Many leaders act on the basis of analogies from the past that they have in their heads. The action that they undertake can be quite clouded based on which analogy that they choose.
In August 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of Defense, drew the parallel between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. This is the type of thinking that drove the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, with colossal consequences.
A bad historical analogy can blind the thinking of the decision makers and put them on a path for disaster. Comparing Hussein and Hitler gave the leaders a set path to follow. Either bring down Hussein or be faced with a genocidal world war in the future.
Turns out, Saddam, the homicidal maniac that he was, was no Hitler. He had no weapons of mass destruction and barely controlled his own country. However, the fact that the decision makers in the US administration thought of him as Hitler, gave them tunnel vision.
Leaders, whether in the government or business, are often faced with tough decisions and a strategy that they frequently employ to get out of this conundrum is the use of historical analogies. However, the success of the decision they make is very dependent on the analogy picked.
Some analogies are very close matches, while other analogies might seem very enticing, but in reality are far from similar, with many crucial, underlying differences. It is deciding which analogy is a close match, and which is just a mirage, that will determine whether you succeed or fail.
The historical analogies that are often thrown around when describing certain situations are for example Vietnam (and being stuck in an unwinnable war), the Marshall Plan (giving aid to countries to rebuild them after a catastrophe), or even the Thucydides Trap (to describe the power relationships between countries).
Especially the Thucydides Trap has been getting a lot of traction lately to describe the current relationship between China and the US. This analogy is based on this quote from ancient Greek historian Thucydides when writing about what caused the Peloponnesian War.
“What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.”
from “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides
The danger here is that this type of thinking can drive US policy on a collision course with China. Whether it applies in this case or not is up for debate.
However, in today’s world we are faced with many other problems. One of these is the increasing polarization of societies, and the rise of populism, which could spell danger for democracy.
Here, I have tried to use the fall of the Roman Republic analogy in order to inform us on the situation of today. Sometimes, people use the analogy of the fall of the Western Roman Empire for this, but for me, there are some distinctions between the two cases that don’t make it a perfect analogy (although some things are relevant for today as well). The fall of the Roman Republic is a much better analogy to use.
So far, I have written three articles that use the analogy of the fall of the Roman Republic as the basis.
The first article, of over 20 thousand words, has a more direct comparison and a detailed description of today’s situation, with lessons learnt.
The dangerous trends that are shaking up the world today.
The second article, of over 40 thousand words, goes back to the ancient sources themselves, and tries to look at the fall through their eyes, drawing lessons from their insights. Here I have gone through many of the writings of the authors that survived from Antiquity and gather their wisdom, so that we can benefit from it even today. It is worth the read.
11 lessons from the fall of the Roman Republic. It is disturbing how relevant they are for today.
The third article, is a short and fun one, where I try to situate the current events on a timeline of the fall of the Roman Republic.
At what point of the fall of the Roman Republic are we?
Why is the fall of the Roman Republic an incredibly relevant analogy for today?
In an article on how to solve problems using analogies, I described the different steps needed to form a good analogy in order to solve a problem. Most people do this subconsciously in their heads, but you can sometimes do these steps overtly as well.
When you do this more overt deliberate reasoning, it is easier to determine whether the analogy you are using is the right one or not. However, before doing that, let’s take a step back and look at the initial assumptions that are key this. These assumptions are very important in judging whether the analogy makes sense or not. You always have to keep in mind the assumptions that you are making when drawing up your model.
My first assumption is that humans are not rational actors. This can be proven quite easily by the fact that we still buy lottery tickets (despite the fact that the probability of winning the jackpot is miniscule), we still gamble (despite the fact that the game is rigged in the casino’s favor), and we still fall for bubbles (despite the fact that in the past few decades we have been burned by real estate bubbles, Dot.Com bubbles, and financial stock bubbles).
