Pro-War Biases: Why We Are Killing Ourselves

Confederate Dead at Fredericksburg (Matthew Brady)

Confederate Dead at Fredericksburg (Matthew Brady)

Nile Stanton

In a thought-provoking article by Dominic Johnson, Richard Wrangham, and Stephen Rosen of Harvard, the authors observe that “Human decision-making has been shown to violate rational choice theory in a variety of contexts….” “[S]ome of the most intriguing and important examples concern how people perceive and react to risk.  Most notably, people appear to be consistently risk averse towards potential gains, but risk prone towards potential losses. This has important implications for . . . understanding triggers for war.”

In The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War, David Livingston Smith maintains that “[W]ar’s allure comes from tendencies inscribed in our genes over evolutionary time, and that violent conflict benefited our ancestors, who were victors in the bloody struggle for survival.”  He continues, “This is why the disposition to war lives on in us, and why we periodically yield to it and are drawn down into a hell of our own making.”

This disposition is deep in our genetic constitution and, in part, manifested in biases and other cognitive processes that can operate to nullify rational decision-making and encourage steps that can readily trigger war.  What are these biases other cognitive processes?   Here are some ideas to consider.

During the arms race 50 years ago, I happened across an article by Jerome Frank, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.  I had been following the increasing US involvement in Vietnam and the nuclear arms race with great concern, and here was an article that presented an aspect of war and the threat of war that was new to me, a consideration of major cognitive factors that press toward war.

Frank’s article was highly controversial at the time.  In the second sentence, he wrote:  “As a psychiatrist, I have been struck by an analogy between the behavior of policy makers today and the behavior of mental patients.  That is, they see a problem or a threat and then resort to methods of dealing with it which aggravate it.  The leaders of the world agree that nuclear armaments pose or will soon pose an insufferable threat to the existence of humanity…. Yet preparation for war goes on feverishly.”  (Emphasis added.)

And, Professor Susan Sample has clearly shown that “arms races are not spuriously associated with war.  They are not simply an artifact of rivalry that has no independent impact on war; they are a step toward war.”  Military buildups make conflicts more, not less, likely to take place.  That is, a major step toward unnecessary conflict is preparation for war.  (The Fundamental Attribution Error comes into play here and readily creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we shall see.)

Today Jerome Frank’s analyses strikes me as poignant and compelling as ever.  He noted that, “The responses of individuals to the threats of modern weaponry include all the reactions that people customarily show to massive dangers which exceed their powers of adaptation,” and proceeded to explicate several of the common maladaptive responses.

In highly truncated form, here are some of the maladaptive responses Frank identified:

  1. Apathy or fatalism sets in when one contemplates what is perceived as inevitable doom. (“Better Dead than Red” was the fatalistic credo of many Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “There will always be war, so who cares.”)
  2. Habituation to danger. That is, we seem “unable to sustain our feeling of fear in the presence of a constant, continual danger, and we lose our moral repugnance toward any evil which persists long enough.”  (The use of force to obtain desired results becomes commonplace and soon goes unnoticed.)
  3. Denial of the existence of an overwhelming threat is a common maladaptive response to problems. According to Frank, minimizing the dreadfulness of nuclear weapons seriously impedes our efforts to resolve the threat they present.  Another form of denial is to believe that nuclear weapons will not be used merely because they are so terrible.  He identifies as yet another form of denial the tendency to use reassuring words to describe our nuclear predicament.
  4. Insensitivity to the remote. For example, a parent who would get very upset to see their child’s finger badly cut might be relatively unmoved by a report of thousands of people being killed or maimed in an earthquake or war on the other side of the globe.  (People tend to ignore horrors that are taking place thousands of miles away.)
  5. The formation of stereotypical views of “the enemy” tends to seriously disrupt communications and, further, makes dangers come true because of self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are absolutely convinced that “the enemy” will do wrong, our actions and those of the enemy will often prompt the wrong to occur.

In addition to the existence of these maladaptive responses to perceived threats, a few recent studies have shed considerable light on why humans get themselves into wars.

In their fascinating and important 2009 essay “Hawkish Biases,” Daniel Kahneman of Princeton and Jonathan Renshon of Harvard observe that there are seven largely subconscious biases which are considered general features of cognition and preference and demonstrate how each bias likely affects judgment and decision-making.  (In brief remarks in the Harvard Business Review, actuary Robert Wolf notes that behavioural economists have alerted risk managers to most of these same biases and describes techniques to minimize their impact.)

Kahneman and Renshon emphasize that not only do we have these biases but that each of these tends to operate in a consistently biased direction, notably one that favors hawkish behaviors.

