Neuron Culture

Why we’re suckers for war talk


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.

You can check out Thinking Meat’s quick take or the Kahnemann article in Foreign Policy.


  1. #1 Dave Munger
    January 9, 2007

    And now, of course, we’re bombing Somalia. If one war isn’t going well, just start another one.

  2. #2 Justin Moretti
    January 10, 2007

    Your post makes the error of assuming from start to finish that Bush’s decision to go to war was in fact wrong. This assumption is not necessarily correct.

    The work that Saddam’s Iraq had done on weapons of mass destruction, some of which were used (gas against Iranians and against Kurdish Iraqis), quite probably constitutes a justification; it showed (as did the acquisition of the nuclear reactor that the Israelis thankfully destroyed) that the regime had the ability, the motive and the will to acquire, develop and deploy such weapons. In the light of an unsatisfying and incomplete examination of Iraq under Saddam, removing him to ensure the end of any possible Iraqi WMD program could be argued as the only reasonable option.

    In this light, it could be argued that Bush’s big mistake has been his failure to act more forcefully on Iran.

    Arguments against historical examples of appeasement (e.g. Munich 1938) seek not to compare modern militaristic despots specifically with Hitler, but simply with another militaristic despot. In all cases it is better to challenge and defeat them before they have completed their desired level of (re)armament, and to do the job once only and for all time – hence Bush the Son is simply rectifying the mistake of Bush the Father.

    Once upon a time we would have been expected to make these value judgements without hesitation. The fact that refugees seem to preferentially seek access to Western capitalist democracies is to me strong evidence that the value judgements which are made by adherents to those democracies upon the states and organisations responsible for the refugee movements are correct; that they are corrupt and evil, and should be removed from power. Next to them, George W. Bush is small-fry whose days are, thanks to his own nation’s constitution, numbered by definition.

  3. #3 Terry
    January 10, 2007

    I wrote in my cycle journal 9.11.2002
    On this day I feel a need to say something or make a statement. It was about this time, in fact the day after the 30 September 1899, which was the day my father was born, that my grandfather left his family and Ixopo on horseback, and took up arms to fight the Boers.He had to ride some 50 kms to Richmond where the Border Mounted Rifles entrained for Ladysmith only to be besieged by the Boers.It’s funny how history looks at events so differently a hundred years on. Milner and Chamberlain had for a long time wanted to spill Boer’s blood. In fact Milner was determined to war with the Transvaal Boers no matter what, and so stirred up British sentiments that he was able to get the British Government to send troops from all over the world and to get volunteers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand to fight a war the Boers did not want and did their best to avoid. But Milner had his way. Thirty thousand Boer lives later and thousands of British troops dead, the scorched earth policy left farms, crops and cattle destroyed and the two Republics devastated before that Great Boer War ended. Early commentators including Churchill of course blamed the Boers entirely, but a hundred years on all writer/historians with better research and documents available, put the full blame for the war on Milner, Chamberlain and Britain. Now Bush and Blair are spoiling for war and are determined to have their war no matter what, I wonder in one hundred years where historians will put the blame for the war against Iraq that seems sure to come. There is still hatred in some of the Boer descendants about the events so long ago and I can understand why.

  4. #4 LiberalDirk
    January 10, 2007

    And of course the interesting thing is that the “Boers” eventually won.

    After the unification of the four South African colonies in 1910 Afrikaner dominated parties controlled South African politics until 1994.

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