My second assumption is that human nature is the same as it was 2000 years ago. Sure, technology and society has changed, but the underlying processes in the brain haven’t. Sure, culture does have an effect on how you act, but the underlying processes of human nature still have a much stronger, determining pull.
Even if some aspects of culture are different in the different eras, the way humans work is still fundamentally the same. As Cicero stated, it does not matter that the Egyptians worship cats and dogs, and the Romans something else, the underlying process of superstition is the same in both nations.
The third assumption I am making is that due to the fact that human nature is quite irrational, and that there is a heavy negativity bias in the actions of most humans, there is a tendency for conditions in society to degenerate.
The way this works can be shown using game theory. When you have two people, they have two options either to cheat or not to cheat. In the first round of the game, one person cheats, and the other doesn’t. The person who cheats wins. This then pushes the other person to cheat in the next round of the game as well, since by staying honest, he would lose.
Another example of this type of process is the so-called tragedy of the commons. As Aristotle already noted millennia ago:
“What is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest.”
from “Politics” by Aristotle
In each of these examples, a race to the bottom starts and negative forces keep on gaining momentum. At some point, there is so much cheating in the system that the system collapses and resets itself. However, that takes a long time.
Human nature doesn’t change, just different traits and behaviors get activated based on specific situations. Similar types of processes can be also used to model the rise of altruistic behavior. However, unfortunately as this type of behavior rises, cheaters will start popping up, which once again will start a race to the bottom. History is just a continuous cycle of these ebbs and flows.
Another model that we can use to show what happens in society during a fall is the bell curve. Let’s imagine that the different traits of human nature are spread out in a normal distribution, with a small number of selfish psychopaths on the total extreme right of the curve, and the selfless altruists on the extreme right of the curve. Most people would tend to be spread around the middle, neither too selfish or too altruistic.
The conditions in society at this time are normal, and so they don’t activate the more extreme behaviors among most people. Recent research on epigenetics has shown that even if you have a gene that gives you a certain tendency, it doesn’t mean that this tendency will arise. Usually an outside push from the environment around you is needed to trigger it.
Then, something in the outside environment changes, which awakens these traits among certain people in the population, which pushes the bell curve to the right. The result is more people in the population with more extreme traits and behaviors, which can have unforeseen negative consequences on society. If you apply the principles of chaos theory to this situation, you can see that a slight shift can have a huge effect in what happens next.
Let’s use the analogy of climate change to get a better picture of what can happen. You start off with a bell curve where you have a certain number of very cold days, and a certain number of very hot days, but most days tend to fall into the middle range. However, noxious gases and pollution in the environment changes things and pushes the bell curve to shift to the right.
Now you have a larger number of really hot days, the number of really cold days goes down, and the average is slightly more overall. However, this change can have a huge impact on the environment. Rivers can dry up, fields can yield less crops, which all then has an effect on nature and the humans living in that area. These changes then further accelerate the negative environment around, and degrade everything even more.
Slight shifts in the bell curve of normal human behavior can have huge impacts on what happens in society. Just like a slight shift of the temperature bell curve produces big changes in the environment, so can slight shifts of the way humans behave in society have a big impact on the course of events in a country.
Some series on TV explore this really well. In “The Walking Dead”, the series starts off in the normal world. The main characters have normal jobs as accountants, lawyers, policemen, or storekeepers. However, when the zombie apocalypse hits, they are forced to trigger some traits that in a normal situation would never get triggered. So a quiet accountant in normal society ends up being a sadistic dictator in a zombie infested world.
Experiments on human psychology, especially on social influence, have demonstrated how things like this can happen. In the Milgram experiment, the subject was told to push buttons to give electric shocks to people. Just because an authority was telling them to do that, many people complied. Even more striking is the Stanford prison experiment, which divided up students into groups of guards and prisoners. These roles ended up triggering many latent traits and encouraging some despicable behaviors among the different participants, including some of the guards turning quite sadistic.
