Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Why we go to war
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?
Posted By Tom Foreman, CNN Correspondent: 4:41 PM ET
Underneath the roots of every war are a few dollars--the real reason we go to war is greed. Whether it is money or oil or trade, the real reason is to protect/improve our economic standing in the world. With Iraq it is oil, with Vietnam and Korea it was spending money or the military and draining the communist coffers. With WWII and WWI it was the huge loans and aid given to the allies...we could go on and on.
Posted By Anonymous Brant, Madison, Wisconsin : 5:14 PM ET
I think all of that's probably true, especially when you examine some of the administration leading up to and in the early stages of the war. Donald Rumsfeld's infamous, "six days, six weeks, I doubt six months" comment, or Wolfowitz's dubious assertion, even at the time that "we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." And the Bush administration, faced with losing that $850 today or $1000 tomorrow, is hedging their bets now that they can put off losing that $1000 until 2008-at which point, of course, the interest will have compounded to more like a trillion and they've taken a few hundred thousand lives with them.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa Keenan, South Portland, Maine : 5:39 PM ET
Hey Tom,
Great post and yes I buy it. Sometimes when I think about what's going on in the world and in my own little universe, I find that I'm feeling superior about my beliefs and my reasoning and I'm wondering how my opposition could posibly think the way he thinks or acts the way he acts, then it will dawn on me. Everyone of course has their own thoughts and reasoning and beliefs and just because I happen to think mine are the right ones doesn't necessarily mean they are. The person that is able to see both sides of the spectrum, is in my opinion, way ahead of the game.
Posted By Anonymous Bev Ontario Canada : 5:40 PM ET
Hello Tom~
I get your point. Of course we all think we are right in our own views and by golly I AM a good driver! Human nature unfortunately does not exacerbate peace. Globally, we must learn tolerance and acceptance. Can you guess who said this quote in a 2002 speech to HUD in Washington D.C.? ~ "I just want you to know that when we talk about war,we're really talking about peace" ~ President George W. Bush.~ go figure.
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann, Nacogdoches TX : 5:44 PM ET
yes I agree. I also think as Americans, that we need to war with somebody about every 20-25 years.
Posted By Anonymous Jim Leach Dana Point CA. : 5:51 PM ET
I never really thought of it that way Tom. I think there is definately something to that, and I also think that if you look at the tendencies of the conservatives versus that of the liberals, your point is really amplified exponentially. Close-mindedness really is at the root of this theory, and conservatism is absolutely synonymous with close-mindedness. When we think about the greater good, help for all at the shared expense of many, diplomatic resolution where many parties have a say in a final outcome, and truly using violence and military force as a last result, these are all liberal tendencies. Then you have the Fox News side..Once again, a great, thought-provoking piece! Thanks!
Posted By Anonymous nathan karczewski, junction city, KS : 5:52 PM ET
We go to war due to ego, fear and greed. It allows our leaders to feel powerful and us to feel safe and strong. War is huge business. As long as our country can convince us of threat from 'the Other', whoever it may be this time, the business of arms and military budgets can escalate, the campaign coffers can be filled, the lobbyists can sway legislation, and our economy will continue to grow. What a price to pay.
Posted By Anonymous Mary Ann Wuebker, Hailey, Idaho : 5:54 PM ET
Tom, don't we all go to war everyday? It's within us.
Posted By Anonymous Jess, Paris, KY : 5:57 PM ET
A natural question would be why in the world US would be indulging in all this war games. To dig into that one needs to read the well researched books of Dr. Noam Chomsky, Dr. Stephen Horowitz, Gore Vidal and the likes or watch the three part DVD "The Corporations", about how the big businesses of USA has profited from the two world wars and how wars are essential to keep this cycle of establishing the power structure for generating more and more business and profits.

One can remain aloof from all this injustice and mayhems, but as a responsible citizen of this world one should express their resentment and opposition in any form they can. Otherwise the blacks and the brownies, the African and Asian nations would still continue to remain colonies.

Unfortunately the formers still are largely white collar slaves under economic rule and slavery of mainly Anglo-west European, American hegemony established through a chain of institutions, organisations, associations, governments and world bodies like the IMF, WTO, NATO and even UN, who are mere stooges and puppets of the rich and corrupt western nations led by the USA, who's democracy in turn is hijacked by the corporations and big businesses.
Posted By Anonymous Goose Egg,Lexington, KY : 5:58 PM ET
Tom: Very interesting read. I don't entirely buy it. It's one thing to think we are better than the next person and take on hawk-like behaviors, but when the fight involves having to kill and cause deaths...I'm thinking a lot more doves would start crying!
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 6:02 PM ET
Seven Deadly Sins. Pride, Lust, Greed, etc.

