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Posted by on Jan 4, 2007 in Science & Technology, War | 8 comments

Why Hawks Win

Elizabeth Glassanos/FOREIGN POLICY

Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote an interesting article for Foreign Policy called Why Hawks Win.

National leaders get all sorts of advice in times of tension and conflict. But often the competing counsel can be broken down into two basic categories. On one side are the hawks: They tend to favor coercive action, are more willing to use military force, and are more likely to doubt the value of offering concessions. When they look at adversaries overseas, they often see unremittingly hostile regimes who only understand the language of force. On the other side are the doves, skeptical about the usefulness of force and more inclined to contemplate political solutions. Where hawks see little in their adversaries but hostility, doves often point to subtle openings for dialogue.

As the hawks and doves thrust and parry, one hopes that the decision makers will hear their arguments on the merits and weigh them judiciously before choosing a course of action. Don’t count on it. Modern psychology suggests that policymakers come to the debate predisposed to believe their hawkish advisors more than the doves. There are numerous reasons for the burden of persuasion that doves carry, and some of them have nothing to do with politics or strategy. In fact, a bias in favor of hawkish beliefs and preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind.

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

The authors also point out that all of this doesn’t mean that hawks are (always) wrong. The example they give is British hawks just before WW2.


Several well-known laboratory demonstrations have examined the way people assess their adversary’s intelligence, willingness to negotiate, and hostility, as well as the way they view their own position. The results are sobering. Even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another party’s behavior, they often do not factor it in when assessing the other side’s motives. Yet, people still assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior. With armies on high alert, it’s an instinct that leaders can ill afford to ignore.

Imagine, for example, that you have been placed in a room and asked to watch a series of student speeches on the policies of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. You’ve been told in advance that the students were assigned the task of either attacking or supporting Chávez and had no choice in the matter. Now, suppose that you are then asked to assess the political leanings of these students. Shrewd observers, of course, would factor in the context and adjust their assessments accordingly. A student who gave an enthusiastic pro-Chávez speech was merely doing what she was told, not revealing anything about her true attitudes. In fact, many experiments suggest that people would overwhelmingly rate the pro-Chávez speakers as more leftist. Even when alerted to context that should affect their judgment, people tend to ignore it. Instead, they attribute the behavior they see to the person’s nature, character, or persistent motives. This bias is so robust and common that social psychologists have given it a lofty title: They call it the fundamental attribution error.

It really is a fascinating read. One that should be read by all who are interested in politics.

One of the mistakes that have possibly been made due to this bias, according to Kahneman and Renshon is the Korean War in which the U.S. government did not want to threaten China, and thought that – because they knew that they would not attack China – China would know [understand] that as well. Nowadays, many experts believe that China, in fact, did feel threatened.

Another potentially fatal bias is excessive optimism. People tend to “believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success.” They also believe that they have a lot of control over outcomes, they really don’t have any (or not a lot) control over.
Makes one think of Iraq.

Combine that ‘excessive optimism’ with that “gloom usually prevails when evaluating another side’s concessions” and it is clear that people naturally tend to choose war over diplomatic solutions.

There is much more, so I suggest you all read the entire article.

They finish their article by emphasizing that all of it doesn’t mean that hawks are always wrong, for instance with Iran and North Korea. Hawks might very well be right in certain cases, but it is important – so they write – to keep in mind the biases at work in the human mind when talking about foreign policy and dealing with so-called hostile nations.

As all of you know, I am a foreign policy hawk myself. I do not believe that Ahmadinejad and others are truly willing to compromise. In fact, I would say, they will use negotiations to buy time to develop nuclear weapons. Iran with nuclear weapons could develop into a disaster and / or – at least – will change the balance in the region tremendously. I do not quite see how there is use in negotiating with extremists. Extremists don’t care about life or death, they care about the ‘higher cause’. Of course, some people within the Iranian government might be less extreme than others, but the ones currently leading the country seem to be just about the most extreme of extremes.

All of that being said, the biases as described in the article at Foreign Policy is something I have to keep in mind. All the above (what I wrote about Iran) makes a lot of sense to me, but assuming that we all seem to have biases in favor of military action and that – in our minds – we make the ‘enemy’ more hostile than the enemy might actually be and that we favor our own position far more positive than it – objectively spoken – is, should force me to challenge my own views more (aggressively), as to expose my own biases more effectively.

Of course there is also criticism possible on this article. Chicago Boyz:

What the authors don’t acknowledge is how those biases helped earlier generations protect their own. That we tend not to trust the “other� may at times have to do with the nature of the “other� (Arafat’s reign did little to lead Israelis to find Palestinians trustworthy), but the biological truth remains: we trust our own.

Daniel Drezner:

However, I love it in part because it’s simultaneously clear, provocative, and way overblown as a hypothesis. That is to say, even if one acknowledges the individual-level cognitive biases discussed in the piece, it’s a stretch to then conclude that foreign policies are more belligerent than they should be because of hawk bias.

I have more time today, I’ll try to fill out these cryptic points, but for now, here are my issues with the argument…

Drezner wrote down some great points. The first one, just to give you a taste:

1) Definitional squabbles: I don’t like the “hawk” and “dove” labels. Individuals can be hawkish in some situations but dovish in others. Indeed, there might be ideologies or operational codes that countermand the crude hawk/dove dichotomy.

Matthew Yglesias writes that “the editors of the FP website asked Matt Continetti and [him] (aka “the Matt Continetti of the left”) to write responses. You can see Continetti’s take here and [Matthew Yglesias’] here. A second round should emerge online soon.”

Also blogging: The Washington Wire.

Cross posted at my own blog.

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