As people gain experience, they look back on their successes and overrate their judgment, says Malcolm Gladwell, distiller of social trends and author of The Tipping Point.
Research shows that even when playing games of pure chance, people carry an illusion of control, thinking they can win because they’re “better.” A simple explanation: overconfidence.
A textbook example of complacency: the British-led invasion of Gallipoli in 1915. British strategists hoped that by landing an army on the Turkish peninsula, they could make an end run around the fighting in Western Europe and take a clear shot at Germany.
To pull this off, they’d have to make an amphibious landing and overcome a dug-in foe in tough terrain.
It was a brilliant but daring plan. Its execution would have changed the war. But because the British were accustomed to success, they displayed a curious lack of urgency. A few of their shortcomings:
- They never drew up a formal plan of operation.
- Their leaders calculated a need for about 150,000 troops. They brought 70,000.
- They needed about 300 big guns but brought 118, without howitzers, trench mortars or grenades.
- They gave the command to a retired desk jockey, Frederick Stopford, who blew a 10-to-1 advantage over the Turks early on by having his troops dally on the beaches, where Winston Churchill later described them as “bathing by hundreds in the bright blue bay.”
By the time word reached the British command, it was too late. Even the commander sent to the rescue, Sir Ian Hamilton, was too far away.
In their book Military Misfortunes, Eliot Cohen and John Gooch chalk up the allies’ disaster at Gallipoli to a failure to adapt—or even see a need to adapt—because they couldn’t absorb how reality differed from their expectations. It never dawned on them that they might fail.
“Let me bring my lads face to face with Turks in the open field,” Hamilton wrote before the charge. “We must beat them every time because British volunteer soldiers are superior individuals.”
Hamilton and his compatriots weren’t idiots. They were simply overconfident.
— Adapted from “Cocksure,” Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker.