Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Understanding psychological biases to improve decision-making

Many of us have used the terms “hawk” and “dove” to refer to the different ways politicians view the world. Those with hawkish tendencies are supposed to be more likely to prefer to use military force against a perceived threat and to steer clear of offering concessions to adversaries. Doves, on the other hand, prefer to avoid using force in favor of finding non-violent solutions, if possible.

Some psychology research suggests that humans may be predisposed to favor hawkish arguments because of our susceptibility to certain biases. In their article “Why Hawks Win,” Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon discussed some of these biases in an effort to explain the observed human tendency to prefer conflict over concession.

Kahneman and Renshon argue that the overconfidence bias - the same bias that leads about 80% of all drivers to believe their driving skills are above average - “makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war.” Experimental research has also shown that people show excessive optimism about success in future endeavors and that they have an illusion of control over future events. These three biases combined can significantly affect decision-making. The authors suggested that policymakers who viewed the 2003 Iraq war as a “cakewalk,” for example, were blinded by overconfidence, excessive optimism and an illusion of control.

In addition to a tendency to overestimate our chances of success in an armed conflict, policy makers tend to intuitively reject concessions offered by an adversary. This is known as reactive devaluation. One experiment asked pro-Israel Americans to examine a peace proposal. When the proposal was attributed to Palestinians it was judged as biased in favor of Palestinians but when authorship was attributed to Israelis it was viewed as “evenhanded”. This can be a significant problem in negotiations, causing some to discount what was said because of who said it.

Kahneman and Renshon also described the human aversion to cutting our losses. In one experiment that illustrates this phenomenon, researchers asked people to choose one of two options:

•Choice A: a guaranteed loss of $890; or
•Choice B: a 90% chance of losing of $1,000 and a 10% chance of losing nothing.

Most people chose the statistically inferior Choice B, accepting a potential loss in favor of a certain loss. Relating their findings to current events, Kahneman and Renshon wrote that, “When things are going badly in a conflict, the aversion to cutting one’s losses, often compounded by wishful thinking, is likely to dominate the calculus of the losing side.”

This isn’t to suggest that using force in response to a threat is never correct. The article does suggest, however, that psychological biases can influence important policy decisions like going to war, leading us to prefer more aggressive solutions when these solutions may not, in reality, be the best ones. This is certainly worth knowing, and is one way the behavioural sciences are prompting political analysts and policy makers to review some of the assumptions they take for granted in decision-making.

Ashley Thornton


Daniel Kahneman & Jonathan Renshon. “Why Hawks Win.” Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2007, pgs. 34-38.

Photo “Red Tailed Hawk” taken by Patrick T. Power and uploaded from flickr.com.