What Causes War? Ch. 3: The Individual Level of Analysis: Psychological Explanations for War Notes by Denis Bašić

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1 What Causes War? Ch. 3: The Individual Level of Analysis: Psychological Explanations for War Notes by Denis Bašić

2 The common folk do not go to war of their own accord, but are driven to it by the madness of kings. - Sir Thomas More ( )

3 The roots of war sought in the psychological makeup of leaders It should be apparent that not all men have the same nature. Some men are clearly more violent than others. There are great differences in the psychological makeup of individuals, differences that are important to the understanding of conflict among men. It is quite appropriate that we should seek the causes of war in the individual makeup of those national leaders who are in a position to decide the fate of their states. The basic assumption at this level of analysis is that individuals do make a difference. It matters that Boris Yeltsin sits in the Kremlin instead of Josef Stalin; it makes a difference whether George Bush sits in the Oval Office instead of Jimmy Carter. It matters, presumably, because in most cases wars are precipitated by the decisions of individual leaders and their advisers. Thus, if we want to know what caused the outbreak of war, we need to understand the individuals who were responsible for those decisions.

4 The roots of war sought in the psychological makeup of leaders On the other hand, we must be careful not to completely reduce the causes of every war to the psychological makeup of individual leaders. It is clear that the ability of any individual leader alone to determine war or peace is constrained by a great number of important factors: by the international and domestic environments, by the role of governmental bureaucracies in policy formulation and implementation, by formal and informal decision-making processes, and so on. It is also clear that there are some situations in which these constraints are less powerful and in which a single individual leader will be able to make a significant impact on national policy. In such a situation the leader s personality and psychological characteristics may be decisive.

5 The roots of war sought in the psychological makeup of leaders Under what circumstances might we expect individual leaders to be able to rise above the normal organizational constraints? The obvious answer is when the decision is made at the very highest levels of the political system. The fewer the number of individuals involved, the more we will be able to focus on individual and personality factors instead of larger institutional factors.

6 Psychological needs Psychologists have identified a variety of psychological needs, some of which are relevant to politics. The need for self-affection or love, The need for self-esteem or dignity, The need for self-actualization or fulfillment, The needs for security, power, and control. All individuals have the same needs; however, the importance of these needs varies. While some individuals seem to be dominated by the need for self-esteem, others seem to be dominated by the need for power or something else.

7 Hierarchy of human needs Abraham Maslow hypothesizes a hierarchy of human needs. Listed in their order of assumed priority they are: 1. Physical (biological) needs - gravity, air, water, food, sex 2. Safety needs - the assurance of survival and security, 3. Affection and belongingness needs - love 4. Esteem needs - for self-esteem and the respect of others 5. Self-actualization or self-development needs According to Maslow, these needs are both universal and instinctual; all men potentially have all these needs.when the first set of needs is fairly well satisfied, the next higher need emerges to dominate the conscious life and serve as a central motivator of human behavior.

8 Superiority vs. Inferiority Complexes Particularly important is Maslow s depiction of the self-actualizing individual - one who has achieved satisfaction of his physiological needs and for the psychological needs for security, belongingness, and self-esteem. This physical and psychological security makes it possible for the individual to have trust in his environment. Presumably, individuals with high self-esteem (if too high, then superiority complex) are not only more trusting, but also more opposed to the use of force. However, their confidence in their own abilities would probably lead them to accept greater risks than others. On the other hand, individuals with low self-esteem (inferiority complex) have been depicted as being anxious, hostile, uncooperative, tough bargainers, paranoid, nationalistic, and as having a propensity toward the use of military force. Presumably, this predilection for aggressive behavior is the result of the individual s need to compensate (and indeed to overcompensate) for anxiety caused by low self-esteem.

9 Power Oriented People Students of politics are probably all familiar with leaders who seem to have a tremendous need for power. Power-oriented people tend to dominate others, to be argumentative, to be paranoid, to have very little humanitarian concern, and (perhaps, fortunately) to be hesitant to take risks. The individual s need for power is also linked to a tendency toward exploitative and conflictual behavior. Power-oriented persons are frequently believed to be compensating for deprivations experienced during childhood, where their needs for security, love, achievement, and self-worth were not met. Unfortunately, such individuals also tend to desire positions of leadership; indeed, this may be the defining characteristic of professional politicians!

10 Power Oriented vs. Achievement Oriented Harold Lasswell suggested many years ago that the primary motivation for political activity is emotional insecurity or low self-esteem, conditions that are compensated for by a drive for power. There is even some evidence that the greater the top leader s need for power, the more aggressive his government s foreign policies. Winter and Stewart s study of American presidents indicates that presidents with higher affiliation and achievement needs (as opposed to power needs) were less likely to engage in war and more likely to support arms control. And Terhune s international relations simulations indicate that individuals who are achievement oriented pursue cooperative strategies at first, hoping their opponents will also be cooperative.

11 Personality Traits - Dogmatic Personality According to Milton Rokeach, individuals with dogmatic personalities are rather closed-minded. They find it difficult to accept and use new information that contradicts their beliefs, and they are suspicious of the sources of new information. They do not tolerate ambiguous information very well; they are unlikely to examine the full range of alternatives available; and they have a tendency to rely on stereotypes. They are generally suspicious, have high levels of anxiety, and are likely to perceive conspiracies. They are also predisposed to condone the use of force. Given this unsavory set of traits, one would probably not wish someone with a dogmatic personality to occupy the driver s seat during an international crisis.

