In Times of Conflict, the Hawk Prevails

Nobel Laureate and Princeton University psychology professor Daniel Kahneman explains why the "hawkish" point of view so often prevails in times of national conflict.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

President Bush looks like he's ready to take the advice of those pushing for an increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. The president is expected to call for as many as 20,000 more troops in a speech on his Iraq policy this week.

According to professor Daniel Kahneman, supporters of a troop increase have a natural advantage over those arguing for a troop pull-out. Dr. Kahneman is a psychologist Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, and he won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. In an essay in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine, Dr. Kahneman says humans have a set of deep-seated biases that reinforce a hawkish approach to conflicts.

In the run-up to a conflict, for example, he says there's a tendency to overestimate the evil intention of one's adversary.

Dr. DANIEL KAHNEMAN (Princeton University): In a situation of conflict, when you are exposed to hostile behavior on the other side, you tend to believe that that hostility that you observe is very deep-seated. What we don't tend to think about is that the hostility of the other side may be a natural response to the situation, and in particular that it might be a response to what we are further doing.

I think in the example of the Korean War, it turns out that when the Americans moved north toward the border, across the 38th parallel, they were very surprised that the Chinese viewed that as a threat and that the Chinese intervened because they viewed that as a threat. The Americans felt they had made it perfectly clear that they did not intend to cross the Chinese border.

YDSTIE: And this notion that somehow our intentions are transparent, I think you could also suggest that in Iraq, Americans believe and certainly say and intend to bring democracy to that country, but many in the country see our intentions very differently, as a ploy to grab oil or something like that.

Dr. KAHNEMAN: Oh, I think that's undeniably the case, certainly in the Iraqi situation, that the Americans do not perceive themselves as occupiers, but they are perceived as occupiers. The same thing I think is true in Afghanistan as well, that the population just doesn't see your intentions.

YDSTIE: Another flaw in human psychology is that we overestimate our strengths and our control over outcomes, and I guess that's also quite apparent in the Iraq conflict.

Dr. KAHNEMAN: Well, you know, one can safely say that whenever a conflict occurs, there are optimistic generals on at least one side, and national leaders, and very frequently on both sides, because wars almost invariably end up being more costly than anticipated to both sides, even to the winner, let alone to the loser. So somebody must be making a mistake and somebody must be overestimating their likelihood of victory.

YDSTIE: There's another bias that comes into play in these conflict situations, and that is that humans are overly reluctant to make concessions.

Dr. KAHNEMAN: Yes, indeed. There are actually several reasons for an exaggerated reluctance to make concessions. One of them is something that in the jargon we call loss aversion that the concessions that the other side makes to you, they are gains to you. The concessions that you make to the other side are losses to you. And there's a lot of research suggesting that losses are weighted as least twice as much as gains. So that creates a very large gap where my concessions seem to me more important than yours.

There is another reason for the reluctance to make concessions. When people are faced with a choice between two bad options, one is cutting your losses and the other one is taking a gamble that might somehow save you, most people will gamble. And that is exactly the kind of choice that the loser in a conflict is faced with, whether to cut their losses or to gamble and continuing the conflict, hoping that somehow they will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Admitting that you're losing is extremely difficult, and people are generally very slow to admit that. Whether or not this applies to the current conflict is not my judgment, but the general proposition that it's hard to admit you're losing or that you have lost, that proposition, I think, is a very sound one.

YDSTIE: Dr. Donald Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002. His thoughts on this subject can be found in an essay in a current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The essay was co-authored by Jonathan Renshon, a graduate student at Harvard University.

Thanks very much, Dr. Kahneman.

Dr. KAHNEMAN: Well, it was a pleasure.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.