There have been more recent experiments, which have looked at the impact of corruption. A group of researchers conducted a game of dice in 23 countries in order to measure the propensity to cheat among different societies. There was a strong correlation between the propensity to stretch the truth and the level of corruption in the country where the player comes from. The conclusion was that it was likely that the pervasive corruption in a society had an influence on how people viewed it and on their behavior.
All these studies and experiments show that it is not just the normal every day personality that defines how a person acts, but the situation and the environment have a huge effect as well. This is quite important for further developments in a society. Even if overall, some people might have a strong character, and despite situational and environmental pressures manage to keep it, other people might falter under these pressures.
Even if the number of additional people who succumb to these influences is small, this can have a huge effect on the overall state of affairs in society. This is due to the fact that numerous feedback loops create themselves, further reinforcing the effect, piling on top of each other, just like a snowball piles on more snow as it rolls downhill.
When you are looking at the fall of the Roman Republic, or the current state of affairs in politics in the modern world, you are looking at systems. Numerous factors and players are interacting in different ways, causing changes. The feedback loop is an important concept to keep in mind. A positive feedback loop amplifies the changes in a system, while a negative feedback loop tries to keep the status quo.
Let’s take an example from ecology in order to illustrate these two concepts. Imagine a population of rabbits is introduced into a territory where it didn’t exist before. They find the environment promising, with plenty of food and good weather. The rabbits start breeding, the kids grow up, and produce more rabbits. The more adults you have, the more kids you will have, which then creates a loop that keeps reproducing itself and reinforcing the exponential growth of the population. This is a positive feedback loop.
However, at one point the population outgrows the food supply, which causes mass starvation among the rabbits. Furthermore, the rabbits are easy food for predators, which attracts plenty of them to the area. These factors then start working on lowering the population of the rabbits. This is a negative feedback loop.
What you need to remember about feedback loops is that the causal relationships between the different parts of the system are often hard to determine. One part of the system reinforces another part of the system, which then reinforces a third one, which then ends up augmenting the first one. In this way, the different factors work together to create a final effect.
Positive feedback loops can create vicious circles, which make bad things even worse. Humans have often been compared to herds, since they frequently behave like one. Just like in any herd, one small thing can be the start of a massive panic. In a cattle herd, a small number of cows can get freaked out and start running, seeing this, other cows start running. The more cows are running, the more of an effect this will have on the other cows, who will start running as well. All this works on reinforcing the panic.
Just like in the environment, feedback loops are behind what happens in human societies. Some of these feedback loops work to keep the status quo, while other ones cause massive changes to the society. With positive feedback loops, different factors come together to magnify the shifts. These feedback loops are the mechanisms which move the bell curve to the left or right, or keep it stable.
This is how we can explain what happened in Roman society at the time that led to the fall of the Republic. In previous times of Roman history, human traits like greed, envy, ambition, but also altruism were all there. They still drove how people behaved, but the bell curve was shifted to the left, so the overall environment tended to trigger more positive behaviors. The situation in Rome after the Punic Wars shifted the bell curve to the right, which ended up triggering negative behaviors much more, with the resultant chaos bringing about the fall of the Republic.
This analogy of the Roman Republic has an incredible demonstration power for what is happening in the world today. In the past decades, the bell curve has shifted to the right, which has triggered more negative traits among large sections of the population. The bone-headedness was always there, but now it is just more prominent. This could spell trouble for the future.
What is interesting for us to observe, is how things in Roman society degenerated and led to the rise of one man rule. It was not a quick process, but took over a hundred years of gradual change, with small changes, such as the breaking of norms, piling up on top of each other, until at one point the country ended up in civil war. In no way does this mean that we are heading to a civil war as well, instead we should look at the events of that era as a warning sign and adjust course so that history does not repeat itself.
This is Part 1 of the series on using historical analogies for current events. Read Part 2 here:
Analogy fall of Roman Republic and current events – Part 2.
The dangerous trends that are shaking up the world today.
Article on forming analogies:
The method to create good analogies.