Politicians are psychologically wired up for war

January 31, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

Here’s a compelling article by Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon.  Kahneman is famous for identifying numerous human heuristics and biases in the lab. He received a Nobel prize in economics based on his decades of inspiring work. Renshon is a Harvard doctoral student.

In this article, the authors note that many built-in human heuristics and biases lead our leaders to choose war over peace. Our leaders are “predisposed to believe their hawkish advisors more than the doves.”

Here’s a sample:

People are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders 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. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

The excessive optimism of humans is yet another potential pitfall for leaders:

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.

Once we’ve begun a losing cause, our biases keep us from evaluating losing situations accurately.  The authors frame this problem as the deep-seated human aversion to cutting losses.  This is akin to the sunk cost phenomenon we’ve previously discussed in the context of Iraq. 


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Category: Iraq, Military, Psychology Cognition, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Chris says:

    There's also the very common perception that one of our guys is worth three of those (insert derogatory adjective) (whoever we're going to be fighting), so it doesn't matter what the odds are. Our nation (whichever one the speaker happens to be from) is the greatest in the world and has God on our side, so how can we possibly lose?

    Both sides generally hold this view.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Speaking of the psychology of leaaders, check out this article entitled "Bush and the Psychology of Incompetent Decisions." Here's an excerpt:

    President George W. Bush prides himself on "making tough decisions." But many are sensing something seriously troubling, even psychologically unbalanced, about the president as a decision-maker. They are right.

    Because of a psychological dynamic swirling around deeply hidden feelings of inadequacy, the president has been driven to make increasingly incompetent and risky decisions. This dynamic makes the psychological stakes for him now unimaginably high. The words "success" and "failure" have seized his rhetoric like metaphors for his psyche's survival.

    Here's the link: http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011807J.shtml

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Speaking of Bush's incompetent decisions, here's more: http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=655/.

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