We May be Biased Toward Hawks, but We’ve Become Doves

Pinker’s brief contribution to the Edge‘s year-end treat gives a cheerful & progressive sense of proportion. While acknowledging our historical tendency toward cruelty and barbarism, he describes a world more dovish. But also this week Arts & Letters links to a Foreign Policy article “Why Hawks Win” that argues our reasoning is biased toward war. Both seem flawed but both attempt to understand the elusive “nature of man.” Of course, both also come with their own preconceptions.

Pinker might see this “hawkishness” in terms of the tribal loyalties so central to traditional defense. Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon are, I suspect, finding such tribal perspectives when discovering bias:

Evidence suggests that this bias is a significant stumbling block in negotiations between adversaries. In one experiment, Israeli Jews evaluated an actual Israeli-authored peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to the Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. Pro-Israel Americans saw a hypothetical peace proposal as biased in favor of Palestinians when authorship was attributed to Palestinians, but as “evenhanded” when they were told it was authored by Israelis.

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.

The economist & political scientist argue our predispositions favor “hawkish” arguments.

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.

Foreign Policy solicited a discussion/debate of the short essay’s points by Matthew Continetti and Matthew Yglesias. Continetti contends:

The claim is grand, but there is a frivolity to Kahneman and Renshon’s argument. They assert that all of the biases found in their survey of the past 40 years of psychological research favor hawks. Yet they examine closely only four such biases and mention only three experimental studies—and the biases they do describe are exhibited by doves just as often as they are exhibited by hawks.

And so we return to Pinker’s question,

What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—”Why is there war?” instead of “Why is there peace?”

Pinker suggests much in the secular realm (living longer and less painfully, we are more hesitant to inflict death and pain on others; a growing consciousness of those different from us) has led us to less violence, fewer wars. Of course, these are likely to be important to our understanding.  Still, in the midst of the Western tradition, he sometimes ignores it; he seems almost willfully blind to the important role of an increasing internalized value system, a rule of law that trumps tribalism, and, especially, respect for the “divine spark” in others not of our tribe.

I suspect it is his admirable desire to not be (or appear) tribal himself that leads him to acknowledge the violence of capital punishment in Texas and tortures at Abu Ghraib, but he defends a society in which these are “hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial.” Saddam’s Abu Ghraib and the Army’s are different – in the tortures, but especially in the treatment of the torturers. Under Saddam these were not “hidden, illegal, condemned”; this indicates Pinker’s optimism may not be as universal as he (we) might wish. Some of our “bias” is likely to derive from the tribal when risk-taking may be necessary for the tribe’s survival. Still, Pinker’s original insight has his usual freshness, depth & breadth that help us develop a sense of proportion.

P.S. My daughters wanted to watch Gettysburg tonight. I’ve got to say seeing that carnage and then returning to complaints of American hawkishness in the current war gives me pause. Certainly our perspective on death and suffering has changed dramatically from 1863 and that battlefield to 2007 and Baghdad.

13 thoughts on “We May be Biased Toward Hawks, but We’ve Become Doves”

  1. It’s great to read posts like this in our day; posts that implicitly accept the obvious truth that there’s a biological component to human behavior. When Robert Ardrey and others elaborated on this truth in books that appeared back in the sixties and seventies, they were immediately subjected to vicious ad hominem attacks by Montague, Lewontin, and other ideologues who passed themselves off as “scientists.” After all, how could the “New Soviet Man,” with his infinitely malleable behavior, exist in a world of creatures subject to biological predispositions? It turns out this was a much to obvious truth to suppress for long. RIP, Ardrey. The nitpickers have ye always with you, but, in fact, you have won.

  2. I’m not so sure about all this “biology” talk. As this has been cast, the “hawkish” response generally does not depend on assuming good will (or lack of unremitting ill will) on the part of the (real or potential) adversary, and is therefore lower-risk not just in a crude mathematical way, but is more controllable or less vulnerable to surprises, in the initial action and response. If one is risk averse and only thinking two or three steps ahead (a typical politician’s mindset) the act of seizing the initiative and forcing the action will appear more attractive than trusting the other guy… nothing particularly “biological inheritance” about it, except it might have survival value to the extent it is generally “true.” But it’s not as if it is fundamentally illogical and only there because of some bizarre atavism.

    Anyone ever play the old game, “Diplomacy”? If you did, you had to encounter situations where the “smart” move was aggression.

  3. Marty:
    Where did you get the idea – or is it that you assume I’m arguing – that core human nature, our biological desires, are “fundamentally illogical and only there because of some bizarre atavism”?

  4. One can not compare TheAmerican Civil War and the war in Iraq. We went into Iraq for WMD, for fighting terror(!), and then to bring democracy to the region (and the oil and our numeerous permanent bases?)…the civil war was to keep the union together. Sure many more lives lost in that war but then fighting methods differed and we are in the middle of an insurgency or war between various sects. Thus comparisons are not here useful.

    But that said, whether man is by nature aggressive or not is an issue that is speculative among evolutionary thinkers, but they do agree that there are instances where not fighting is a much better winning strategy.

