The Situationist

A Convenient Fiction

Posted by Peter Ditto on June 30, 2008

Image by Infinite Jeff - FlickrBeing a traditional liberal academic, there is no love lost between me and the Bush Administration. But social psychological research offers a more nuanced take from others I have heard on what happened in the run up to the Iraq War. It is a take that fits comfortably between the Left’s position that Bush, Cheney and company deliberately manufactured a case for war against Iraq (i.e., they lied), and the Right’s position that any reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion about Iraqi WMDs based on the available intelligence.

The Bush administration clearly wanted to believe that Saddam Hussein had an active WMD program. This belief fit both with their general ideological worldview and their specific foreign policy agenda, and there was obviously some foundation for reasonable people to believe that it might be true. When decision makers approach a judgment with a clear preferred outcome, however, this preference biases the processing of information in subtle, unintentional, but potentially powerful ways. One involves a process I have referred to in the past as motivated skepticism.

Research suggests that information that supports a preferred judgment outcome receives relatively little intellectual challenge and its validity is often accepted at face value. It makes us feel good when information supports what we want to believe, and this dampens our tendency to question it. Information that challenges our preferred conclusion, on the other hand, stimulates a more skeptical response. This information makes us feel bad, and this prods us to question its validity more vigorously. Almost inevitably, uncertainty about unwelcome news arises as no information is completely without flaws or is impervious to alternative explanation.

In short, information we don’t want to believe is simply subjected to a higher standard of proof than is information we do want to believe. This does not occur deliberately, and does not allow us to create support for desired beliefs out of whole cloth. But it does tip the judgment scales in favor of our preferred conclusion, and it does so in a way that is subtle enough not to offend our sense of our own objectivity.

Motivated skepticism seems an apt characterization of how the Bush Administration dealt with the mix of intelligence information they received about Iraqi WMDs during the months prior to the decision to invade. In a 2006 interview with the late Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes (video here), retired CIA official Tyler Drumheller described how individuals who came bearing information supporting the existence of an Iraqi WMD program were accepted as solid informants (even in some cases where their credibility was questionable enough to earn them a nickname like “Curveball”). When informants brought forth information that questioned the WMD theory, however, that information was treated more skeptically, its reliability often questioned because of the lack of a second corroborating informant.

“So you’re saying that if there was a single source and that information from that source backed up the case they were trying to build, then that single source was ok, but if it didn’t, then the single source was not ok, because he couldn’t be corroborated,” Bradley asked in that 60 Minutes interview. “Unfortunately, that’s what it looks like,” Drumheller replied.

What this social psychological analysis suggests then is that the Bush administration did not deliberately construct a case for war that they knew in fact to be false. They believed it all right, and thought they had the data to back it up. But it also most certainly was not the case that their decision making process was untainted by their desire to build a justification for invading Iraq. Instead, it was precisely their fervent desire to believe in an Iraqi WMD program that biased their processing of a quite mixed intelligence picture, sharpening its dull edges in favor of their preferred conclusion. The problem wasn’t that President Bush lied or made up data to support the conclusion he wanted the intelligence to show, but that the decision making process was deeply flawed, with no mechanisms built in to counter the powerful ideological biases the administration should have recognized in itself.

So I don’t want to end by letting Bush et al completely off the hook on this. Ideological bias has been a hallmark of this administration. This has been a top-down presidency, with every decision and every piece of data viewed through (and distorted by) an ideological lens. Whether the issue is climate change, the economy, or the war on terror, the Bush team’s intellectual MO has been to bend the facts to fit their politics.

I have no doubt they believe their political ideology is the correct one, and sincerely view facts that don’t fit within it as flawed (often in their view because of left-biased media and scientific establishments), but this is not an excuse for faulty decision making. Ideological bias is a natural tendency, one that all of us, both left and right, fall prey to at times. But this administration’s particularly willful refusal to live in the reality-based community has had clear costs, and our entrapment in a war launched to combat the convenient fiction of an Iraqi WMD program is one of the big ones.

