research@hec - Issue #24 - (Page IV)
Rational choice theory clarifies history and strategy
BIOGRAPHY Certain important historic events are subject to a
wide range of sometimes contradictory interpretations. The same military battle may be considered a victory by some and a defeat by others. The endlessly analyzed Battle of Waterloo is a case in point, and it has spawned a plethora of highly diverse, truly fascinating theories. Furthermore, ink has flowed in all three of the languages of the countries involved. Can rational choice theories help us better understand this type of complex event? Philippe Mongin believes they can, and he has used Waterloo as an example of a more general method of analysis. It is called “analytic narrative” and draws on a combination of narrative analysis and mathematical modeling.
Why did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo? Long fascinated by the endless to producing a case study, Mongin shows that modeling enhances ordinary even though — or perhaps because — it produces a caricaturized picture of reality. Can such a perspective similarly enhance business strategy?
theories and analyses surrounding this event, Philippe Mongin has seized on the matter and examined it in light of rational choice and game theories. In addition
narrative techniques by shedding a clearer light on complicated historical events,
Philippe Mongin is an exceptional grade research director at the CNRS and a member of the CAE and the CAN, French government finance and economics commissions. He joined the HEC faculty in 2006 and teaches economics and philosophy. Mongin’s focus is on theories of individual and collective decisionmaking, but he sometimes highlights game theory, as in the study presented here.
COMPLEMENTARY VIEWS OF NAPOLEON’S STRATEGY On June 17, 1815, the day after his victory at Ligny, Napoleon made the decisive choice to split his army between two fronts. He could have sent the entire army to face Wellington, but instead, he sent his right wing to fight Blücher, dramatically weakening his position at Waterloo on June 18th. But what did he actually instruct his right wing commander, Grouchy, to do? Grouchy, and later Clausewitz, claimed he simply gave the order to go after the Prussians. However, this implies taking the risk of Blücher joining Wellington if his troops were strong
enough. Consequently, it would have made more sense to pursue the blocking strategy, which would have enabled Grouchy to gather additional information before deciding what to do. Napoleon is unlikely to have reasoned otherwise. Mongin confirms this instinctive belief by using game theory to generate a model of Napoleon’s rationale (see insert on research method) and by applying the principle of rationality to assume that Napoleon would have done what he should have done. Napoleon is consequently shown to be a careful strategist when he detaches Grouchy, but Grouchy either did not understand or did not want to do what was asked of him — to lead his troops between the two enemy armies. He contented himself with merely pursuing the Prussians, enabling Blücher, who had not been seriously weakened, to join Wellington, which was Napoleon’s greatest fear.
THE THEORY OF MODELING AS CARICATURE This model supports the position of French historians, who consider Grouchy responsible for Napoleon’s final defeat. It also acknowledges the difficulties encountered by historical theorists like Raymond Aron who have tried to defend rational reconstructions of events. Indeed, caricaturizing the situation ends up clarifying it. Mongin explains, “Caricatures reveal things that we do not see when we limit ourselves to mere facts.” He presents this
• december - january 2012
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Waterloo: Rational choice theory clarifies history and strategy
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research@hec - Issue #24