Bias and war: Why hawks win

An outstanding piece of writing on biases that came out last year was Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon’s “Why Hawks Win” in Foreign Policy. Rather than look at the evidence or effects for one particular bias, the authors consider the whole spectrum of biases and how they affect a particular decision: of whether or not to go to war.

Kahneman is especially well-placed to do this since with Amos Tversky and other colleagues he set off the whole “Heuristics and Biases research programme” that has spawned thousands of experiments and earned him a Nobel memorial prize in Economics.

Is there a general lesson from bias research about war? According to that authors, yes: “All the biases in our list favor hawks. […] biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.” Some of these biases I’ve discussed previously on this blog. It’s easy to see how optimistic bias would exacerbate a war: leaders would be insufficiently prepared for adverse outcomes and when they occur, would be unwilling to cut their losses and change strategy.

We’ve seen over-optimism in the Iraq war, with estimated costs in the tens of billions of dollars translating into real costs of hundreds or thousands of billions and the predicted “cakewalk” in which the Coalition would be “greeted as liberators” failing to materialise.

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