Excerpts from “The Psychology of Military Incompetence”

Excerpts from The Psychology of Military Incompetence, by British psychologist Norman Dixon (1976). On authoritarianism, leadership, and more…

Book Cover (published 1976)

by Norman Dixon

1. Even the worst government and most inept prime minister come up for possible dismissal every so often. (Pg-21)

2. How, if they are so lacking in intelligence, do people become senior military commanders? (Pg-23)

3. Computers make poor leaders and indifferent father-figures. They may be quick and efficient, [but] withal remain cold fish. They do not inspire affection, are devoid of feelings and, what is worse, quite indifferent to the outcome of their decisions. (Pg-33)

* Note: Refer to LKY’s comments on Singaporeans as “digits.”

4. Authoritarian organizations [are] masters at deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalization, by making scapegoats, or by some mixture of the three. The net result is that no real admission of failure or incompetence is ever made by those who are really responsible; nothing can be done about preventing a recurrence. (Pg-44)

5. Certain characteristics of incompetence include:

  • An underestimation, sometimes bordering on the arrogant, of the enemy
  • Little moral courage
  • An apparent imperviousness by commanders to human suffering
  • A tendency to lay the blame on others
  • A lack of creativity and open-mindedness (Pg-67)

6. Military leaders [displayed] behaviour symptomatic of extremely weak egos. . .breeding an insatiable desire for admiration with avoidance of criticism, and an equally devouring urge for power and positions of dominance. (Pg-115)

7. The army was described as “too rigid and lacking in flexibility to be really adaptable to the conditions of modern quick-moving warfare.” (Pg-128)

8. The authorities did become increasingly concerned to prevent the civilian population from discovering anything new that might conflict with the official set of delusions which they themselves espoused. (Pg-132; on Singapore)

9. Military incompetence involves:

10. In extreme cases. . .everything that is free, uncontrolled, spontaneous is dangerous. (Pg-190)

11. A snob is one who is impressed by, and therefore tries to identify with, those who are higher up the socio-economic scale, while straining to disassociate himself from those lower down. (Pg-201)

12. [Authoritarianism] produces submission to the authority of the in-group. It arouses aggression, which is displaced on to a carefully defined out-group. (Pg-260)

13. An authoritarian’s thinking is confined to rigid formulae and inflexible attitudes. He is intolerant of unusual ideas and unable to cope with contradictions. (Pg-261)

14. Since authoritarians have been found to be more dishonest, more irresponsible, more untrustworthy, more socially conforming, and more suspicious than non-authoritarians, they are unlikely to make successful social leaders. (Pg-264)

15. Blind obedience and loyalty [are emphasised] at the expense of initiative and innovation. (Pg-267)

16. One of the least attractive characteristics of authoritarians is their preoccupation with punishment and their incapacity to feel concern for the human rights of persecuted minorities. (Pg-314)

17. The symptoms of this process [of] ‘group-think‘, include:

  • An illusion of invulnerability that becomes shared by most members of the group
  • Collective attempts to ignore or rationalize away information which might lead the group to reconsider shaky but cherished assumptions
  • An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality (i.e. “incorruptibility“), thus enabling members to overlook the ethical consequences of their decision
  • Stereotyping the enemy as either too evil for negotiation or too stupid and feeble to be a threat. (Pg-399)


Norman F. Dixon, M.B.E., Fellow of the British Psychological Society, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at University College, London.

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NOTE: Check out Phillip Ang’s post on Singapore’s paper generals as well.

SEPT 21, 1984: Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong. Source: ST.

“Slightly more than a quarter [of The Singapore Cabinet] had been generals/equivalent in the military before becoming politicians.

Military men do not make good leaders in the government for the simple fact that they are used to giving orders. They are not listeners but control freaks.

— Phillip Ang (4 Jan 2015)