…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:
By Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Renshon
…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
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.