Australian General Semantics Society Inc.




Seminar Summary - Sunday 3 September 2017


“Learning from Others' Mistakes”
Normally when we talk about “Time-binding” (which means learning from others / previous generations) we usually talk about using their successes and building better theories or bridges, etc, based on them.
At this session we will look at the flip side and see what we can learn from other’s mistakes, errors or incompetence, so as to reduce or not repeat them ourselves.  This has the advantage of not paying the cost of our mistake, if we learn just from our own mistakes.
The seminar will be based on the book "The Psychology of Military Incompetence" and an article “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions”

Led by Mr David Hewson

Our seminar
at "Cifftop View" Bonnet Bay in Sydney was hosted as usual by Pauline and Gavan - Thank you both!


Sharing of triumphs and tragedies and miscellaneous yarns.


GS Diary
In the spirit of "applying general semantics principles" to our lives, as opposed to dwelling in theory, we considered members' accounts of observations and applications relating to the principles and formulations of our discipline.


Following some revision of recent proceedings, David took us through some theory and examples of "Learning from Mistakes", which we applied to our own lives

Normally when we talk about “Time-binding” (which means learning from others / previous generations) we usually talk about using their successes and building better theories or bridges, etc, based on them.

At this session we looked at the flip side and see what we can learn from others' mistakes, errors or incompetence, so as to reduce or not repeat them ourselves.  This has the advantage of not paying the cost of our mistake, if we learn just from our own mistakes.  The seminar was based on the book "The Psychology of Military Incompetence" by Norma Dixon and GS formulations.

We talked about the cost of war as motivation to learning from mistakes in this area of life, both in terms of the monetary cost and also cost thousands of lives and misery to civilians (the collateral damage) and soldiers alike.

Psychology theories of unsane behaviour and errors

Self-Defeating Behaviour

Making major decisions without considering the consequences.  This relates to Ed MacNeal’s work on decision making and how the consequences always come after an action.

Some start projects that are way beyond their ability or if they are near their ability, they quickly make them too hard to finish.  This way they have a great excuse when they fail.


The tendency to set unrealistically high standards of performance for oneself and others, along with the inability to accept mistakes or imperfections in matters of personal appearance, care of the home, or work; may be accompanied by an obsession with completeness, or righteousness.

The perfectionist orientation has two components: impossibly high standards (which relates to Johnson’s IFD), and the behaviours intended to help achieve the standards and avoid mistakes (fear of failure and the resulting censure). The high standards interfere with performance, and perfectionist  behaviour becomes an obstacle instead of a means to achieving the goal.

Use it or lose it

Research on the relationship between mental activity and blood flow in the brain shows that the brain, like muscle, atrophies from prolonged disuse.  A possible reason for the mistakes of the old generals.

Erroneous Communication

Ignorance tends to evoke pontification ("to assume pompous and dignified airs, issue dogmatic decrees") in those who wish to conceal their lack of knowledge.  In a profession where accurate communication is matter of life and death, pontification is a dangerous activity.  Unfortunately, pontification is strongest in authoritarian organisations where preservation of apparent omniscience, by those above, is deemed more important than the truth.

Cognitive dissonance

When a person’s knowledge or beliefs conflict with a decision or action they have made, then this leads to uncomfortable emotions, e.g. a heavy smoker experiences dissonance between his action and the knowledge that smoking causes cancer and heart attacks.  So he reduces the feeling of dissonance by concentrating on justifications for smoking (like its helping government revenue, keeping his weight down, acting sociably with other smokers)  and he also refrains from reading reports about smoking and lung cancer or by changing the meaning of the statistics (e.g. those who have cancer take up smoking as a cure for the stress and hence the correlation).  Once a decision has been made and the action committed to, the psychological situation changes.  There is less objectivity and more partiality and bias to the way a person views or evaluates new alternatives or information.  This is one of the dangers of both side “sabre rattling”.

