Is Vladimir Putin sunk?

The so-called “madman theory,” according to which a leader cultivates an image of madness in order to make his threats credible and to make enemies think twice, was first broached by Daniel Ellsberg. But it was President Nixon who truly attempted to burnish his madman bona fides. Nixon thought acting as a madman who would – without warning – launch a nuclear war would convince the North Vietnamese to tremble in fear and thereby sue for peace. 

It didn’t work, and the theory fell out of favor. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though, the madman theory has been unearthed and is again being applied to explain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly erratic behavior. This application of the theory, though academically interesting, misses the mark. What’s really happening is much more mundane and commonplace: Vladimir Putin is suffering from confirmation bias and the sunk-cost dilemma.    

Confirmation bias is an error in thinking in which people actively seek out information that confirms their beliefs while actively ignoring disconfirming information. We’re all susceptible to it, and it explains many historical examples of bad decisionmaking. 

The French diplomat Segur commented that those on Napoleon’s staff would rather be wrong with Napoleon than right against him. It explains why President Kennedy, during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, made a decision that in hindsight was not only bad but predictably bad. And it explains why Putin, surrounded by generals and sycophantic staff members who fear his wrath, miscalculated so badly by deciding to invade Ukraine. 

General Sergei Shoigu, on whom Putin relies for advice, is not a professional soldier, meaning his precarious political position makes him more likely to ingratiate himself by presenting one-sided information. Recent U.S. intelligence also reveals that Putin’s military advisers “misinformed” him and that there are serious tensions. In all these military examples, advisers were (or are) disincentivized to provide the unvarnished, unalloyed truth that all good leaders demand in times of crisis.

A month into the invasion, it’s now clear that Putin, who appeared hell-bent on invading Ukraine, did not receive good intelligence about Ukrainian defenses and Ukrainian morale. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who was U.S. deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia from 2015-2018, said Russian security services have overlapping responsibilities and compete for favor from the Kremlin. And how does one security service within Russia earn the Kremlin’s favor? By telling Putin what he wants to hear. So Putin is discovering to his increasing dismay that Ukraine’s military was not a paper tiger and that the people themselves were not, as some advisers suggested, Russian sympathizers. 

This last point echoes the problem the British faced during the American Revolution. Leaders in London were fed information suggesting Loyalists in the colonies would rise in defense of the motherland upon the sight of Red Coats. They were wrong. Confirmation bias therefore can cause leaders to make devastatingly bad decisions: “He is a victim of his own propaganda…he only listens to a certain number of people and blocks out everything else. This gives him a strange view of the world,” says Adrian Furnham, a professor of psychology. 

But it’s a bias to which we’re all prone, and we insulate ourselves best against it by surrounding ourselves with advisers who feel at liberty to question and criticize. This takes a mature leader with the humility to accept and incorporate criticism. This is precisely what President Kennedy did after his Bay of Pigs disaster. 

We can surmise, therefore, from Putin’s inner circle that he likely did not take this step to ensure the advice he was receiving was thoroughly vetted. “Current and former U.S. officials say Russian intelligence agencies often shy away from telling their bosses bad news and may have reinforced Mr. Putin’s views,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Putin’s initial decision appears, by most accounts, to have been based on self-serving information, and this goes a long way in explaining the current morass into which Russian troops have fallen.  

So, confirmation bias is a necessary but insufficient condition for explaining why things have gone so badly wrong in Ukraine, as it doesn’t explain why Putin will continue to prosecute his war. For a fuller explanation, we need to explore the sunk-cost fallacy.

The sunk-cost fallacy occurs every time an unrecoverable cost influences future decision making. “Cost” is defined very broadly and can include things like money, time or energy. Once expended, these things are gone, and a rational person won’t allow this fact to influence the next decision. But humans don’t like the feeling of loss, so they tend to obsess over the loss in an attempt to “make things right.” Think of a gambler “doubling down” on the next bet to recover his previous loss. And interestingly, reputation is also something that can be lost.  

Putin, who put the reputation of the Russian military (including his own) on the line by invading Ukraine, is ensnared in a sunk-cost trap. CIA Director William Burns recently told Congress that Putin had expected to seize Ukraine’s capital within two days. Five weeks in, however, the war has already cost Russia at least $7 billion7,500 dead Russian soldiers and a humiliating loss of face for Putin and his military. These investments of Russian blood, treasure and pride represent the “costs” Putin is attempting to recover. He is, in other words, trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his own military and the world.

Putin thus is every bit as vulnerable to sunk-cost traps as the rest of us, so we should expect him to not only continue to prosecute the war but to intensify it as well. The prestige and perceived potency of the Russian military depend to a large extent on a speedy march into Kyiv by Russian troops. But as the war drags on, we should expect to see Putin lashing out at inferiors and creating scapegoats. He’ll need to deflect the negative attention from himself to protect his pride and to ward off a potential coup, which becomes more likely with each Russian soldier who returns home in a body bag.  

The politicians and political experts who know Putin best have recently described a paranoid turn in his thinking. Does he want to be viewed as a madman? Probably not. His high self-regard wouldn’t permit it. The point, though, is that Putin is as susceptible to confirmation bias, sunk-costs traps and other cognitive threats to rationality as all of us, and their ubiquitous influence on human decisionmaking helps to explain why Putin embarked on this catastrophic course of action. It also leads to the depressing prediction that, despite mounting losses and discouragement, Putin is unlikely to change course anytime soon.

James P. Rudolph, a former foreign affairs officer, is an attorney and was a Franklin Fellow with the U.S. Department of State. Michael E. McCullough is a professor of social psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

Tags confirmation bias John F Kennedy Kennedy Moscow Nixon russia Russia-Ukraine war Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Sergei Shoigu Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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