Foreign Policy
March/April 2007
Page 2 of 3

Birds of a Feather

In “Why Hawks Win” (January/ February 2007), Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon doubt that “decision makers … hear their arguments on the merits and weigh them judiciously before choosing a course of action.” That is because the “fabric of the human mind” is hard-wired to look more favorably upon hawkish recommendations. I must applaud the authors for presenting an argument that is simultaneously clear, provocative, and completely overblown as a hypothesis. I cannot and would not dispute the experimental evidence that Kahneman and Renshon summarize. However, the authors are essentially using a constant—the hard-wiring of the human brain—to explain what most international relations scholars would view as a variable: the tendency of foreign-policy leaders to adopt coercive or belligerent policies toward other countries. Indeed, the biggest problem with their argument is that, if true, the hawk bias massively overpredicts war as an outcome. Any crisis between adversaries should reinforce the cognitive biases that the authors discuss, quickly escalating into violent conflict. Instead, war is a historically rare event and, as the Human Security Report demonstrates, it has been getting rarer in recent decades. Clearly, from time to time, there must be countervailing historical, psychological, organizational, and political factors that push back against the hawk bias. After Vietnam, for example, the United States was more reluctant to pursue hawkish policies abroad. Leaders who lose wars face political exile, or worse; that should foster a natural risk aversion that can counteract the hawk bias. Bureaucracies exist in part to overcome our cognitive and perceptual failings. The question then becomes: When are these countervailing factors powerful, and when are they not?

—Daniel W. Drezner
Associate Professor of International Politics
The Fletcher School Tufts University
Medford, Mass.

Kahneman and Renshon rest their arguments for a universal hawk bias on psychological tendencies “built into the fabric of the human mind.” Evidence that has been accumulating during the past two decades, however, points to cultural variation in many of the psychological trends that they identify. For example, despite its grandiose label, the “fundamental attribution error” is far from fundamental, with samples of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese undergraduates less prone to such a bias than are American college students. Equally, psychological tendencies, such as the optimistic bias, illusion of control, and predilection for self-enhancement, are less prominent, and even reversed, in collectivist cultures. This cultural evidence complicates, if not undermines, their thesis. To the extent that the tendencies they cite are weaker in collectivist cultures, one might predict, according to their theory, a lesser bias toward hawkishness in those communities. Alternatively, a case could be made that other psychological tendencies that are more prominent in collectivist cultures—a greater tendency to defer to authority, for example—might provide alternative routes toward hawkishness. In other words, it is far from clear either that psychological biases are universal, or that they are skewed predominantly in one direction. An optimistic bias may give rise to unjustified confidence in the strength of a peace agreement just as readily as it gives rise to overconfidence in the success of an invasion. Psychological tendencies are not oriented uniquely toward one political stance, but invoked in the service of multiple agendas.

—Joan Miller
Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Psychology
The New School for Social Research
New York, N.Y.

Kahneman and Renshon point out cognitive distortions that support hawks over doves, but they fail to understand that inaccurate beliefs do not necessarily equal bad outcomes. We have evolved most biases on purpose, and many give us advantages. The best salespeople really believe in their product no matter its quality, the best lawyers believe their guilty client is innocent, and the best lovers are confident of being attractive. Similarly, people often attribute successes to their own ability and character, and their failures to circumstance. Our ancestors evolved these biases because they can provide strategic advantages by instantly signaling intentions, resolve, and abilities. Perhaps nations are better off biased. Of course, every belief bias is not exactly designed for maximum advantage in every situation. But we could be too biased, or not biased enough. Until we know the direction of our errors, we certainly do not know, as Kahneman and Renshon claim, that hawks “are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be.”