So some commanders will have an inability to admit that they have been wrong and this will be greater the more wrong they have been, and hence the more bizarre will be the subsequent attempts to justify the earlier unjustifiable decision or action.  Pontificating is just one way to reduce dissonance.

Decision risk

People who get anxious under stress or are defensive, tend to be poor at judging whether the risks or caution they take, are justified by the outcomes of their decisions, e.g. they might use the same degree of caution whether placing a small bet, getting married or starting a war.  This means that those most sensitive to the success or failure of a decision will be the very ones most likely to make the biggest mistakes.

Acquiring/Using Knowledge

Accepting Information

Learning is a reduction of ignorance via the perceiving of facts.

An unexpected fact contains more information than an expected fact.  But an unexpected fact is less easily absorbed than a expected fact, e.g. “Enemy preparing to attack of Western flank” message, to a general who expects this, it just confirms a hypothesis he already held.  So it is largely redundant.

For a general who finds the message totally unexpected, he may chose to ignore it, with bad results.  Since his mind finds it so unexpected, he is closed to accepting it and finds plenty of reasons not to believe it,  like it’s from an unreliable source.

Research has shown that the greater the impact of contrary evidence, the less likely it is to be believed, especially if they have accumulated facts in support of a hypothesis they like, e.g. I said “that a UFO had landed in the baseball field” and no one bothered to look around and check.  So I think our group had a lot of UFO skeptics in it.

Noise in Communication

Noise is another disrupter of useful information.  Noise can be external like radio static or false information from the enemy to internal, like poor eyesight, defective memory or alcoholism e.g. after the charge of the Light Brigade they saw a column coming and thought it was French so they didn’t fire on it but it was Russian.  The “fog of war” affects not only the information about what is going on but also the payoffs for various courses of action.  It is like placing a bet with a bookie without knowing the odds and hence the payoff.

Two leaders who dislike each have a noisy communications channel.  As well as mutual dislike, pride and jealousy can interfere with communications.

Using Knowldge/Decisions

Another decision problem is that the decider is liable to distortion from abstraction (in attention, perception, memory and evaluating), as well as distortion from emotion and motivation.  (Consciousness of abstracting can help here.)

When the needs are strong (as in war) and external reality ambiguous or vague, then need and emotion have the strongest influence on distorting decisions.  Prejudice, ignorance, fear of failure, over conformity and stupidity can all interfere with planning and decision making.

Some Battles and other poor decisions were analysed

  • Samoa 1889 when seven warships stayed in a dangerous harbour when a typhoon was coming in.

  • Crimea including the charge of the Light Brigade

  • Boer war

  • The attack on Fort Rooyah in India.

  • The British retreat from Kabul

  • World War I battles

  • Poor decisions about keeping up with technology between the World Wars

  • World War II battles in:  France, North Africa, Singapore and Holland

Bad Leader Profile

From the above battles and decisions made mainly by British leaders, Dixon abstracted some common features to make up a profile about incompetent leadership. NB: No leader has all these traits and things will be a lot different these days.  But they give one an idea about the problem.

Interpersonal issues

  • Mutual dislike between leaders creates noise in their communications.

Poor planning or implementation examples

  • Most urgently needed supplies stored at the bottom of the ships hold, e.g. troops came ashore in Crimea without tents or blankets and spent their first night in incessant rain and icy winds.

  • Using straight forward frontal assault tactics, often against an enemies strongest point that don’t work against modern arms, e.g. marching shoulder to shoulder against machine guns.

  • Failure to remove or destroy the enemies’ resources, such as transportation.

  • Believes in brute force.  Failure to use other tactics like surprise or deception.

  • Failure to apply “economy of force” & wasting a lot of human resources due to:

    • Administrative error by not looking after troops - disease and cold, etc.,

    • Casualties from enemy action due to bad planning,

    • Deliberate policy of attrition.

  • Some commanders have good intentions but are incapable of improving the situation.

  • Some commanders have excessive ambition and little sensitivity to the suffering of others.