* * *

To link to a PBS Frontline episode on the decision-making behind how the War on Terror was shifted to Iraq, click here. To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Law and Situation of Military Propaganda,” “March Madness,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part II,” “Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” “I’m Objective, You’re Biased,” and “Mistakes Were Made (but not be me).”

The Situationist has a series of posts devoted to highlighting some of situational sources of war. Part I and Part II of the series included portions of an article co-authored by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon, titled “Why Hawks Win.” Part III reproduced an op-ed written by Situationist friend Dan Gilbert on July 24, 2006. Part IV and Part V in this series contained the two halves of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Part VI contains an op-ed written by Situationist Contributor John Jost on October 1, 2001, “Legitimate Responses to Illegitimate Acts,” which gives special emphasis to the role of system justification. Part VII includes a video entitled “Resisting the Drums of War.” The film was created and narrated by psychologist Roy J. Eidelson, Executive Director of the Solomon Asch Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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4 Responses to “A Convenient Fiction”

  1. Jared said

    I wonder if you realize that the exact same principles you describe as working in the Bush administration leading up to the war also function in the minds of all the opponents to the war?

    Just as their supposedly pre-determined conclusions were reinforced by some data while contrary data is (largely) ignored, wouldn’t the same apply to opponents of the war? Wouldn’t they weigh more heavily the data that would say that we were “lied” into the war and (largely) ignore the data that would suggest we made the right choice?

    The premise of your essay is very enlightening and it definitely rings true, but it seems that your evidence for the phenomenon (the war in Iraq from the POV of the Bush administration) is ALSO an extremely good argument for the exact same premise from the opposite side of the political coin (the opposition to the war in Iraq).

    I found a little humor in that.

  2. Dr X said

    “The premise of your essay is very enlightening and it definitely rings true, but it seems that your evidence for the phenomenon (the war in Iraq from the POV of the Bush administration) is ALSO an extremely good argument for the exact same premise from the opposite side of the political coin (the opposition to the war in Iraq).”

    There is no reason it couldn’t apply to the opposition. As Peter Ditto says, “ideological bias is a natural tendency, one that all of us, both left and right, fall prey to at times.”

    Ideologies accomplish the same things for all of us. They organize the world, making it more coherent and manageable. To maintain that coherence, we assimilate data into existing systems of belief more readily than we alter systems to accommodate information that doesn’t fit our preexisting organizing structures. If we can’t trim or modify the new data to fit, we might very well reject the data before we allow more unsettling modifications of ideology. I can’t think of any reason to assume that these tendencies are any more or less applicable to the thinking of the political left or the right.

    This reminds me of something that gave me a laugh several years ago. Just before the war, a liberal colleague and friend of mine who opposed the war said, half-jokingly, that the statements made by some vocal war opponents were so shameless that he might have to support the war just to disassociate himself from them.

  3. Maya, CVT said

    Great post – I think that science can give us all an objective view of our biases. I’m concerned, though, about the recent research by scientists who continue to narrowly define people as “liberal” or “conservative”. Do these scientific studies all simply test people’s knee-jerk reactions, and consider that the end-all be-all of people’s morality?

    Don’t get me wrong, I think the Civil Politics website should be required reading before the election! However, no one has bothered to really define what a “liberal” is. Just because we only have two jokers to choose from in this election, does not mean that each American citizen lives inside one candidate’s narrowly defined worlds.

    Just as “Happiness” is an incredibly vague term, and should be broken down into definable categories, “Ideology” does not really define our every day lives.

    Much more consideration should be given to Moderates, Independents, etc. Better yet, we should drop the idea of trying to define people based on political parties and instead create new categories which take into consideration the fact that some “liberals” might believe in communal retribution, (think Canada), have the highest respect for all authority and that maybe there is more than one category in which to stuff us. It would be more reflective of reality.

  4. [...] A Convenient Fiction (by Peter Ditto) [...]

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