Rational decision makers must take this set of biases into account and compensate for them.  Why?  “Actors who are susceptible to hawkish biases are not only more likely to see threats as more dire than an objective observer would perceive, but are also likely to act in a way that will produce unnecessary conflict.”

Consider, for example, the impact of positive illusions.  According to Norman Dixon, “[U]nrealistic overconfidence in rapid victory which has characterized so many military adventures” has repeatedly led to long wars and disaster.  Military leaders seem to have a “quite extraordinary incapacity to profit from experience.”

In another recent study, Israeli scholars Roni Porat, Eran Halperin, and Daniel Bar-Tal demonstrate that certain worldviews when coupled with an ethos of violence operate to impede the reception and processing of information relating to peace opportunities and, further, generally increase pressures to escalate conflict.

So, not only do we have biases which are themselves biased in the direction of conflictual behaviour, once conflicts begin there is a strong proclivity for them to continue!  Interestingly, a recent study by John Clare of Louisiana State indicates that there is strong empirical evidence that, contrary to conventional wisdom, “doves, rather than hawks, are better positioned to extract international concessions.”

Military doctrine emphasizes a willingness to take risks.  When coupled with common human biases and cognitive processes that reflect our latent disposition to war, this encouragement of risk-taking further increases the likelihood of conflict taking place.

Our collective challenge is to overcome the hocus-pocus of mainstream “security” dialogue, because it is one that fosters and supports a simplistic, binary, and conflictual understanding of the world.  Critical biases and other cognitive processes have driven humanity to rampant armed violence and the edge of nuclear annihilation.  Why?  Because “with a step as steady as Time, and an appetite as keen as Death,” to quote Thomas Paine, they trap us in decision loops that favor risk-taking and war.

Such a result is not rational; indeed, the more it enables war, the more it resembles madness.

Born and raised a Quaker, Nile Stanton is an instructor at the University of New England at its campus in Tangier, Morocco.  He taught for twenty years at U.S. military bases in Spain, Italy, Bosnia, and (mostly) Greece, as well as online to troops in Europe and Asia.  His signature course was on “Law, Morality, and War.”

13 thoughts on “Pro-War Biases: Why We Are Killing Ourselves

  1. The article alluded to is this: Jerome Frank, “Breaking the Thought Barrier: Psychological Challenges of the Nuclear Age,” Psychiatry: Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes 23 (3): 245-266 (1960).

  2. The fact that mankind cannot and will not remove, dismantle and outlaw nuclear weapons because men cannot trust one another and leaders believe it is a deterrence to war and provides leverage to promote power and influence creates an opening for nuclear war. The existence of nuclear weapons means that nuclear war is possible and unpredictable through unexpected events cascading to the final holocaust. Will the glories and triumphs of man be wiped out in the madness of nuclear war creating a world we dread? The clock is ticking in an irrational manner.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful remarks, Henry. I disagree, however, that we “cannot” get rid of these evil weapons and “cannot” trust one another. I suggest that we’ve simply not learned how to do this as yet, one reason being that too many people are not willing to try.

      • Our (self-selected) leaders lead us in the interest of the Ruling Class. It would require truly mass pressure to force them to eliminate nuclear warheads. But of course, as the original article pointed out, everyday folks no longer walk about fretting over the risk because we’ve become so accustomed to it. The situation is even worse with Global Climate Chaos, at least in the US, because such a significant portion of the population, under the influence of yahoo politicians, denies the threat even exists. So, yes, the POLITICAL WILL to address these menaces is lacking. The initiative for change must become from “below,” not those at “the top.”

  3. By convenient coincidence, as I work through my backlog of reading, just last week I finished SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS, by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan (1992). They examine in depth the behavior of our nearest relatives, the other primates (monkeys and, especially, the “Great [or Anthropoid] Apes”). Chimpanzees have been most closely studied. They evolved a rather elaborate system of hierarchy establishment and maintenance, through dominance and submission. Fatal “disagreements” within a group are rare. Occasionally chimps will kill members of rival groups, but it appears nothing resembling all-out war has ever been documented. The myth that there is a genetic propensity for making war in humans serves the war-making profiteers splendidly. I am very confident that human war began with human “civilization,” the organization of society along class lines, the concept of buying and selling goods, including human beings. I’m not denying there would have been mortal confrontations between early human tribal groups (see: “The Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY!). I am saying the standing army, the military establishment, is purely a product of humans. I plan to write an article soon to submit here on Sagan and Druyan’s reflections on humankind, and where I differ with them.