  • Bad leaders make poor assumptions, e.g. a general sees no enemy on a river flat so assumes that none are there.

  • Treats war like a sport and thinks it should follow similar rules, e.g. cricket.  So avoid retreating to fight another day.

  • Indecisiveness and passivity in deciding what to do.

  • Little creativity and improvisation.

  • Not wanting responsibility, so they abdicate the role of decision maker.

  • Failure to exploit a win or push home an attack.   Similarly in the field of munitions technology development where the “tip of the sword is blunted”.  For example, a new bigger navel gun is left unrifled and so is not that accurate, aircraft carriers are finally cnstructed, but equipped with slow old aircraft e.g. Swordfish biplane, bombers are made with inadequate bomb loads, bombs are turned out with insufficient explosive power, “armour-piercing” navy shells break up on impact on enemy armour. 

Incorrect or missing information.

  • Lower rank officers may hide problems from the General.

  • Underestimation of the enemy, bordering on arrogance.

  • Overestimate one’s own side ability.  Just like asking a room full of people if they are above average drivers. Significantly more than half will say they are.

  • Fails to get correct information on enemy, e.g. fails to do any reconnaissance of the enemy positions.

  • Does not profit from past experience . Or as general semanticists might say “a lack of time binding”, e.g. The Boer war showed little positive transfer of information about similar previous battles like Crimea.  Again many (16,000 out of 22,000 dead), died of disease. 

  • Likely to reject, ignore or distort information which is undesirable or conflicts with preconceptions.

Bad orders

  • General gives vague or unclear orders or has too little control over the battle.

  • Fails to consolidate and exploit a position gained, e.g. after the Light Brigade got to the Great Redoubt the general failed to give them any support.

  • Lack of direction from the general about goals and bounds, puts lower officers are in a quandary about initiative.  If they do too much they can be accused of insubordination especially if their initiative miscarries.  And if they do not show enough initiative when required they are likely to suffer for that also.

  • Often give up moderate risk options for tasks so difficult that failure will seem excusable. 

  • Procrastinates a lot, e.g. a General in Kabul who sank into numbing indecision about what to do in a bad situation.  He ended up doing too little, too late.

Leaders personality traits

  • Attitude

  • A poor general does not look out for the welfare of his troops.  They are seen as expendable objects.

  • They rationalise, e.g. seeing a defeat as a victory after enemy changes their front line position.

  • Avoids using available new technology and novel tactics.

  • Lay blame on others instead of taking responsibility.

  • Love of ceremony, precision, smartness and a strict keeping of the military peeking order.

  • Conservative and clings to outworn traditions.  Unable to profit from past experience and a failure to use available technology or to misuse it, e.g. tanks in WW I.

  • Stuck with out-dated traditions and habits, e.g. “not cricket” to train troops in the “cowardly” art of building defensive positions.  Also it’s cowardly or a “poor show” to disengage and retreat before superior numbers so that you could live to fight another day.

  • Obstinately persisting in a task, even when evidence showed it as pointless or impossible to finish.

Psychological Issues

  • General often has a lot of ignorance and a temper.

  • Lower intelligence (IQ) for a few.  But for most this is not the reason for their incompetence.

  • Abdicates rather than delegating so as to avoid responsibility.

  • Lots of physical courage, e.g. parading up and down in front of the front line on a horse in full regalia during a battle  but little moral courage.

  • Too ready to find scapegoats for military failure instead of learning the lessons so as not to repeat it.

  • Believes in mystical forces like fate or bad luck.  A non human form of scapegoat.

  • Delusions of grandeur.  A feature of delusions powered by insatiable needs, is that they yield neither to reason nor to knowledge acquired elsewhere.

  • They have an unrealistic appraisal of the effect their actions might have on other’s opinions of them.

  • More concerned with the fruits of power than winning the battle.  In the war for “the pickings”, e.g. Goring who stole lots of art, did not support Nazi ideology.

