Want to know why nations go to war? Start with this: 80 percent of us consider ourselves better-than-average drivers.
I know, the connection seems weak, and maybe a bit flip, but stick with me.
A new paper
in Foreign Policy magazine suggests this point of view is a cornerstone of humankind's warlike nature. The great majority of us simply think we are smarter, more skilled, and more fair-minded than the next guy, and that makes us naturally a bit more inclined to be hawks than doves, to feel we are right when it comes time to fight.
The paper was authored by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate and professor at Princeton University, and Jonathan Renshon, a doctoral student in government at Harvard University. I sat down with Kahneman to go over the details. Essentially, he argues that 40 years of psychological studies have uncovered some inherent biases shared by people all over the globe, regardless of race, age or nationality, and that those biases favor war.
How does it work? First, even though we often deny it, we commonly think we are better than the next person/group/nation, and we think our plans for progress are reasonable and fair to all involved. So when any human meets with resistance from another, he or she automatically sees the opposition as unreasonably hostile.
Second, because we have such a high opinion of ourselves, we tend to be overly optimistic. In each conflict, people on each side think they'll win. During World War One, for example, both the Germans and the French predicted quick, easy victories. Instead, the war lasted years and took nearly 20 million lives.
Lastly, we hate accepting losses. Gamblers know all about this. Offer a guy a choice between losing $850 for certain right now or maybe losing a $1,000 tomorrow, and he'll choose tomorrow, even if there is only a slight chance that he'll avoid tomorrow's losses.
What it all adds up to, according to Kahneman, is a tendency to favor hawkish views. Remember, this is not an attack on Americans or about the war in Iraq specifically. Frankly, it is not even a condemnation of such views. Rather, Kahneman's idea is that people everywhere should be aware or how these natural tendencies flavor our public debate, and even now may be pushing us toward the next battlefront.
Do you buy it?