Do Biases Favor Hawks?

Via Tyler Cowen, we learn that Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon argue in Foreign Policy that all known cognitive biases favor hawks over doves: 

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths … Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.  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 biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

Matthew Continetti responds, objecting that many biases also favor doves.  But all the commentary I’ve seen misses the key question: Compared to the advantages these biases gave our ancestors, are foreign policy advantages larger or smaller?   

Yes of course war is bad for the world.  But unless we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the world, we must ask if war if good for us.  For example, yes, overconfidence is bad for those who care about believing what is true, and yes, it must cost us sometimes in bad decisions.  But surely overconfidence gave our ancestors advantages that for them outweighed these costs. 

In a recent working paper I look at the patterns of over and under confidence that result from five different theories:

Agents who estimate their ability with error have under-confidence when ability is high and over-confidence when ability is low, while strategic commitment incentives induce the opposite pattern. Agents who misjudge their value for the prize, relative to their cost of effort, induce an over- or under-confidence that is independent of ability, while cooperating pre-agents choose extreme under-confidence.  Agents who use confidence to signal ability have a relatively uniform over-confidence. 

Since overconfidence in conflict seems a lot more common than underconfidence, I conclude the most likely explanation is:

In addition to errors in estimating ability, agent ability signaling, together with an unexplained tendency to undervalue such signaling.

Being overconfident about our ability is a credible signal of ability.  I do not see reason why this advantage of overconfidence should not work as well in foreign policy.  So the fact of human overconfidence does not by itself suggest that foreign policy is biased to hurt selfish national interests.

Added: Shankar Vedantam explains that a big part of war ability is pain tolerance. 

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  • conchis

    Presumably the benefits of the ability signal would be smaller the more/cheaper substitutes there are for it. If the end product you’re interested in is deterrence, then there’s probably a legitimate debate about whether international law has enough restraining force to count as a viable substitute. But if it’s economic development you’re interested in, then I would have thought that increased possibilities for progress via economic co-operation would make that a far better strategy in general. Steve Sailer makes essentially this point over at MR. (An alternative way of thinking about it: if the benefits of the ability signal depend on being confined to the rules of a prisoners’ dilemma-type situation, they won’t necessarily apply if the rules of the game change to allow collusion – in this case, the ability to punish through economic non-cooperation increasing.)

  • Conchis, the environment in which our ancestors evolved overconfidence was full of opportunities for cooperation and collusion.

  • conchis

    Yes, but the argument is there’s *more* to gain from it now. Someone linked to a paper arguing for something like this (on the basis that physical resources you can steal from people if you win are less important) the other day, but I can’t find it again. I’m not sure if I entirely buy it, but it’s strikes me as far from a ridiculous claim.

  • “surely overconfidence gave our ancestors advantages that for them outweighed these costs.” Another possibility is that our ancestors lived in a much different environment in which the overconfidence you write about didn’t exist or was much less common — just as scurvy didn’t exist or was much less common in our ancestral environment than on long boat trips 400 years ago.

  • Seth, yes the environment is different, but that merely suggests that current attitudes have error; it doesn’t tell us the sign of the error.

  • michael vassar

    Robin, strong priors favor the assumption that accurate beliefs are, by default, useful, so random changes in the environment tell us that we should expect errors to be more harmful or less helpful.

    Also, many forms of bias are simply not credibly the result of evolutionary advantages, but are merely the inevitable consequences of heuristical analysis of data using the first set of heuristics that evolution produced which yielded the potential, when used in a particular extremely awkward and computationally wasteful manner, to produce a fairly general form of reasoning.

    Finally, our ancestors lived in a world where collusion was often possible, but where, from an evolutionary perspective, though not from a hedonic or life satisfaction perspective, competition was always ultimately zero sum. We live in a world where malthusian constraints have been lifted for some time and are likely to remain lifted until after genes themselves have lost in evolutionary competition.

  • Anonymous

    Michael, yes acccuracy is useful, but then so is whatever our ancestors gained by losing accuracy. Random changes could increase or decrease the importance of either of these components to they key tradeoff.

  • Robin writes, “Yes of course war is bad for the world. But unless we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for the world, we must ask if war if good for us.”

    This is a great point that is often overlooked in all the antiwar rhetoric. War really is good for some people, generally the victors. The U.S. was helped by entering WWII. North Vietnam and China were helped by the Vietnam war. There is a reason why we keep seeing wars, and it’s because people think it will make them better off.

    The other side of this is that war is very likely a net negative activity – the benefits to the victors are less than the costs to the losers, because of all the destruction. So from the abstract perspective, or from the POV of an outsider not involved in a conflict, we would like there to be less war.

    You can draw an analogy to interpersonal violence. I’m sure our ancestors were willing to commit rape or murder on occasion, if they could get away with it. It was good for them personally, but a net negative for society as a whole. So today we have institutions to try to suppress this behavior, for a net positive effect.

    The same principle could be applied to warfare, and that is presumably the major goal of the United Nations. I suggest that we should analyze our biases in favor of warfare from the perspective of the net benefit to humanity rather than from how it benefits us personally, just as we do for analyzing the costs of interpersonal violence.

  • “Finally, our ancestors lived in a world where collusion was often possible, but where, from an evolutionary perspective, though not from a hedonic or life satisfaction perspective, competition was always ultimately zero sum.”

    This is true only on the level of the entire species’s gene pool. Within a tribe, or even within two competing tribes, or a group of competing tribes, who did not constitute the whole of the entire species, the game would not be zero-sum because all genes in play needed to compete with distant other tribes.

  • Are wars really a net cost? There is no direct return on investment, but ultimately don’t they tend lead to sharing of culture and opening up of trade and establishment better and more productive long-term relations than were possible before conflict. Without the motivation of conflict, not many people would take on the burden of living and interacting abroad. Wars force large scale face-to-face interaction. How many millions of people have been to Iraq and dealt with Iraqis due to war.

    In coming years, I wouldn’t be suprised to see people taking on business ventures in Iraq, just to see what it’s like. And many more will do so because they have or know people who have experience in Iraq. I doubt simply lifting sanctions would have been as stimulating for Iraq, or the broader world, as the war will utimately be. The war will be costly for the US, but the net effect will likely be positive.

  • conchis

    “Without the motivation of conflict, not many people would take on the burden of living and interacting abroad.”

    This is one of the most ridiculous claims I’ve read in a long time.

  • On further thought I don’t think I was looking at this right. Bias should not be judged with regard to whether it helps us achieve certain goals. It does not make sense to ask whether we have the “right” degree of bias with respect to foreign policy (or at least, that does not advance our goal of “overcoming bias”). In that context my suggestion that we judge warfighting bias in objective or global terms was off the mark.

    Rather, bias should be judged with respect to perception of the truth. Bias impairs accuracy, not success. A bias which achieves goal-success at the cost of hurting our perception of a truth is a bias to be overcome, not celebrated. Whether our biases lead to more or less foreign-policy success, or help or hurt net worldwide welfare, they are still biases and are still distortions that we want to learn to overcome.

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