The Situationist

Archive for June 3rd, 2007

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 3, 2007

In Part I of this series about psychological tendencies that encourage groups to enter wars that they later regret, we excerpted portions of an article in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Policy, co-authored by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” In that article, Kahneman & Renshon explain that the biases and heuristics that have been studied by decision theorists all tend to favor hawks over doves in the debates about whether to go to war. They do so by encouraging decision makers “to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations.”

Part I indicated the role of the fundamental attribution error, which leads individuals to attribute the behavior of one’s enemies disproportionately to malignant or sinister intent instead of to “situation.” This Part, which also excerpts portions of the Kahneman and Renshon article, looks at the role of optimism bias (discussed briefly in “Self-Serving Biases“), the illusion of control and loss aversion as a catalyst for armed conflict in moments of international tension.

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Excessive optimism is one of the most significant biases that psychologists have identified. Psychological research has shown that a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success. People are also prone to an “illusion of control”: They consistently exaggerate the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them—even when the outcomes are in fact random or determined by other forces. It is not difficult to see that this error may have led American policymakers astray as they laid the groundwork for the ongoing war in Iraq.

Indeed, the optimistic bias and the illusion of control are particularly rampant in the run-up to conflict. A hawk’s preference for military action over diplomatic measures is often built upon the assumption that victory will come easily and swiftly. Predictions that the Iraq war would be a “cakewalk,” offered up by some supporters of that conflict, are just the latest in a long string of bad hawkish predictions. After all, Washington elites treated the first major battle of the Civil War as a social outing, so sure were they that federal troops would rout rebel forces. General Noel de Castelnau, chief of staff for the French Army at the outset of World War I, declared, “Give me 700,000 men and I will conquer Europe.” In fact, almost every decision maker involved in what would become the most destructive war in history up to that point predicted not only victory for his side, but a relatively quick and easy victory. These delusions and exaggerations cannot be explained away as a product of incomplete or incorrect information. Optimistic generals will be found, usually on both sides, before the beginning of every military conflict.

If optimism is the order of the day when it comes to assessing one’s own chances in armed conflict, however, gloom usually prevails when evaluating another side’s concessions. Psychologically, we are receptive not only to hawks’ arguments for war but also to their case against negotiated solutions. The intuition that something is worth less simply because the other side has offered it is referred to in academic circles as “reactive devaluation.” The very fact that a concession is offered by somebody perceived as hostile undermines the content of the proposal. What was said matters less than who said it. And so, for example, American policymakers would likely look very skeptically on any concessions made by the regime in Tehran. Some of that skepticism could be the rational product of past experience, but some of it may also result from unconscious—and not necessarily rational—devaluation.

Evidence suggests that this bias is a significant stumbling block in negotiations between adversaries. In one experiment, Israeli Jews evaluated an actual Israeli-authored peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to the Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. Pro-Israel Americans saw a hypothetical peace proposal as biased in favor of Palestinians when authorship was attributed to Palestinians, but as “evenhanded” when they were told it was authored by Israelis.


It is apparent that hawks often have the upper hand as decision makers wrestle with questions of war and peace. And those advantages do not disappear as soon as the first bullets have flown. As the strategic calculus shifts to territory won or lost and casualties suffered, a new idiosyncrasy in human decision making appears: our deep-seated aversion to cutting our losses. Imagine, for example, the choice between:

Option A: A sure loss of $890

Option B: A 90 percent chance to lose $1,000 and a 10 percent chance to lose nothing.

In this situation, a large majority of decision makers will prefer the gamble in Option B, even though the other choice is statistically superior. People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, even if they risk losing significantly more. When things are going badly in a conflict, the aversion to cutting one’s losses, often compounded by wishful thinking, is likely to dominate the calculus of the losing side. This brew of psychological factors tends to cause conflicts to endure long beyond the point where a reasonable observer would see the outcome as a near certainty. Many other factors pull in the same direction, notably the fact that for the leaders who have led their nation to the brink of defeat, the consequences of giving up will usually not be worse if the conflict is prolonged, even if they are worse for the citizens they lead.

U.S. policymakers faced this dilemma at many points in Vietnam and today in Iraq. To withdraw now is to accept a sure loss, and that option is deeply unattractive. The option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances of success are small and the cost of delaying failure is high.

Hawks, of course, can cite many moments in recent history when adversaries actually were unremittingly hostile and when force produced the desired result or should have been applied much earlier. The clear evidence of a psychological bias in favor of aggressive outcomes cannot decide the perennial debates between the hawks and the doves. It won’t point the international community in a clear direction on Iran or North Korea. But understanding the biases that most of us harbor can at least help ensure that the hawks don’t win more arguments than they should.

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Again, for the entire Kahneman & Renshon article, click here. Part III of this series will be devoted to Dan Gilbert’s terrific essay on the sources of hostile escalation.

Posted in History, Politics, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »


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