stick with our original decision, even in the face of new information.”
Although consistency is generally perceived to be good, uncompromising consistency is more synonymous with ignorance and fear. If torpedos are aimed at your boat, your crew might appreciate you turning it around, giving yourself time to regroup.
The British made attempts to solve their problems, but these were halfhearted at best. Tuchman actually depicts the British policy as not being consistent at all. The levied taxes, then they repealed them. They eventually sent a peace delegation but gave it no power to actually come to a compromise.
But they were fully committed to their overall attitude, which was, as Tuchman writes, “a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable. A feeling of this kind leads to ignorance of the world and of others because it suppresses curiosity. [All] ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat – or even fight – as equals.”
Given that this attitude of superiority was so entrenched, is it any wonder that the decisions made were those that reinforced this image?
Busyness signals productivity. The faster you are walking the more important you are. Having time on your hands means you aren’t doing enough, not seizing the day, not contributing anything of value. Slow walkers are assumed to be seniors, students, or those who have nothing going on.
We can see the same trends in governments. Strong governments defend their position at all costs, while those who value negotiating or finding common ground are perceived as weaker. Powerful governments go to war. Those with less power find a compromise.
Tuchman claims, “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely to examine it, understand it, define it.”
So many times during the decade of conflict between the British and the Americans, the British might have put themselves in a better position if they had been willing to pause, regroup, or even walk away. Given some space, they might have compensated for the load of biases they were operating under and better defined and focused on a win-win solution.
But all the misjudgments flying around, combined with the innate human tendency to do something, led to chasing bad decisions with even worse ones.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that we can learn from our mistakes so as to not be perpetual victims of our misjudgment tendencies.
Tuchman concludes that the British did learn from their experiences during the American Revolution.
“Fifty years later, after a period of troubled relations with Canada, Commonwealth status began to emerge from the Durham Report, which resulted from England’s recognition that any other course would lead to a repetition of the American rebellion.”