    Overalla though, America has__________how many KNOWN bases worldwide? If you come reasonably close you will then see what dominating world empire we have become. Yes. We say it is to protect etc but that is patent nonsense. How many troops in Japan? How many in S. Korea? How many in German (protecting against???)
    No. We delude ourselves if we think all is merely bringing the world democracy.

  5. The South Korean Army is twice the size of the entire US army and about fifty times the size of the US forces stationed there. While the S. Korean government likes to play it both ways, and blame us for the conflict between themselves and North Korea while relying on an alliance with us to keep North Korea at bay, if they really felt that way we are not in a position to defeat them if they decided they really felt that way and wanted to act on things.

    The US bases in Germany don’t seem to be able to affect German politics very much, but they were useful in helping to supply our attempts to stop the genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

  6. Somewhere in all of this there appears to be an assumption that I find very, very questionable indeed—that there is a division in the human race, and in the US, between those who accept the need for violence at some point in the affairs of men, the placement of that point varying, obviously, depending on the situation, and the specific beliefs of those confronting that situation; and a second group who eschew violence, and are called “doves”, professing a pacifist approach to human relations.

    In fact, the number of true pacifists in human society in general, and the US in particular, is very small, and the core beliefs of pacifism are not representative of any mainstreamm cultural or religious movements, with the specific exceptions of the Ghandian-MLK non-violent social protests, both of which were constantly troubled by members of their movements resorting to violence for any number of reasons.

    The ideological focus in this alleged study is to demonize, once again, any position which advocates violence as a legitimate response to certain provocations, and express their shock and horror at the many ways violence sneaks into human social and behavioral affairs, and that it is rewarded, instead of the more desirable “dovishness”, which oft times is not.

    But the main constituency of the “dove” movement in the US, and the world in general, is not pacifist at all. A fundamental tenet of the “peace” movements that have come and gone over the last century is that it is only certain social groups for whom violence is illegitimate, i.e., there are many acceptable causes for which a violent response is not only moral, but desirable and inevitable, due to the unbearable nature of the provocation.

    Specifically, it has been an all too common facet of “peace movements” in the latter half of the 20th century, and currently, that any military response by the US and its allies is automatically wrong and immoral, while all sorts of violence and mayhem on the part of the opponents of the US is understandable.

    There is a pacifist segment of society which condemns violence in any form, and forbids it for any reason. But the “doves” of the popular “peace movements” are not pacifists, they are just on the other side.

    Notice, just as one example, the utter disappearence of the much balleyhooed “human shields” that rushed to Iraq to protect the Iraqi’s from the imperialist violence of the evil US and its allies. Now that the violence is coming from our adversaries, where are all the human shields, so concerned about protecting Iraqi’s before? They know better.

    It was all symbolism in the first place, predicated on the cynical belief that the US would try to avoid killing them, and, if they were killed, there would be bad publicity about it against the US, as with the story about the girl killed by the Israeli bulldozer. Now that truly indifferent killers are abroad, who would blow them up without a second thought, and no anti-US publicity would result, the oh-so-sanctimonious shields suddenly had other, more important things to do.

    The unspoken reality is that “doves” are every bit as situational as “hawks”, they’re just more holier-than-thou about it.

  7. Semiretired,
    I think you are right in many ways. The article about our bias toward hawkish interpretations ignored what seems to me our biological (and logical) bias toward action to protect what we see as our own. But it didn’t argue that there are really pacifists in great number out there.

    I think my headline led to misinterpretation – I’ve done what we often complain newspapers do and used a really lousy headline for what is argued. Pinker would certainly not argue that being a pacifist is normal or biological, etc. It is just that in modern society, we find someone who tortures a cat (even I, who am convinced they suck the breath out of us) more likely to be a psychopath than an entertainer. We find 3,000 deaths in a war a tragedy in a way that earlier peoples did not when considering similar numbers.

    It is not that we are less aggressive; our proportions, however, have shifted. We have come to value human life and human pain in a different way. Whether that is because we can expect longer & less pain-filled lives – Pinker’s argument – or that this is a long-term movement (which Pinker’s arguments would also imply) reflecting belief systems that prioritize supra-tribal values is an interesting question.

    The argument that we tend to believe those whom we see as our “own” seems to me pretty obvious; that we also would “rather be safe than sorry” and therefore act pre-emptively or at least be prepared for the worst seems also pretty obvious. I think Continetti is right – in part because he assumes some sensible universals.

  8. Not sure how I became only “semiretired”, (if you’re planning on putting me back to work, be advised I take at least 3 naps a day), but anyway—

    My point was that the categories of “hawk” and “dove” are artificial and agenda driven. Of course most people are prepared to fight for “ours”, and against “them”. The so-called modern doves just have a different “ours”, i.e., they seem to identify with those who attack our society, and are unsympathetic to defending it.

    I agree that there is a strange belief that life should be danger-free, and a narcisistic element which truly believes that nothing is worth taking a chance on dying to defend, but that is a reflection on and result of a bankrupt cultural orientation which prizes “lifestyle” and “self-fulfillment” above all other values, including defending the larger culture which provides the lifestyle in the first place.