    Just for kicks, let’s substitute for nuclear armageddon in Mr. Stanton’s article the holocaust that IS GUARANTEED. Whether humanity can skate by for several more decades without unleashing nuclear war, the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads is Global Climate Chaos (my preferred terminology). You want to talk about people in denial? Take a look in the nearest mirror, folks! Let’s review that list of “maladaptive responses”: 1.) Apathy. Check; 2.) Habituation to danger–“Oh, so it’s a little tiny bit warmer with each passing year, big deal.” Check; 3.) Denial. One of our major political parties is devoted to denying the menace of GCC. Check; 4.) Insensitivity to the remote. “Well, it was cold here last winter. GCC is bunk. Anyhow, them folks over in Africa are used to it being hot!” Check; 5.) Stereotypical views of “the enemy.” According to the Bible-thumping, Obama was born in Kenya, etc. crowd, “the enemy” is “pro-regulation liberals” trying to suppress the wondrous benefits of Capitalism by peddling this myth that human activity is wrecking the environment. Check.

    For me, that the environment is being wrecked is an absolutely indisputable fact. But a whole cottage industry has sprung up to try to convince people otherwise. “Fracking is good for your local economy. Here, sign this lease. We’ll make you rich overnight.” What could be more irrational than the rush to drill in the Arctic zone, now that the ice is vanishing, in order to retrieve more fossil fuels, the combustion of which will just drive us more rapidly to the brink of global disaster? It appears Man is not the animal with the innate propensity for making war. He is the ultimate hubristic animal capable of spectacular self-delusion. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Pelifian, clocks don’t tick in an irrational manner; they tick INEVITABLY, relentlessly on the Doomsday Clock for Humanity.

    • Lite reading for you:
      University of Utah. “Is global warming unstoppable?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 November 2009.
      About climate change, my fruit trees have not set fruit for last 5 years of the 10 I’ve been here, their ‘chilling requirement’ (there need to be a number of days in the dormant season below 50 degrees) has not been satisfied. Alligators have been seen it the River, something new in that they couldn’t survive winters here in the past. Most who deny climate change ‘can’t do the math’ and “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary (income) depends upon his not understanding it!” as Upton Sinclair said.

      The rest can worry about nuclear war … disregard that no nukes have been used in war since 1945.

    • Our inherent propensity toward violence is, in my view, fairly well established. (See Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson’s, *Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence* (1996) and David Livingston Smith’s book I quoted from.) This propensity is not uncontrollable and is certainly not an excuse for greedy people to exploit our fears and beat the drums for war.

      I look forward to reading your article on Sagan and Druyan’s reflections on humankind.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  4. Have not read Smith’s book, but my layman’s assessment is that massed violence is a successful adaptive behavior, and over time, pacifism or other less violent behaviors will logically be removed from the gene pool. There are plenty of examples of cooperative and stable group cultures, but I wonder if the added element is agriculture at scale. The foundation of stored foods, resulting hierarchy, and ability to develop specialization might be the key that unlocks Pandora’s box. I also wonder if it is any coincidence that the hymenoptera order, many of which store food and live in organized groups, also engage in large scale warfare?

    In the end, regardless of the specific threat, be it nuclear, GCC, or what have you, it feels like we are coming at the free will question again. Can we as a species, through conscious choice, take a wiser, less violent path, or are we mere slaves to the subconscious and millennia of selection? Evidence does not counsel optimism.

    • Steve Carrow–You say “massed violence is a successful adaptive behavior” and cite the hymenoptera order of insects. I assume you are thinking primarily of ants. The ant is a spectacularly successful creature, approaching societal perfection–there are some chinks in the armor, though; certain other insects can disguise themselves, odor-wise, and penetrate ant defenses to exploit the colony’s resources. (See George Schaller: THE YEAR OF THE ANT.) Ant colonies will go to “war” over territory and resources, especially when local environmental conditions become unusually difficult. However, I hardly think we may draw a direct analogy between this and human warfare. Oh, humans go to war over territory and resources, to be sure, but it is for the benefit of the elite, not the masses. The queen in a colony of social insects is really A SLAVE to the colony, producing eggs without rest. No Sundays off, no vacations. The masses are absolutely dependent on her, not exploited by her and a royal entourage of societal parasites. Only humans engage in vile propaganda campaigns against appointed “enemies” to spur on the cruelest campaigns of extermination. Ants march off into combat out of necessity for the colony’s very survival. There are no wars of choice against an ant version of Saddam Hussein!

      You are on the right course with agriculture, though. According to the original analysis of Marx and Engels, it was agriculture that first produced the surplus value that self-appointed elites sought in order to accrue wealth and political power. But, there I go showing my “true colors” again!

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