Wars reflect the failings of mankind.
Posted By Anonymous George Briese Chicago, IL : 6:03 PM ET
Wrong. War is merely the visible expression of cultural evolution ( if not physical and biological evolution). The fittest survive. In all senses of the phrase. Whether we like it or not, some cultures are doomed to die. The trick is making sure it's the culture "we" like. The outcome is far from certain. Americans need to understand that this entire business boils down to "us or them" . I sincerely hope it's "Us. "
Posted By Anonymous Gene, Hamilton, MS : 6:09 PM ET
I do not buy any of this. I do not think I am a better person than anyone else and I believe most people feel the same way.

What about this scenerio? Someone moves into your neighborhood and decides he is better than anyone else in your neighborhood and only his way of thinking is the right way of thinking. He proceeds to make your lives a living hell when you do not agree with him or abide by his rules. Some neighbors would move or abide by his rules. Not me and I would fight this person with everything I have. What would you do?

Please don't think so small. The whole world our neighbor? We went to war with Iraq initially due to 911 and it does not matter that there were no WMD. We should have already been there assisting the people of Iraq in they're time of need.
Posted By Anonymous Linda Blalock, Houston TX : 6:11 PM ET
Tom, I want to disagree and say that as our neighbours this is not true. But I can't. The USA spends alot of money on military equipment and are very proud to display what it has around the nation and the world. I thought the American dream was to have a BMW, speed boat and house, along with the best sports leagues in the world. I quickly found out its all about flexing your muscel. Big toys that create major disasters around the world so that all can see is what is really important!
Posted By Anonymous Claude Calgary Canada : 6:12 PM ET
This seems to be to simplistic. I just read an article about 'fear' being a major motiving factor. I would say that the 'average joe' is swayed by both fear and better driver concepts and the Bush administration has used this factor. "Post 9-11, fight 'em over there, spread democracy" The prime movers, however, are motivated by economics and power. One only has to look, historically, at the use of 'marriages' to form alliances as well as religion and manifest destiny to attempt to control the world's resources.

I would say that might is right determines who the 'invader' will be. If one feels their strength is capable of overwhelming a weak link, one feels that over-throwing an opponent is feasible to make gains. Certain personalities and age-old conflicts also come into play when we look at the leadership. If one looks at many of those in power in the US at this point there are those 'disappointed' with the fall of Nixon and VietNam, many of which re-emerged in the Reagan years and Iran-Contra, and were totally unsatisfied with Desert Storm. To which one can add their frustration with the 'back-off' militarily attitude under Clinton.

The 'better driver' theory is simply too simplistic, much like the thought that we could march into Baghdad and be greeted with flowers. That historically warring factions would come to the watering hole and beat their swords into plow shares.
Posted By Anonymous linda, bella vista,ar : 6:31 PM ET
Hey Tom
I haven't driven my car since I went through a red light and totalled it while driving uninsured about 3 years ago.
So much for that theory eh?
Posted By Anonymous Lisa Scarboro Ontario Canada : 6:32 PM ET

I don't buy it Tom, or at least I don't want to buy it.

Is it that easy to define why we go to war? After reading Kahneman and Renshon's "Why Hawks Win", I wonder if it is really that simplistic. It was an intense article to articulate.

I did agree with the statement in the "Double or Nothing" section, when the author writes about our deep-seated aversion to cutting our losses. The hawk (President Bush) sees the withdrawal of the troops as a "sure loss, and that option is deeply unattractive. The option of hanging on will therefore be relatively attractive, even if the chances are small and the cost of delaying failure is high."

Along with that statement, Bush's "illusion of control" and "excessive optimism" reads like a textbook about his Iraq War strategies.

In addition, the paragraph on the psychological "impulse to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries......have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end" also read like a Bush/Chaney/Rumsfeld military propaganda episode.

Even so, I guess the human mind does have preferences to distrust and be hostile in a "in your face" conflict like 911 and the Iraq War.

On the other hand, our 80 percent belief in ourselves as better-than-average drivers, gave Bush's advisors and military leaders the confidence to persuade the president that there would be a positive outcome to the Iraq War.

Just some thoughts.

