Dominic Johnson, University of Edinburgh


Publications | Books

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God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human

Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2015)

Summary

"And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die." The biblical story of the flood crystalizes--in its terrifying, dramatic simplicity--the universally recognized concept of divine punishment. For millennia human civilizations have relied on such beliefs to create moral order. People who commit crimes or other bad deeds, we are told, will suffer retribution, while rewards--abstract or material--await those who do good. This simple but powerful idea has long served to deter self-interest and achieve remarkable levels of cooperation. Indeed, as all societies seem to have found, these beliefs are so good at promoting cooperation that they may have been favored by natural selection. Today, while secularism and unbelief are at an all-time high, the willingness to believe in some kind of payback or karma remains nearly universal. Even atheists often feel they are being monitored and judged. We find ourselves imagining what our parents, spouse, or boss would think of our thoughts and actions, even if they are miles away and will never find out. We talk of eyes burning into the backs of our heads, the walls listening, a sense that someone or something is out there, observing our every move, aware of our thoughts and intentions.

God Is Watching You is an exploration of this belief as it has developed over time and how it has shaped the course of human evolution. Dominic Johnson explores such questions as: Was a belief in supernatural consequences instrumental in the origins of human societies? How has it affected the way human society has changed, how we live today, and how we will live in the future? Does it expand or limit the potential for local, regional and global cooperation? How will the current decline in religious belief (at least in many western countries) affect our ability to live together? And what, if anything, will temper self-interest and promote cooperation if religion declines? In short, do we still need God?

Drawing on new research from anthropology, evolutionary biology, experimental psychology, and neuroscience, Johnson presents a new theory of supernatural punishment that offers fresh insight into the origins and evolution of not only religion, but also human cooperation and society. He shows that belief in supernatural reward and punishment is no quirk of western or Christian culture, but a ubiquitous part of human nature that spans geographical regions, cultures, and human history.

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Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (2006)

Summary

How do people decide which country came out ahead in a war or a crisis? Why, for instance, was the Mayaguez Incident in May 1975–where 41 U.S. soldiers were killed and dozens more wounded in a botched hostage rescue mission–perceived as a triumph and the 1992–94 U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia, which saved thousands of lives, viewed as a disaster? In Failing to Win, Dominic Johnson and Dominic Tierney dissect the psychological factors that predispose leaders, media, and the public to perceive outcomes as victories or defeats–often creating wide gaps between perceptions and reality. To make their case, Johnson and Tierney employ two frameworks: "Scorekeeping," which focuses on actual material gains and losses; and "Match–fixing," where evaluations become skewed by mindsets, symbolic events, and media and elite spin. In case studies ranging from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the current War on Terror, the authors show that much of what we accept about international politics and world history is not what it seems–and why, in a time when citizens offer or withdraw support based on an imagined view of the outcome rather than the result on the ground, perceptions of success or failure can shape the results of wars, the fate of leaders, and the "lessons" we draw from history.

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Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions

Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA (2004)

Summary

Opponents rarely go to war without thinking they can win––and clearly, one side must be wrong. This conundrum lies at the heart of the so-called "war puzzle": rational states should agree on their differences in power and thus not fight. But as Dominic Johnson argues in Overconfidence and War, states are no more rational than people, who are susceptible to exaggerated ideas of their own virtue, of their ability to control events, and of the future. By looking at this bias–called "positive illusions"–as it figures in evolutionary biology, psychology, and the politics of international conflict, this book offers compelling insights into why states wage war. Johnson traces the effects of positive illusions on four turning points in twentieth–century history: two that erupted into war (World War I and Vietnam); and two that did not (the Munich crisis and the Cuban missile crisis). Examining the two wars, he shows how positive illusions have filtered into politics, causing leaders to overestimate themselves and underestimate their adversaries–and to resort to violence to settle a conflict against unreasonable odds. In the Munich and Cuban missile crises, he shows how lessening positive illusions may allow leaders to pursue peaceful solutions. The human tendency toward overconfidence may have been favored by natural selection throughout our evolutionary history because of the advantages it conferred–heightening combat performance or improving one's ability to bluff an opponent. And yet, as this book suggests–and as the recent conflict in Iraq bears out–in the modern world the consequences of this evolutionary legacy are potentially deadly.

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