The Situationist

Archive for June 9th, 2007

Some (Interior) Situational Sources War – Part V

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 9, 2007

This series is devoted to highlighting some of the psychological tendencies that encourage individuals and groups to enter conflicts and wars that they later regret. 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. The previous post, Part IV, in this series contained the first half of an essay written by Situationist Contributor, Jon Hanson within the week following 9/11. Echoing the previous posts in this series, it focused on a few of the many reasons to be worried about individual biases This post contains the second half of that essay and focuses more on some of the problematic dynamics of group deliberations.

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Count to Twelve: Some Lessons from Social Cognition Theory – Part B
by Jon Hanson (written several days after 9/11/01)


When one remembers that a great deal of the thinking and decision making is being done by groups — the President and his National Security Advisors on one hand, and the American citizenry on the other — the cause for concern is heightened. In effect, all of the problems plaguing individual decision making just reviewed are amplified in group settings when group members are like-minded. (Conversely, those problems are often tempered when group members disagree and are free to express dissenting viewpoints.)

Social psychologists call one version of this problem “groupthink” — a phenomenon that scholars have demonstrated was partially responsible for numerous national tragedies. It’s illuminating to consider the factors that some scholars say give rise to groupthink:

1. An illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all group members, that leads to overoptimism and excessive risk taking;

2. Collective efforts to rationalize or discount warnings;

3. An unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality;

4. Stereotyped views of adversaries as too evil to make negotiating worthwhile;

5. Pressure directed at any group member who dissents from the majority view;

6. A shared illusion of unanimity;

7. Self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus; and

8. Self-appointed “mindguards” who protect the group from information that might challenge the group’s complacency.

Of course, none of us can know what is going on behind closed doors, as President Bush and his advisors plan the details of their strategy for counterattack. But we know enough to be concerned. After all, the meetings are taking place behind closed doors (a point, which taken alone, is neither objectionable nor surprising), among a group of like-minded individuals for whom the possibility that there will be a major military offensive is, and has been from the very beginning, a foregone conclusion. Although that group is carefully considering various options — the underlying purpose and basic approach of those options seems to be roughly the same: to punish and to send a message to “evildoers,” mostly by military means.

National Security Council Oct. 2001 AP/Worldwide Photos

And when one considers the tone of the sorts of things that President Bush and his spokespeople are saying, it is hard not to see symptoms of predictable cognitive failures. Before any of us had begun to comprehend the enormity of what happened, and before we knew our enemy’s identity, or what could have motivated such horrendous acts, we learned we are “at war,” that this is a “crusade,” a “monumental struggle of good versus evil,” that we “will use all our resources to conquer this enemy,” that “we will rally the world,” that “we’ll be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination,” that “make no mistake about it: we will win,” that “we will rid the world of the evildoers,” and that “good will prevail.”

And, at the same time, nations around the globe were learning that they are “either with us or . . . not,” that America would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” that America would engage in a “global assault against terrorism in general,” that we would “remov[e] the sanctuaries, remov[e] the support systems, and end[] the states who sponsor terrorism,” and that America was going to “lead the world to victory” in this war on terror.

Similarly, there is reason to worry about the thinking of the American citizenry, who President Bush hopes and needs to placate. In many ways, it is marvelous that American citizens of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities are coming together, and that politicians from all parties are working together, in ways not seen for at least a generation. But, from a decision-making perspective, some aspects of the solidarity is deeply troubling. We are acting (and calling for action) out of the same rage that distorts our ability to see how regrettable such actions may turn out to be. The polls reveal, unsurprisingly, that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of swift and forceful retaliation, even if it means casualties; there is talk of “bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age,” and stories of hundreds of “Arab-looking” Americans being beaten and spat upon, of people displaying flags in an effort to avoid harassment, of large, intimidating demonstrations outside of mosques, of “Kill All the Arabs” graffiti, and of an Islamic community center being splattered with pig’s blood.

Moreover, President Bush appears to be drumming up support — now, while we are in the throes of our most passionate anger — for a plan that we know nothing about to solve a problem that we know even less about.

It has probably occurred to most readers that the cognitive distortions that I’ve claimed appear to be influencing the American psyche are certainly plaguing the thinking of our presumed attackers. That must be right. And that insight helps to explain the seemingly senseless, endless cycles of retaliatory violence that we have witnessed in other parts of the world. More important, it also provides strong evidence for why we and our leaders should not act on our collective zeal.

The warning signs are there. As some pundits have argued, there is a real chance, that any major military intervention may backfire. That makes sense from the perspective of social cognition theory. Indeed, it should be easier for us to understand after last week how violence that is perceived to be illegitimate may only fan the flames of hatred and retaliation for those who commit it. How can that not be, unless we expect our victims to be bigger than us?

But even putting that risk aside, there is also the concern that we are mental prisoner’s not only of our retaliatory rage, but also of the first type of response that came to mind. Our general commitment to a primarily military response may be ill founded, but at this point it’s difficult for us to imagine alternative responses — a form of “belief perseverance.” On this topic, too, commentators have been issuing unsettling warnings. They urge us to focus less on annihilating those whose hate for America is most extreme, and more on attempting to understand and, perhaps, address the causes of such hatred held in less extreme forms by many people the world over. Reducing the threat of terror, in other words, may be better accomplished through reducing the presence of hate. Similarly, we can expect that our anger and hampered cognitive processes to shield us from the unpleasant thought that some of the anti-American sentiment around the world is understandable or even well founded and that some of our own stereotypes and attributions are false.

None of this is meant to suggest that severely punishing heinous terror mongers through military and economic means is necessarily the wrong approach. This is not a call for pacifism or for caving to the demands of suicidal terrorists; this is a call for making the best decisions we can in order to increase our chances of generating meaningful, lasting solutions.

So what sorts of things might be done to reduce the chances that we, and our children, may regret our next move? Very broadly, social cognition theory teaches that the best hope for making good decisions is to approach the underlying question from many different perspectives. With that basic insight in mind, here are a few suggestions: We should begin by recognizing the limits of our reason and the dangers posed by our understandable rage. We should initiate a national debate on what the role of this country is around the world — what effects, direct and indirect, do our policies, lifestyles, world views have on other people in other cultures on this planet. We should learn about how we’re perceived around the world and why. We should educate our children and ourselves on the nature and history of the cultural and economic differences between the West and the East. We should engage in searching, honest introspection and do our utmost to see the world from other people’s vantage points. The media and educators should encourage greater understanding, greater dissent, and greater humility. The President should include on his strategy team individuals who believe any solution to terrorism requires more than just economic and military sanctions and individuals who see this country as partially responsible for the growing Anti-American sentiment (which, by the way, is very different than saying, “responsible for the terror”). More generally, President Bush should seek the advice and counsel of thoughtful dissenters and critics of his viewpoints and proposals.

Finally, for all the reasons described above, the most important thing we can do right now is to take a breath, allow the dust to settle, grieve, and hope that some of our blinding rage will subside.

The United States has been very badly and unfairly stung. We are only being human when we want more than anything to strike back. But before foolishly making things worse, let’s do the hard thing. Let’s count to twelve, be still, and not move our arms so much.

Posted in History, Politics, Public Policy, Social Psychology | 5 Comments »

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