Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

Blog-On-Blog: Foreign Policy’s “Why Hawks Win”

Posted by K.E. White on January 18, 2007

by Tim Gray What is on our brain?

Though, as will soon be apparent, I am hardly an impartial judge, I’ve long maintained that psychology is among the most–if not THE most–influential social science of the past twenty years. Indeed, contra the contentions of many Media Studies partisans, it’s emerging as the discipline poised to unite and synthesize the various tentative conclusions of its fellow fields, and propose new paths down which we might more profound, if still tentative, truths.

So it’s little wonder that Kahneman and Renshon’s article affords great insight into the processes driving foreign policy. Writing as a soon-to-be-recipient of B.A.s in Political Science and Psychology–and moreover, writing surrounded by silent, studious students of same–Kahneman and Renshon’s arguments here are nothing new, but, presented afresh, remain reliably depressing. This knowledge exists: why do we continue to behave
according to the dictates of our “natural” rationality when we can behave truly rationally?

However valuable their detailed explanations of these inbuilt cognitive biases, however, they do omit what I think might be an important consideration.

From Why Hawks Win:

The effect of [cognitive biases] in conflict situations can be pernicious. A policymaker or diplomat involved in a tense exchange with a foreign government is likely to observe a great deal of hostile behavior by that country’s representatives. Some of that behavior may indeed be the result of deep hostility. But some of it is simply a response to the current situation as it is perceived by the other side.

Kahneman and Renshon are quite correct that the situation is a crucial element in diplomatic decisions—after all, foreign policy plays out as a series of decisions and situations. But I would urge caution in excluding specific dispositional factors, as they (probably purposefully) do.

Now, most theorists of foreign policy, I understand, reject theories grounded in the “psychological.” This is a mistake, born of a misunderstanding—critiques usually train their guns on psychoanalytic interpretations of foreign policy decisions: Hitler had a bad childhood, ergo Hitler tried to conquer Europe and extinguish a “race.” But psychology–especially in the past twenty years–has become so radically different from Freud and Freud’s followers’ dark, gothic, rather literary techniques, and revealed statistic patterns in behavioral traits which might inform our understanding of specific leaders and specific decisions.
John T. Jost
NYU’s John Jost, et al, drew fire from the right several years ago for publishing a study which, it was alleged, “pathologized” political conservatism: their conclusions suggested that certain “motivated cognitions,” such as dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, fear of uncertainty etc. give rise to a conservative worldview. Certainly the existence of a “social conservative” voting bloc in the U.S. lends some support to this—faith in God and faith in Our Leader Bush seem strangely similar, do they not? This is why Bush’s approval ratings will never fall below 25-30%: on the bell curves of these motivated cognitions, there’ll always be those to the far right.

Thus, when looking for leadership and competent decision-making, perhaps we should be wary of those whose personalities exhibit troubling tendencies: we might err, and elect someone whose foreign policy decisions reflect perseveration, stubborness, easy certainty and blind faith—be it, for example, in a stable, democratic Middle East, or a benevolent ghost in the sky.

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