So as I watch President Bush on Wednesday night in his "hawk" mode, I think I will better understand where has come from and maybe where he is going.

But Tom, I am still cheering for the dove.
Posted By Anonymous Sharon D., Indianapolis, IN : 6:32 PM ET
I buy it.

The problem is that no matter how we feel about war, 20/20 hindsight bias is inevitable especially when lives are at stake. So what if we're inherently programmed as belligerent creatures to hone in on our survival instincts? We are also incredibly smart and evolved and must learn from the mistakes of the past (and present) so that our energy can be channeled into doing something good for humankind.
Posted By Anonymous Aruna Rao, Minneapolis, MN : 6:45 PM ET
This is the same principle that drives Home Owner Association Board of Directors to think they know what is best for the Association.

The cream DOES NOT RISE TO TO THE TOP. Intelligent people DO NOT put themselves in harms way. POLITICIANS mask their intent with the "public service" when they are just living a better life style on the taxpayer.

Ignorance is the world's greatest sin. And the apathy, or the inability, of the masses are unable to change the leadership. Recently, look at Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, Mussolini, and a host of lesser dictators to prove the point.
Posted By Anonymous Andy, Columbia SC : 6:46 PM ET
Dear Tom,

This is a very interesting study! I agree with Brant from Wisconsin; greed is the prime motivator in most wars. However, the lust for power is probably even more relevant. You can even see it in the hawkish personality of a schoolyard bully. The worst part is that hawks probably attract the most followers just by the nature of their actions.

History, proves that there are more hawks than doves and that human beings thrive on conflict. I am sure there are exceptions somewhere, but conflict and the struggle for power permeate almost every relationship that exists. In every successful marital relationship there is probably someone who thinks he or she is right and someone who allows them to believe it.

Hawks seem to see things as black or white, whereas doves see things in shades of gray. The only way to remedy the problem would be to get the hawkish personalities to be more like the dovish ones and try to understand those "subtle openings for dialogue." An insurmountable task considering the fact that hawks will never admit they are wrong, or need to reconsider their position.

Unfortunately, I believe this tendency is nurtured not only in society, but also in the home, where parents bombard their children with a sense of self-confidence at the expense of considering the varied feelings and viewpoints of others.

Thank you for another provocative post! I look forward to tonight's program.

Jo Ann
Posted By Anonymous Jo Ann Matese, North Royalton, Ohio : 6:53 PM ET
Well I hope you keep your day job. This proves my point that journalists should only "report" the news. It is clear that you are a neophyte with regards to understanding the complexities why nations go to war. It may make people like you feel better to think that they have an understanding of how these things work. But to the rest of us it looks like you think you are "better than average" at understanding these things. Nice try.
Posted By Anonymous Joe Bauer, Houston, Texas : 7:21 PM ET
So it all comes down to the human ego and greed. I guess war is what we get with a "world superpower" status and mentality.
Posted By Anonymous Shruti Bala, Glendale, AZ : 7:23 PM ET
I think we choose what we believe about ourselves and that those beliefs are determined by a multitude of variables. So much influences major decisions, not just the belief that we're better than someone else. War is a huge decision, and I do find it is often easier for countries to play the bully than admit they're wrong, swallow pride,and make amends. Admitting that we were wrong (current administration and Iraq) has nothing to do with believing we're better, just right in our beliefs. Haven't read this article yet, but there was research going back to the Mars v. Venus idea that men are more prone than women to engage in war due to their thinking and coping skills. I wonder how much research surrounding the hawk v. dove theory is there, valid, reliable, and replicable. Or is this just more academic babble and a doctoral student looking for a publication to help find a job? And even more importantly, how is this theory going to be applied to stop Bush from possibly sending my cousin back to that country with troops under his command for Tour Three?
Posted By Anonymous TA Cheramie, Berwick, LA : 7:34 PM ET
Hi Tom, I will buy that humans of earth innately fight for the survival of the species and fighting wars to defend that survival comes with the territory. What I do not buy is intelligent Americans starting these wars. They obviously do not understand karmic debt and the Universes ability to direct the balance of energy. Civilizations have been known to destroy themselves because of their own stupidity.
Posted By Anonymous Judy Stage Brooklyn Michigan : 7:42 PM ET
O shame to men! Devil with Devil damn'd
Firm concord holds, men onely disagree
Of Creatures rational, though under hope
Of heavenly Grace: and God proclaiming peace,
Yet live in hatred, enmitie, and strife
Among themselves, and levie cruel warres,
Wasting the Earth, each other to destroy:
As if (which might induce us to accord)
Man had not hellish foes anow besides,
That day and night for his destruction waite.

