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:
- 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.”)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.”