Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation. After all, war is a negative-sum activity, so war between rational parties doesn’t make sense – there’s always a potential settlement that would leave both sides better off*. And empirically, it’s usually the case that both sides end up worse off relative to both the status quo ante or to a possible peace settlement they could have secured at a point well before the end of the war. Even the observation that rulers start wars and ordinary people bear the costs doesn’t help much – leaders who start losing wars usually lose their jobs and sometimes more, while winning a war is by no means a guarantee of continued political success (ask Bush I) All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war, as in the ‘realist’ tradition (scare quotes indicate that this self-ascribed title has little to with a reality-based focus on the real world) is not a good starting point.

So it makes sense to look at irrational sources of support for war. In this pice in Foreign Policy Daniel Kahneman (winner of the economics Nobel a couple of years back) and Jonathan Renshon start looking at some well-known cognitive biases and find that they tend systematically to favor hawkish rather than dovish behavior. The most important, in the context of today’s news is “double or nothing” bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses (something first observed by Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their classic paper on prospect theory).

The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even. So we get the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

There are other biases that are based more in the way we manage things as a society than in individual psychology. The most important is the failure to treat decisions about war in terms of opportunity cost, by contrast with the way in which the budgeting process of governments (admittedly imperfectly) brings home the cost of other government activities. More on this soon, I hope.

* This is not necessarily the case if your opponent is irrationally bent on your destruction, but one of the problems noted by Kahneman and Renshon is that people are overly willing to impute such motives to others, while perceiving themselves as peaceful and reasonable.

113 thoughts on “Pro-war bias (crossposted at CT)

  1. “All of this and more can be deduced by simple resource and other conflicts without the deus ex machina of the genetic code.”

    But Bill, of course the fighting is over resources! What else would it be? Male aggression is for resource access: fertile females and fertile land. But WHY do you bother acquiring material resources? The only point of it is to benefit your genes. So, naturally, they drive you to do it. Your genes push you to acquire wealth so that you can keep a big harem and so you can set your sons up with their harems which will get those genes into lots of grandchildren.

    Melanie, no disrespect to your Mum’s lot but behaviour since agriculture 10000 years ago is not a reliable guide to behaviour in our evolutionary environement. Indeed, since the genetic variety of the peoples within Africa is greater than of the peoples outside it, in evolutionary terms everything since we left Africa 100000 (?) years ago would be immaterial.

  2. To quote the bard ” There is nothing but that thinking make it so” Evolution has provided as with a brain and a set of emotions. The brain evaluates our circumstances and decides on an emotion. None of this is fixed. Males are better at violence because they are more physically equipped to do it. I don’t think anybody except the violent ( and only some of them) want to see a society run by the violent.

  3. 95% were not and their genes are also multiplying exponentially.

    This 95% contains those who were most successful at doing the killing, which is sort of the whole point.

  4. swio – or avoiding the killing in the first place. Chastity belts may have been a Victorian invention, but the knowledge is always there that those left at home had less competition.

  5. MP, “the genetic variety of the peoples within Africa is greater than of the peoples outside it” – which says nothing at all about how the present population of Africa came to acquire their genetic variation!

    SWIO – i meant to refer to the 95% who weren’t involved in the killing at all.

  6. it’s beside the point, but melanie – if 5% were killed and 95% weren’t involved at all – then who killed the 5%?

    Bill says “I don’t think anybody except the violent ( and only some of them) want to see a society run by the violent.”

    We are all violent. And yes, we do not want violence to be the organising principle of our society. There is no contradiction. You keep assuming that the argument that genes are important equals the outlandish assertion that we are slaves to our Y chromosome. We are biased for many other things as well. Nobody denys the role of culture. It’s not one or the other.

  7. wbb it is one or the other ; quite a few on this discussion are in thrall to the gene meme: a bizarre faith. I think the most interesting conclusion we can draw from evolution is that the brain rules. The thinking part of the brainn can be orthogonal to the feeling part.i.e. it can override all the perceptual biases. But coming back to the topic Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon and their evidence of some well-known cognitive biases towards hawkishnes is particularly weak. Optimism ? For crying out loud can’t Kahneman and Renshon do better.
    The null hypothesis must be that people support war because they think they will do better out of it. This is is like the evaluation of risk that people do generally that is to say poorly. They for instance evaluate the risk of dying in a plane crash higher than dying on the way to the airport. The solution to this is that we need better social mechanisms to avoid wars , rather than sets of perceptual spectacles or drugs to calm us all down.

  8. MP, “the genetic variety of the peoples within Africa is greater than of the peoples outside itâ€? – which says nothing at all about how the present population of Africa came to acquire their genetic variation!

    No, it doesn’t. What is your point?

  9. Here’s something you could use MP : “Males have greater g: Sex differences in general mental ability from 100,000 17- to 18-year-olds on the Scholastic Assessment Test ,
    Intelligence 34 (2006) 479–486 1991 Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). We analysed 145 item responses from 46,509 males and 56,007 females (total N=102,516) using a principal components procedure. We found (1) the g factor underlies both the SAT Verbal (SAT-V) and the SAT Mathematics (SAT-M) scales with the congruence between these components greater than 0.90; (2) the g components predict undergraduate grades better than do the traditionally used SAT-V and SAT-M scales; (3) the male and the female g factors are
    congruent in excess of .99; (4) male–female differences in g have a point-biserial effect size of 0.12 favoring males (equivalent to 3.63 IQ points); (5) male–female differences in g are present throughout the entire distribution of scores; (6) male–female differences in g are found at every socioeconomic level; and (7) male–female differences in g are found across several ethnic groups. We conclude that while the magnitude of the male–female difference in g is not large, it is real and non-trivial. ”
    This of course is BS ( high quality academic BS) that they only found 3.63 pts on an unreliable test ( without giving a confidence interval) confirms the null hypothese i.e. that male and female IQs are exactly the same.

  10. Massive cut n paste failure : the reference was Intelligence 34 (2006) 479–486 “Males have greater g: Sex differences in general mental ability from
    100,000 17- to 18-year-olds on the Scholastic Assessment Test”
    Douglas N. Jackson, J. Philippe Rushton

  11. I never heard of this “g” before but surely any man who claims men are smarter than women is a nincompoop.

    Imagine if men were phased out and all people were women. No drunkenness, no porn, no aggressive drivers, no football… Of course, the crowning glory of this utopia would be no war.

    FT columnist Christopher Caldwell comments on dangerous men at

    He is referring to Söhne und Weltmacht: Terror im Aufstieg und Fall der Nationen (Sons and world power: terror in the rise and fall of nations). The author, Gunnar Heinsohn, is head of the institute for genocide research at Bremen University.

    “In Mr Heinsohn’s view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The “causes� in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such “youth bulges� now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.�

    The reviews of the book are nearly all positive. One of them includes a couple of quotes:

    “Bread is begged for. Status and power is killed for.�

    “As cold as it sounds, they [international relations strategists] have no fear of the hungry. The more successful the fight against hunger and illiteracy, the more aggressive become the upwards-striving young men. The general hope for an end to war via a victory in the war on hunger is, to the strategists, the loveliest and most naïve of illusions. Probably nowhere else are war and peace researchers farther apart.�

  12. But is it science ? A lot of these things are prejudice dressed up. We are then completely perplexed and surprised when violence comes from unexpected sources e.g. 15% of suicide bombers world wide are women and 43% of Chechen suicide bombers are women.

  13. MP : We can agree that there is a volatile mix of poor risk analysis , high emotions , high idealism , sense of entitlement and naivety as the young are supplied weaponry by their Machievallian elders.

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