Paradise Lost 2.496-505
published in 1667 by John Milton

Unfortunately nothing has changed during the last 300+ years. We have only gained more expertise in "Wasting the Earth, each other to destroy."
Posted By Anonymous Greg Lowe Jefferson, Georgia : 8:04 PM ET
Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda master said the easiest thing in the world is to lead people into war. Just point at the intended victim, say they're a threat, and anyone who opposes is called unpatriotic. We never seem to learn from history.
Posted By Anonymous Gary Eustice, Hibbing, Mn : 8:17 PM ET
It has been interesting readign the responses that were made here. I do agree that if you break down reasons for war in its simplist form it is becasue the "we think we are better" attitude." I dont recall the passage that was posted saying it was about American's spcifically. You can't tell that by some of the reations. We Americans as much as we hate to admit it do think we are better than anyone else. The fact that we still have so many people who refuse to acknowledge that is probaly the main reason most of the world hates us. We need to get it together and look at ourselves.
Posted By Anonymous Darius, Norfolk VA : 8:20 PM ET
And all this time I just thought we were just a bunch of idiots!
Posted By Anonymous Coolbreeze, Fort Lauderdale, FL : 8:24 PM ET
"We" go to war because YOU sorry civilians don't have to pay the cost of war any more. You don't suffer any privations when our country goes to war, unless you count the minimal expenditure you made for that yellow ribbon magnet for your SUV. YOU don't feel the dust in every pore, YOU don't feel the crushing fatigue, YOU don't smell the odors of exploded ordinance and your own unwashed body, YOU don't experience the unrelenting tedium, YOU don't experience those moments of absolute terror, YOU don't know what it's like to kick a little hole like a cat, squat over it and kick the soil back over it again. YOU don't know what it's like to have gotten so cold and hungry that anything resembling food will do, even the MRE you scorned back home. YOU don't know the constant weight of a Kevlar helmet on your head, or the slap-slap-slap of a gas mask against your thigh. And YOU are the ones who send us off to war.

Are you surprised I can't stand to be around you any more? Are you surprised I can't tolerate mingling with you in the stores? Are you surprised I don't want to have anything to do with any of you? You shouldn't be. YOU aren't the one paying the price for this, or any other war.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa, Sparks NV : 8:27 PM ET
Even if we assume this is an accurate assessment, would it then behoove those who's culture at least makes efforts to understand "the barbarians at the gates" and how "we're all really alike", to truely realize that there are some who have irrevocably fallen prey to this type of thinking and that there is only the option of force when dealing with these people?

If that is accepted, then should tolerance of those who are irrevocably intolerant be an acceptable option? Or could it be that some change must be forced at some point on those who's superiority/inferiority complex has lead them on a homicidal, even genocidal, rampage?

As for "Double or Nothing," the flaw therein lies in the assumption that losses are always cut when leaving the game. In war, the game does not always end in one theater, and cutting losses now does not equal cutting losses overall; in fact, the main argument for staying in Iraq is that our potential for losses may increase in the future if we're forced to return under less ideal circumstances.

Some want to end Gulf War II like Gulf War I was ended; no prosecution of the war to a clear victory. Others see that that may guarantee a Gulf War III.

Way too many comments here have focused on alleged greed only on one side; these commenters seem to believe the exact opposite: Only one side has a superiority complex and if only that side would give up and give away it's power, wealth, and authority, then we could coexist in complete peace with the other side. That, of course, would be the side who believes the only law should be one based on their religion, the side that executes those not in compliance, the side that has spent the vast majority of its wealth on palaces and instruments of conquest, then tells it's people their plight is the fault of outside conspirators.
Posted By Anonymous Mark, Austin, TX : 8:46 PM ET
Frankly, I don't buy it one bit. The basic premise is that belicosity stems from a sense of superiority? In my belief, we go to war (we humans not just we Americans) to protect our rights to adequate resources. If I and another man are hungry and food is limited, I will fight him for the last bite regardless of my opinion of myself. Take Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other country currently in strife. The real battle is for the right to control resources because, he who controls the resources is better and has a better chance for survival. Now, our exaulted opinions of ourselves may indeed help to motivate us during the battle and indeed we try to dehumanize our oponents by thinking of them as commies, krauts, gooks, ragheads,...the list goes on. But humans do not go to war with others just to prove that we are better. We go to war to maintain a full plate, a warm bed, and a safe home for our offspring and their offspring.
Posted By Anonymous Kyle, Odenton MD : 8:50 PM ET
To state that we "think" we are superior is an absurd "superiorist" remark. If you add 2+2 over and over again, and it always totals to the same answer, then we have a "fact". We are the most adevanced, creative, open society in the worlds history. France died years ago, Italy has remained at a near wonderful level, Britian is a wonderful example, etc. But we are the country that advances. We have much to offer, we debate openly, we assimilate freely. Nobody else does what we do. Even with the idiot Kennedy's, we ARE superior in our realm.
Posted By Anonymous Tim, Boca Raton, Fl : 9:07 PM ET
No, I don't "buy it".

