Sunday, January 07, 2007

Behavioralism and Foreign Policy

or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have an interesting article in Foreign Policy Magazine applying behavioral theories to foreign policy. Their finding echoes Cass Sunstein's mortality salience theory (discussed on TBWJ last August). Kahneman and Renshon write:
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.
This is hardly a surprising finding to me, and, in fact, this is largely what we discussed back in August. Hawkish foreign policy theories seem to be far more politically attractive than they are meritorious. Kahneman and Renshon discuss a few examples in the article, but it would be interesting to see Renshon's book which goes into greater depth on the topic.

The "vision problem" discussed in the article strikes me as particularly troubling. The inability or unwillingness to try to understand (often coupled with scorn and derision directed towards those who try to understand) the context around the actions of others and to try to see how our own actions appear from other perspectives seems to underlay a great many of our foreign policy difficulties.

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