—Robin Hanson
Associate Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA

Kahneman and Renshon identify several biases that may aid hawks in decision making. There is at least one other that might be added to their list. It is the tendency to exaggerate not only the bad guys’ willingness to carry out their “evil” intentions, but their capacity to do so. During the past several decades, decision makers have routinely obsessed over an array of unpleasant dictators preposterously identified as reincarnations of Hitler. But, unlike Hitler, each has since become a historical footnote. Among such devils du jour have been Egypt’s Nasser, Cuba’s Castro, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Libya’s Qaddafi, and Iran’s Khomeini. More recently, the absurd notion that Saddam Hussein, surrounded by wary and hostile neighbors, could somehow come to dominate the Middle East with his 15th-rate army and shattered economy was used by politicians of both American parties to justify steps that led to the current disaster in Iraq. They seem to be at it once again with the hysteria over Iran’s Ahmadinejad.

—John Mueller
Professor of Political Science
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon reply: Daniel Drezner calls our hypothesis “overblown,” but he misreads our position and greatly exaggerates our ambitions. It would be absurd to claim that a few psychological hypotheses can provide a complete account of why states do or do not go to war. We did not make that claim and do not believe it to be true. We only proposed that cognitive biases should be added to other factors that explain leaders’ decisions, and that these biases tend to strengthen the hands of hawks in internal debates. Joan Miller correctly points out that cognitive biases are influenced by culture, though we believe she overstates the difference between so-called individualist and collectivist cultures. To the best of our knowledge, self-enhancement biases and the fundamental attribution error are only reduced in collectivist cultures, not absent. Furthermore, the reduced biases have been documented when members of collectivist cultures think about their own group and their standing in it. We surmise that self-enhancement, the illusion of control, and a tendency to exaggerate the evil intentions of opponents will prevail, even in these cultures, in the context of group conflict. As Robin Hanson’s comment illustrates, evolutionary arguments are sometimes used rather naively to defend the conclusion that the mind is perfect. Evolutionary psychology contends that human cognition evolved in the Pleistocene era, when humans lived in bands of fewer than 100 members. Assume for the sake of argument that cognitive biases evolved to yield just the right level of aggressiveness toward other small bands of humans. We still would not see why Hanson is confident that the cognitive machinery that was optimal in prehistoric times is still perfect in an age of world wars, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons. John Mueller presents persuasive evidence from recent history for a hawkish bias that was not on our list: overestimating the threat posed by weak enemies. We do not have a psychological account of this observation better than the one that he suggests, namely that when people ruminate about an unlikely threat, they are prone to exaggerate it. This availability bias is well known to parents of teenagers who are late returning from a party, and it may apply to national leaders as well.

FYI, here is the letter draft Robin Hanson submitted to Foreign Policy:

Daniel Kahneman, celebrated vanguard of the last psychology revolution, just doesn’t get the new revolution: evolutionary psychology. In “Why Hawks Win” Kahneman and Renshon point out cognitive distortions supporting hawks over doves, but they do not see that inaccurate beliefs do not equal bad outcomes. We evolved most “biases” on purpose, to give us advantages.

The best salesmen really believe in their product no matter what its quality, the best lawyers believe their guilty client is innocent, and the best lovers are confident of being attractive. They all believe they have great power to change others. Few of us would inspire as much confidence if we were completely honest about our ability or power.

Similarly, we look good when we attribute our success to our ability and character, and our failure to circumstance. And our competitors look bad when we attribute their failure to ability and character, and their success to circumstance. Our belief biases can also signal our qualities, and commit us to strategic advantages.

The complex tribal struggles in which our ancestors evolved these biases had many important similarities to international relations and war today. In both situations it is important to gauge and show abilities, desires, intentions, resolve, and loyalty. So the biases that helped our tribal ancestors probably also help nations today: nations are better off biased.

Of course relations between nations today are not exactly like relations between ancient tribal coalitions, and every belief bias is not exactly tuned for maximal advantage in every situation. But our errors could be in either direction; we could be too biased, or not biased enough. Until we know the direction of our errors, we do not know how to improve on our current “biases,” and we certainly do not know, as Kahneman and Renshon claim, that hawks “are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be.”

What pulls me to the dove side is the poor track record of hawkish nations over the last century, relative to dovish nations. Claims about cognitive bias seem irrelevant.

Robin Hanson, George Mason University