Did the professor ever read Ian Fleming's "Goldfinger"?

Goldfinger didn't need to steal Fort Knox gold, but rather push it off the market by irradiating it, hence making his own gold more valuable, owing to the laws of supply and demand. Bush's intent was a variation on this theme, because he waged war on Iraq to destabilze Iraqi oil production, thereby boosting the value of the reserves held by his Oil-industry contributor base from $25 per barrel to $55 per barrel.

If Watergate taught us nothing else, it was to "Follow the money trail".
Posted By Anonymous Jonathan Pulliam; Lowell, Massachusetts : 10:23 AM ET

When I read your blog yesterday, I thought, huh? Maybe a day of meetings had clogged my brain and I needed to ponder this one. Then I saw your piece on 360 last night and I once again thought, huh? Is it because I didn't go to Princeton or Harvard that I am not buying this?

Then I noted that the esteemed scholars had noted these trends in terms of "race, age or nationality." There was no mention of gender. When my husband read the blog he said this is from a man's point of view. A woman would not go to war. That said, when AC noted the approval ratings for the war, my husband and I would have been in the 30% that did not support the war from the beginning. So, once again I find myself out of step with a norm I guess. I admire peace makers (not appeasers) more than than war makers. I would also bring in religious beliefs but since both Bush and I are both Christians and got different answers to our prayers, I will leave that one alone.

So to answer your question, I think both you and the academics had a bit too much time on your hands. This paper should have stayed within the halls of academia. Nice try though.
Posted By Anonymous Charlotte D, Stockton CA : 10:29 AM ET
I do agree that we think we are better than others... it's human nature, in my opinion. People might not think that they think they are better, but their actions prove otherwise. Pres. Bush doesn't hide it. He thinks he is WAAAAY above everyone. But I don't agree with that being the reason we go to war. I agree with the majority... it's greed.

I want to comment on Lisa's post. After reading it and giving it some thought...I agree with her. I think that this war doesn't hit home with us. Unless of course we have a loved one over there. However, this isn't on accident. I think that the government does a good job of keeping us out of the loop. They don't want us thinking about war and what happens in war... I think they downplay the deaths/injuries/etc. It's very sad. I feel for Lisa, I have such high respect for our servicemen. And I thank them for fighting this war... I pray everyday for this stupid war to be over.
Posted By Anonymous Christine Weightman, Toms River, NJ : 2:14 PM ET
Are wars are not created equal. Iraq brings self deceit to a new level, and supports the theory you posted. In spite of the large number of well meaning and intelligent people who have tackled the issue, this Administration thought they would be the ones to make democracy flower in the Middle East?
Posted By Anonymous DC Dunne, Plano, Texas : 2:15 PM ET
Am I the only one here thinking - if women ran the world there might be no war...?

Hawk = Man = Agression, Domination, Pride, Control, Intolerance, War

Dove = Woman = Tolerance, Communication, Cooperation, Collaboration, Kindness, Forgiveness, Peace
Posted By Anonymous B, Iowa City, IA : 3:13 PM ET
This article is a puff piece.

If you don't understand why we are at war with Radical Islam, God help this nation.

Theodore Roosevelt said it best...

"The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, PEACE-AT-ANY-PRICE, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life."
Posted By Anonymous Eric, San Antonio, TX : 5:40 PM ET
Blah..blah...blah...blah..blah....hmm...these men have degrees, but no common sense.

So,(based on thispremise) we entered WWII simply because we thought we were better. It had nothing to do with the fact that Stalin and Hitler will murdering millions of Jews and Christians.
Posted By Anonymous Margot, Dallas, Texas : 12:03 AM ET
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