    This is all part of the “blank-out” mindset—that mental refusal to deal with threatening, and often contradictory, ideas and beliefs which would lead to a recognition that one’s basic values were incoherent, and that one’s fundamental beliefs needed to be thoroughly reconsidered. It is so much simpler just to pretend that a “higher” rationality and a more sophisticated set of feelings about life renders one’s behaviors and values beyond questioning.

    Thus the bizarre adulation for the recently retired Kofi Annan, a completely disreputable character, who has presided over the disembowelment of whatever was left of the UN’s position of moral suasion in the world, but who leaves amid a torrent of complimentary articles in the MSM and laudatory comments from various tranzi types in politics and elsewhere.

    If one ignores all the disasters which occurred during his administration, then I guess he’s a pretty great guy and was a terrific SG.

    If you don’t let reality get in the way of your beliefs, then anything truly is possible.

  9. Sorry about the semi-retired. The fact that I do this kind of thing so often may mean I’m not reading as closely as I should – I hope it doesn’t imply I’m not respecting your comments which I do. I suspect it is also because you bring so much diligence & chram to your comments that you don’t seem all that retired.

    I agree with you in general – of course, Annan was not just greedy but barbarous as well. He put his greed above the lives of many, many others. His willfulness was disastrous. And the continuation not only of our culture (let alone our species) seems to me far more important than death. Indeed, I think the battle is important in Iraq and should be waged. And I believe our western culture has much that is worthwhile and worthy of being defended with our lives, because it has made a life so much better for our children and so much more encouraging of the best in human nature that its loss would be tragic far beyond our borders – but certainly to my children & children’s children, etc.

    My point was somewhat different, however. While the majority of us believe in capital punishment, we no longer have public executions. Are you for capital punishment? Would you take your children to an execution? I’m pretty hawkish and pretty nationalistic, but I’m sure my feelings about death, physical pain, etc. are quite different than someone in my shoes 150 years ago. For instance, I have never seen anyone die, I’ve never had a child die, I’ve known people with pain but not unsedated and with long-term chronic illnesses of the kind that were common 150 years ago & I’m sure much more earlier. Of course, I’ve been relatively lucky, but I am 61. I worked at a mental hospital in the sixties and know what madness can be like – as it too often is on the streets after the de-institutionalization. But if I see someone on the streets, I’m likely to think “he’s off his meds” – and feel more pity than fear because I do think that madness can be generally controlled. Sympathy for the retarded and the mentally ill is a given for our society – it was not always so.

    But of course in the main, the big, ways I feel like people always have – I want my family – then town, then state, then nation – safe, I want my beliefs to prevail when they are attacked. I would rather we went to war pre-emptively than my daughters were under Sha’ria law. I’d rather we lost people today than fought the kind of war that is likely to come in a future when Iran has armed & encouraged both Sunni & Shia to fight wars likely to spill across the world.

    (This must have been a lousy post because I’m spending more time saying what I meant than I did saying it. Of course, however, it is nice to read other’s responses that are interesting.)

  10. I don’t think it was a lousy or unclear post at all. We’re just discussing the general ideas from a couple of different directions. BTW, I was just teasing around about the “semi” business, although I must admit I’ve been accused of being full of lots of things but never “chram” before. I hope it doesn’t cause loss of appetite or some other weird side effect, like a terrible urge to jog or something.

    Anyway, I just read a very interesting article by Melanie Phillips that I linked to thru Instapundit about Iraq, Iran, and other things. If you read it, let me know what you think.

    I enjoy your posts, and this blog in general, very much.

  11. As a practical matter, we may well be biased toward accepting the possibility of military conflict, and even of promoting such conflicts, and yet experience smaller, fewer wars over time. That’s the implication of Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View and A World in Crisis: Conflict Prevention and the International Crisis Group, which says “[i]n the case of serious conflicts (defined as those with 1000 or more battle deaths in a year) and mass killings there has been an 80 per cent decline since the early ’90s, and an even more striking decrease in the number of battle deaths.”

    It may be that, as in other areas of human endeavor, our capabilities are actually getting ahead of the problem (I refer the masochistsstout of heart to my overwrought review of Annihilation from Within), and we are, to quote myself, “accelerating toward eucatastrophe.”

    Having said all this, I am no utopian. My own belief is that Strauss and Howe are right and that for lack of resolve to endure 10k KIA in this decade, we will see » 100k KIA in the next.

    What matters is what happens, not what we wish would have happened or what we’re afraid is going to happen.

  12. I think Hawk vs Dove is too simple to be meaningful.

    I think the lessons of the 1930s was that when you see a threat growing you just can’t be a dove and close your eyes to it hoping it will go away.

    Hitler pushed the line over and over and over and over again and they called it peace in their time. Was there peace in Germany during that time? No, Was there peace for the Jews as their demonization began? No. Was there peace in England or France or the US. No. Everyone was anxious. If they sent forces into Germany before Germany was able to do its plan, MILLIONS would not be dead today. Though I guess we would never know what we had prevented.

    Islamic Jihad is Nazism plus the Devil. It’s global.

    I believe it’s our Kobayashi Maru (Star Trek II reference. The unwinnable situation)

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