I’m not a reagular reader of Foreign Policy magazine, but thank goodness I check in regularly at The Thinking Meat Project, which draws attention to a fascinating piece by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemnn on on how common “error biases” in our thinking make us vulnerable to the strident certainty of hawkish arguments. The article explains why leaders (and the rest of us presumably) often fall for arguments that advocate “forceful action” when something more thoughtful is called for.
This is not a cutesy essay by some trendy thinker; it’s is a careful piece of work by Princeton economist Daniel Kahneman, who won his Nobel by examining how emotional biases affect economic decisions, and Harvard grad student Jonathen Renshon, author of Why Leaders Choose War: The Psychology of Prevention.
The gist of it, as the story’s deck explains, is that most of our decision-making biases favor conflict rather than concession. Useful in protecting our true close interests, perhaps — listen to those biases when some seedy stranger asks the borrow the car — but it leaves us at disadvantage when huge (dis)information campaigns strive to sell us war. My more charitable side wants to figure that’s part of why the media went along so willingly with Bush’s rush to war.
When we’re thinking well, of course, we might let past lessons curb this tendency. President Kennedy, for instance, went with hawkish advice in committing to the diastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, but — lesson learned — took a more nuanced, thoughtful course in handling the Cuban missile crisis. One wonders, had our invasion of Afghanistan gone poorly, if Bush would have proceeded more thoughtfully on Iraq.
Actually one doesn’t wonder that at all. Bush is making it quite clear right now he’s not capable of such learning. His error biases are in a different realm than most.