  • Suffering from earlier damage (maybe in their childhood) to their self esteem, they need to be loved and hunger for popular acclaim.

  • A lot of incompetent generals display a weak ego with neurotic behaviour where they want to be loved, admired and not criticised on the one hand and on the other they have a large urge for power and domination.  This paradox leads to unrealistic behaviour which earns the general the very criticism they had been striving to avoid.  For example a report came out about learning from the mistakes made in WW I.  But there were those in the army for whom the preservation of personal reputations was more important than avoiding the senseless slaughter that their behaviour had given rise to.  So a Field Marshall banned its dissemination through the army.

Bad Organisation Profile



Society apportions blame for a military disaster, for the following  reasons:

  • A bit of revenge for what has happened,

  • Making amends for own guilt due to its partial responsibility for the disaster,

  • Seeking  to learn what went wrong so as to avoid a repetition of the disaster.

Authoritarian organisations avoid learning from experience via apportioning of blame.  This is because authoritarian organisation are masters of deflecting blame by denial or rationalisation or by making scapegoats.  Hence no real admission of failure is made by those responsible, so little is done about preventing a repetition of the disaster, e.g. a cover story goes out, to preserve the generals reputation, saying that the general was “treacherously lead into an ambush.”


The word “bull”  was coined by Australian soldiers in 1916 when they saw all the excessive spit and polish of the British army.  Bull involves the ritualistic observance of dominance-submission relationships of military hierarchy, extreme orderliness, cleanliness and keeping up outward appearances. 

This tends to stereotype behaviour and cut down creative skills that would help meet an unanticipated event.  Bull, like other compulsive systems such as ritual, dogma and superstition, put themselves beyond reasoned thought and create resistance to change and acceptance of new ideas. 

But in competitive systems, one needs new ideas to keep up with the competition.  It also tends to transform what used to be means, into ends in themselves.  An example is the British navy who were so worried that smoke from gunnery practice might mark paintwork or soil gleaming decks, that they did little practice.  The price for the lack of practice was paid at Jutland.


An authoritarian upbringing does three things:

  • It produces submission to the in-group authority. 

  • It arouses aggression, which is displaced onto a well define out-group. 

  • And it meets a status desire since one belongs to the in-group which is seen as higher status than the out group. 

This is achieved by making an idealised image of the in-group (e.g. Aryan supermen) and by projecting one’s own undesirable characteristics onto the out-group (e.g. Jews).   Because the authoritarian has an idealised view of themself, they have to deny their own shortcomings. If they see none, then they can’t learn from their mistakes. 

They get defensive when criticised.  Usually they are intolerant of unusual ideas and unable to cope with contradictions or ambiguity.  They tend to see the world in a simplistic black versus white world.  They tend to have  a closed mind and reject new facts that are incompatible with previously held attitudes and beliefs.  NB: These characteristics fall along a continuum!  Many military organisations tend to attract, favour and promote people who are on the authoritarian end of the continuum.

In previous centuries British generals used to chosen based on social position  or the amount they could pay to buy the rank.  Hence many were not competent or with any real military ability.

The organisation also attracted, selected  and promoted some people with intellectual and personality defects.


Business Meeting

We reflected on the year past and planned for the year ahead, in our usual style.

Next Meeting:

Sat 11 November, 2017  *** Last seminar for the year :-(  ***

"Time Binding"
One of the foundation concepts of Alfred Korzybski's work, introduced in his "Manhood of Humanity" and developed in "Science and Sanity".  Yet still a powerful and relevant idea for personal, community and global application!
Led by Robert James.

Disclaimer: This "summary" is a collection of notes derived from our discussion by a number of means.  It is by no means a scholarly dissertation on the subject as presented.  It does not purport to be the "policy of AGS".  Comment and criticism (constructive or otherwise) is welcome.  If anyone has been misquoted, copyrights infringed or confidences betrayed, please Contact us.



Updated by RJ 11 September 2017

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