The Study of the Uses of the Past: Why We Need Greater Clarity About When Historical Thinking Makes for Better Decisions

6 12 2016


I recently had the chance to pick up a copy of Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri, eds. The Power of the Past: History and Statecraft. Brookings Institution Press, 2015. This book is broadly similar in focus on The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan in that its looks at how political actors use history. It also has parallels with Alix Green‘s excellent ethnographic study of how history informs policymaking in the UK government.

As someone who is interested in how actors in the private sector use history, I recognize that I need to keep up to date with the literature on how the past is used by people in government. That’s because the political science literature on this subject is somewhat older and, in some respects, more sophisticated than the equivalent literature in management journals.   There is now a cluster of academics in management schools who are interested in the uses of the past– some of them have attended a series of seminars run by Stephanie Decker of the UK’s Aston Business School (see here). The research presented at these seminars is good, but it is necessarily less developed than the stream of research in political science that can be traced back to such classics as Richard Neustadt’s Thinking In Time. Political scientists have been arguing about the uses of the past in full-length monographs since the 1980s and 1990s. It seems to me that Uses of the Past scholars in business schools and Uses of the Past scholars in politics and IR could benefit from talking to each other.  I certainly believe that political scientists and diplomatic historians interested in the use of history could profit from reading the work in management on the use of analogy.

In their introductory essay, Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri write that

Examining the course of American statecraft over the last century, one cannot escape the conclusion that history— historical knowledge, insights, lessons, analogies, and narratives— permeates the ways in which the United States interacts with the world. From World War I to the Cold War to the war on terror, American officials have frequently drawn on their perceptions
and understandings of what came before as reference points in seeking to deal with the dilemmas of the here and now. EMPHASIS ADDED

The collection of essays edited by Brand and Suri spoke to me because while I often see history being used in a good way by decision makers,  I have also observed enough poor uses of history in both the public and the private sectors to  wonder whether we would all be better off if senior decision makers stopped try to apply lessons from history. This book captures this tension.

While I liked this book, I was some frustrated in that none of the authors even tried to give us a clear answer to the question of whether the widespread use of history by policymakers actually results in better policies. Is the usage of history a net positive or a net impediment to the making of better policy? The book doesn’t give a clear answer but it seems to echo Richard Neustadt’s view that thinking historical is generally a good thing.

The untested and largely unexamined nature of that assumption irks me. Consider what the book has to say about the use of historical analogy in decision-making. As Brands and Suri note, historical analogy is one part of thinking historically.  There is a large body of literature in philosophy and strategic management about the circumstances in which analogic reasoning is helpful. In summarizing the contents of their edited collection, Brand and Suri write that historical “analogies do not always have a negative impact on policy debates; at times, they push decisionmakers in helpful directions that open new possibilities and protect against dead ends.”  They note that a person could plausibly argue “that the Munich analogy actually served U.S. policymakers well in the case of the Korean War, for example, by encouraging the administration of President Harry S. Truman to combat a Soviet- backed assault on South Korea that, if successful, might have seriously destabilized the postwar environment.  Brands’s paper shows that the  Munich and Vietnam historical analogies— which were used frequently during the period before the 1991 Iraq War— influenced US strategy with results that Brands personally considers to have been good. (Readers will recall that the US and its allies liberated Kuwait but decided not to topple Saddam).

The reader is left wondering about whether the use of historical analogy is, in general, helpful.  A clear or clear-ish answer to this question would give us some actionable information that would allow us to define the rules of the game for debating foreign policy. If it tuns out that historical analogy is a helpful heuristic in the making of foreign policy, we should encourage more of it. If it isn’t, we should seek to banish all historical analogies from our conversations about foreign policy issues. That would mean that whenever a speaker started to use a historical analogy, we would interrupt them and point out that “we no longer accept historical analogic reasoning around here, in light of the research by Professor X. Please support your position in another way.”

Is historical analogy helpful? Perhaps it would be impossible to answer this question because we don’t yet have a clear yardstick for judging the quality of decisions in foreign policy. In contrast, we do have consensus-based ways of measuring the quality of decision-making in other areas of life, most obviously in sport but also finance and some other sectors. To determine whether using historical analogy improves the making of policy  would require a consensus definition of what good policy outcomes look like. That may be hard to achieve.  However, as the Good Judgement project of Phillip Tetlock shows, there are ways of measuring the quality of some of the cognitive functions associated with policymaking. One of these is the ability to forecast the future. Tetlock and his co-authors did research into the cognitive and personality traits that are associated with a proven track record of being able to accurately predict the future.

It seems to me that all scholars interested in the use of the past need to start thinking about ways in which a future researcher might possibly determine whether and under which circumstances historical thinking  would improve the quality of decision-making. Historians like to assert that knowing historical facts and, more importantly, the mental traits associated with historical reasoning improves decisions. Some version of this claim appears in the prospectus of nearly every university history department in the world, I bet.   I’m naturally inclined to support this view but I am also painfully aware that we historians have not yet provided  iron-clad proof to support  our strong conviction that historical reasoning improves decision quality in many areas of life.

Perhaps one step towards testing the hypothesis that historical thinking improves decision-making is to recognize that “historical reasoning” has many components. I would encourage all the academics who are interested in the Uses of the Past to pay attention to the six historical thinking traits that were identified by the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness at UBC. This list of traits is problematic and incomplete, but at least it’s a starting point for discussion.

If we were to accept that the six traits identified by the researchers at UBC do indeed capture the essence of historical thinking, our next challenge would be to determine whether one or more of the six traits does in fact improve the cognition of people in the real world (Presidents, CEOs Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs, investors, social activists etc). Right now, there’s plenty of  anecdotal evidence of decision-makers using historical analogies both correctly and incorrectly. We historians can assemble plenty of powerful anecdotal data to support the idea that historical thinking is, in general, a good way to view the world. The History Manifesto by Armitage and Guldi does a fairly good job of marshalling this sort of evidence. I can quote CEOs  who have asserted that using history makes them better at their jobs. There are also plenty of examples of people using history in the wrong way.   To exit this impasse, we would need to use more systematic quantitative data to demonstrate that the net effect of thinking historically is to improve the “quality” of decisions (in the case of CEOs, as measured by firm profitability or sales or some other metric). Just because someone declares that thinking historically makes them better at their job doesn’t mean that it actually makes them better at their job.  We have to find some way of verifying this claim.

How we go about investigating this, I don’t quite know. Maybe randomized control trials in a laboratory run by a decision scientist are the way to go. Maybe we need to look at the performance of investment managers who think more historically than the average investors. Again, I don’t know whether this would work.

In addition to trying to determine whether thinking historically improves decision-making in a narrow instrumentalist sense, we should also try to see whether certain types of historical thinking encourage people to behave in a more or less prosocial fashion. Here is how we might do that.  There is research that shows that being exposed to some types of religious images makes people less likely to cheat in games.  In fact, seeing Buddhist symbols appears improve the behaviour of Christians playing games in labs. Does being exposed to historical images or historical information  makes people either more or less ethical? Are there particular symbols or forms of historical knowledge that associated with particular behaviours? Does looking a war memorial make people more or less likely to cheat in a game? What about a Confederate flag? These are all things we could investigate.











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