The Corpus Callosum

Why Hawks Prevail…

…from a psychological standpoint, that is.  This is the
topic of an article in the current edition of Foreign Policy.
 In it, the authors examine the effect of common systematic
cognitive errors, or biases, on the process of evaluating the prospects
for war.  They argue that when a country’s leaders are
contemplating war, the hawks invariably have an advantage in the debate:

Hawks Win

By Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Renshon
January/February 2007

…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 article is interesting, to anyone interested in psychology.
 It is followed by a little debate between Matthew Continetti,
representing the conservatives, and Matthew Yglesias, representing the

There is one thing about it that bugs me, though.  

It is not a necessarily a flaw: the authors did not intend for their
article to be a comprehensive of all causes of war.  They
intended it to be limited.  But there is one factor so great,
that it probably should have been mentioned, at least in passing.

War brings to potential for great profits.  Nowhere in the
article, or in the essays by Continetti or Yglesias, is this mentioned.
 This is true especially if there is a huge company that
stands to make a profit regardless of whether the war is won or lost.
 Which happens to be true of Halliburton.  If we won
the war in Iraq, they would make profits on oilfield contracts.
 If we ended up in a quagmire, they would make profits on
military contracts.  

One could argue that such a banal factor would have no place in an
article about decision-making biases.  But  I would
disagree. People have a strong tendency to discount the significance of
the profit motive.  Persons in power tend to think that they
are above that; they think they are not swayed by materialistic
matters.  They think they are only looking at the logical,
rational, and moral factors, not the potential to enrich themselves.

Well, maybe they don’t think that.  Maybe they are perfectly
well aware of it, and only pretend
to be guided by moral principles.  But either way, it is a
powerful factor, one that cannot be ignored.


  1. #1 Roy
    January 4, 2007

    GM, through its European subsidiary, Opel, was a war profiteer on both sides of the Atlantic, and was in a position to shape the development of the war for the Allies and the Axis so as to prolong the war as long as was practical, simply to optimize profits.

    Does anyone think GM is the only death merchants to think of this?

  2. #2 Joseph j7uy5
    January 4, 2007

    Only those of us who are cynical enough to think that profit is generally a motive in war. The closer the ties between industry and government, the greater the risk. Which is why industrialists should never be put in positions of governmental power, at least not without functioning checks and balances. Which we seem to have lost, by the way.

  3. #3 joseph duemer
    February 8, 2007

    The error you highlight is the assumption that policy-making exists in some purely intellectual realm in which “biases” might affect outcomes, ignoring the obvious motives for profit. In other words, it confers upon policy makers an imagined disinterest that would be very pretty if it existed, but — alas! — it does not.

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