How misperceptions may cause war, and how we prevent them?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

In a previous blog contribution I have raised doubts about the realism of Israeli, Iranian and Saudi Arabian perceptions, both of each other’s power and intentions as well as the risks inherent in war. As they edge dangerously towards the brink of war over the prospects of Iranian nuclear arms, the question becomes imperative of how these perceptions are shaped?

The Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for his application of insights into the limitations of the human mind in decision making, questioning the realism of the traditional models premised on decisions reached exclusively by rationally weighing options. Applying his theories to political decision making about war, he warns against misperceptions built into the human mind[1], in short:

  • Overrate own capabilities and control of events,
  • Exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries,
  • Misjudge how adversaries perceive us,
  • Expect adversaries to understand that our own behaviour may be dictated by the constraints of circumstances, but attribute adversaries’ perceived hostile behaviour to their nature, character or persistent motives.

These warnings stare us in the face when we consider the current narratives of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their narratives share basic messages, but cast each other in reverse roles of aggressor and victim.

To overcome the cognitive limitations that Kahneman points out, it is necessary to critically examine the historical analogies that form the narratives. In fact, applying historical analogies is our only way to analyse policy options along the continuum between confrontation and cooperation. We think about policies in terms of alternative scenarios. A scenario is a narrative about what has not yet happened based on an interpretation of what has. But our concept of the past is a construct.  We are forced to make a choice among the infinite number of variables that shape political reality; consequently, any description is a choice. Besides, each new policy choice will face a unique set of circumstances since there is no repetition in history. Yet, there will be a generic core in each new policy dilemma. Henry Kissinger, a central analyst and political actor during the Cold War, set out the relevance of his study of the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic upheavals of Europe by maintaining that “history teaches by analogy”.  Following up on Kissinger’s dictum I maintain that historical analogies are relevant to the degree they are believed to be. No new situation is identical to any previous, but there will be elements that can be transferred and lessons to be learnt, especially from such recent formative experiences as the Cold War. The current reading of the Cold War is mostly mindless. Rarely do analyses extend beyond the simplistic image of “We, the West, won; they, the Soviets, lost”.

The current dangerous crisis in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia is mainly driven by the Iranian nuclear program. Still, Iran seems to misjudge the implications, and instead appears to be driven by a sense of strength following the perceived weakening of their adversaries following the US defeat they see in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, Iran resembles the state of mind of the Soviet Union in 1975. That year the Soviet leaders experienced a similar hubris following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, which precipitated an aggressive foreign policy starting in Africa and ending in Afghanistan.  (The legacy today is two failed states, Somalia and Afghanistan, that prior to becoming pawns in other countries’ rivalries were on the threshold to modernity, but are now the source of great suffering and cause of dangerous regional instability.)

The year 1975 launched a new era of cooperation with the signing of the Helsinki accord on Cooperation and Security in Europe. The Soviet agreed to principles of human rights, an agreement that, although entered into in bad faith, nevertheless proved to undermine the Eastern bloc regimes, contributing to their eventual demise at the beginning of the 1990’s. Yet, the policy of cooperation and dialogue gave the Soviet leaders a false sense of supremacy, seducing the leaders, obsessed with prestige and power and deluded by ideology, to the catastrophic foreign policy adventures that caused the climate of cooperation of 1975 to turn into a deep frozen Cold War only five years later, leading the world to the brink of nuclear war in 1983 as the result of misreading of intentions.

What are the lessons for dealing with Iran today? First of all, a non-confrontational approach could prove a more effective policy for advancing regime change than threats, probably even more so in a pluralistic polity like Iran. But avoiding political confrontation is not in itself enough to prevent dangerous misjudgements since it could be misread as weakness and tempt the adversary to exploit the situation. In hindsight it becomes obvious that what caused detente to turn into dangerous confrontation were exactly the misjudgements built into the human mind that Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for identifying in the field of economics. Kahneman would find all his insights into to fallibility of decision making confirmed by the decision makers in both the West and the East during this period, as he no doubt will today in the confrontational relationships in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, only effective dialogue, by balancing advocacy of owns views with exploring the adversary’s, can overcome these fallacies of the human mind.  This is as true in interstate relations as it is in interpersonal communication. But if it is so obvious, why is it so difficult?  Again, the answer is found in the way our minds are wired, and the solution is to be found in understanding this connection and learning how to deal with it. Kahneman points out that our brains react with positive emotions when our views are confirmed, but cause discomfort when we are contradicted.  In the words of the British Ambassador during my posting at the UN, Sir Crispin: “Gentlemen, let us never forget, we are all animals”.

Given these constraints, how can we bring the “human animals” to better understand, cope and cooperate on win-win options?  Professor Daniel Shapiro at Harvard Program on Negotiation has identified five core emotional concerns that affect our will and ability to overcome the fallacies that Kahneman find potentially catastrophic:

1.           Appreciation: The desire to feel understood and honestly valued.

2.          Affiliation: Recognizing shared identity traits.

3.          AutonomyMaking decisions without imposition.

4.           Status: Positive emotions grow when status increases self-esteem; Negative emotions fester in competition for status.

5.            Role: A role should fulfill emotional needs. Temporary roles may facilitate communication and compromise.

These concerns form the generic core of the motivation for all political behavior. They will therefore be the litmus test for any constructive political process in the triangle of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Daniel Kahneman’s  good news is that when we chose to engage in deliberation, yet another part of our brain is activated.



[1] Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon Why Hawks Win, Foreign Policy, No 158 (Jan. – Feb., 2007), pp. 34-38

2 Responses to “How misperceptions may cause war, and how we prevent them?”

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