Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tuesday Column: The Hawks that drove Bush, Howard and Blair.

There’s now no dispute that the war in Iraq is a disaster. That’s the word used for it by Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard says it is “going very badly”, and George Bush himself concedes that: “history is going to look back and see a lot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.”

There was no shortage of people warning the Bush administration of this ahead of the second Gulf War (lets call them ‘doves’). But Bush, Blair and Howard chose instead to take the advice of ‘hawks’. Bush seemed to do so again last week when he increased America’s commitment to Iraq.

Is it just Bush, Howard and Blair? Or do hawks have an unfair (and dangerous) advantage over doves when it comes to competing for the minds of Prime Minister’s and Presidents...

Daniel Kahneman believes it’s an unfair advantage. And he is in a good position to know. I mentioned him at the start of this year in my column on forecasts. He says we don’t make very good ones in part because we are blinded by “delusional optimism” in our own abilities. The only psychologist ever to have won the Nobel Prize for economics, Kahneman has revolutionized economic thinking by examining the ways in which human beings consistently get things wrong rather than, as is more typical, assuming that we generally get things right.

He has just constructed a list of all of the predictable human errors uncovered in 40 years of psychological research (he calls them our decision-making biases). He says he was startled by what he found: All of the biases on the list favour hawks. In an article entitled “Why Hawks win” published in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Kahneman and colleague Jonathan Renshon conclude that “a bias in favor of hawkish beliefs and preferences is built into the fabric of the human mind”.

One of the biases is overconfidence - “delusional optimism” itself. For example, roughly 80 percent of us believe that we are better than average at driving. When a war is brewing this same innate overconfidence is likely to mean that the leaders on each side believe they have a better than even chance of winning. They are more likely to listen to hawkish advisors than those who advise caution. Two years ago the CIA station chief in Baghdad wrote in a report to the President that the US was on track to suffer more 2,000 dead. Bush is said to have responded: “What is he, some kind of defeatist.”

We also tend to overemphasise personality in our assessment of why people or nations act the way they do. Psychologists call this “fundamental attribution error”. We believe that people who have helped us have done so because they are “nice”. People who have made life difficult for us are “bad’. Whether or not it was possible to reason with Saddam Hussein (and as the invasion approached he seemed to become more and more co-operative) we are more inclined than we should be to believe that people such as Saddam can’t be reasoned with, simply because of the type of person we believe them to be. By contrast we regard ourselves as less hostile than our adversaries, “pushed into a corner” rather than raving mad. And we tend to be blind to how others see us. Surely they other side will realise that we are pushed into a corner rather than unreasonable?

As well we devalue peace offers when we know they come from the other side.
Kahneman calls it “reactive devaluation”. He says in one experiment two groups of Israeli Jews were shown the same peace plan. One was told that it was drawn up by the Palestinians. It saw it as unfair, and biased against Israel. The other was told the truth, that it Israel’s plan. It saw it as evenhanded.

Hawkish thoughts retain their grip on our minds even when it is apparent that that grip is costing us dearly. And this is perhaps the saddest and most destructive of the decision-making biases uncovered by Kahneman. He calls it our “double or nothing bias”, and he stresses in a note to the editor of Foreign Policy that he coined that phrase and wrote his article before President Bush’s decision last week to ramp up the stakes in Iraq by risking an extra 20,000 American lives.

Kahneman says we abhor losing so much that we are prepared to risk losing even more in order to buy just a slim chance of avoiding it.

What would you prefer, he asks: a sure loss of $890, or a 90 percent chance of losing $1,000 and a 10 percent chance of losing nothing? Most people will raise the stakes and take the chance, even though mathematically it is worst deal. When we are losing we almost always want to raise the stakes and risk losing more. The people who run casinos and poker machines count on it. In total their patrons always lose, and keep betting more in an effort to turn things around. As Kahneman puts it: “People prefer to avoid a certain loss in favor of a potential loss, even if they risk losing significantly more.”

When John Howard promised that he would not “cut and run from Iraq” it was a pledge that would have resonated even with some Australians who thought we should not have been there in the first place. Our brains are wired to want to finish what we started. We are irrationally keen to want to reclaim sunk costs - lives that have already been lost, or hours that has already been wasted, rather than cutting our losses as we arguably should.

Even worse, our leaders don’t face the same costs as we do. For a leader who is losing a war there is not much more to be lost in terms of reputation by hanging on, and the small chance that something can be gained (at the cost of extra lives) by hanging on.

Kahneman and Renshon are not saying that we never go to war, or never stay the course. They are saying that we appear to be hardwired to do that too often. They are saying that Howard, Bush, and Blair are human.