12 Personality Traits - Authoritarian Personality According to Theodor Adorno, authoritarian personalities are preoccupied with virility and strength, a tendency to dominate subordinates, deference to superiors, the need to perceive the world in a highly structured way, uncomfortability with disorder, a preference for clear-cut choices, rigidity, and the use of stereotypes. In addition to the obvious effect such a personality would have on the ability of an individual to make rational decisions, what seems to be especially important is that authoritarians tend to be highly nationalistic and ethnocentric, characteristics that are both highly associated with support for war and aggression.

13 Personality Traits - Domineering Personality Two separate studies of American presidents and their foreign policy advisers indicate that individuals who possessed the personality trait of dominance were usually much more likely to advocate the use of threats and military force and oppose conciliatory moves than those who scored lower on dominance. Indeed, based on a knowledge of the individual s personality, the authors in both studies were able to accurately predict 77% of the time whether that person would advocate the use of force or not. In other words, the personality trait of dominance seemed to have been generalized from the individual s everyday life to the realm of policy. Domineering leader s tend to relate to other countries in much the same way as they relate to other individuals. This is an important finding. It would seem that decisions on the use of force at the national level are determined at least in part by the personality characteristic of dominance.

14 Personality Traits - Narcissistic Personality Narcissism is a highly complex personality construct made up of several factors, including a disposition to exploit and manipulate others, a reveling in leadership and authority roles, attitudes of self-importance, superiority, and grandiosity, egotism, a lack of empathy for others, physical vanity, and a hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others. Strong relationships have been found between narcissism and hostility, aggression, and the need for power.

15 At least two psychologists have concluded that Iraq s Saddam Hussein had a narcissistic personality. Saddam saw himself as a great historical figure - a world leader of the status of Nasser, Mao, or Castro. This identity is linked to dreams of glory and a messianic vision to rid the Arab world of Western influence and to unite it under a single ruler - himself. He is described as having a paranoid outlook on the world, justifying his aggression as required by threats from his enemies. He is seen as consumed by a drive for unlimited power - a drive that is unconstrained by conscience or by a concern for the suffering of others. But these dreams of glory, feelings of specialness, and messianic ambition (as well as his acts of aggression) hide underlying selfdoubt and insecurity.

16 Wars and Drugs From World War II to Vietnam and Syria, drugs are often as much a part of conflict as bombs and bullets. Of course, the use of drugs dates far further back than World War II. In 1200BC, pre-inca Chavin priests in Peru gave their subjects psychoactive drugs to gain power over them, while the Romans cultivated opium, to which Emperor Marcus Aurelius was famously addicted. For more see the Al- Jazeera article: A brief history of war and drugs: From Vikings to Nazis Viking "berserkers", who were named after "bear coats" in Old Norse, famously fought in a trance-like state, possibly as a result of taking agaric "magic" mushrooms and bog myrtle. Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Stuluson (AD1179 to 1241) described them "as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild oxen". More recently, the book Dr Feelgood: The story of the doctor who influenced history by treating and drugging prominent figures Including President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley, by Richard Lertzman and William Birnes, alleges that US President John F Kennedy's drug use almost caused World War III during the twoday summit with Soviet leader Nikita Krushcher in 1961.

17 Risk Acceptant vs. Risk Adverse The individual s propensity for taking risks would seem to be a trait that may be of cardinal importance regarding decisions for war or peace. Given the same evaluation of the costs and benefits to be derived from war, some decision-makers may be willing to take the risk for war given a particular probability of success (say, 50%), while other decision-makers may require a greater probability of success (say, 75%). This individual difference may play an important role in the decision to go to war. The scary part of the story is that high political office seems to attract a lot of folks with strange backgrounds and fairly unattractive personality traits.

18 Robert Isaak, in his study of eight of the major political figures of the twentieth century, finds these elements (among others) in the backgrounds and personalities of his subjects: 1. A strong ego 2. A supportive, and often religious, mother 3. A strong-willed father with whom he had conflict, but with whom he also identified 4. A restrained, redirected, or unusual sex life 5. A certain aloofness or psychological distance 6. A coherent world view 7. A tendency toward mental rigidity 8. A refusal to take existing conditions for granted 9. A disdain for bureaucracy and increasing belief in one s own willpower and inevitability

19 The Purpose of Ego First, let us refresh the basic Freudian terminology: Id - the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest. Superego - the part of a person s mind that acts as a self-critical conscience, reflecting social standards learned from parents and teachers. Ego - the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. The ego serves to protect the individual and secure his/her survival. Therefore, some thinkers say that ego is a great servant, however, a horrible master. On a psychological level, according to Cashman, the ego protect the individual s self-esteem (does it?) and defends the person against anxiety caused by frustration (does it?).

20 Ego Defense Mechanisms Ego defense mechanisms include: 1. Repression 2. Projection (the unconscious transfer of one s own desires or emotions to another person) 3. Sublimation (redirection of behavior into more acceptable channels) 4. Denial 5. Reaction formation (exaggerated behavior expressing tendencies that are exactly the opposite of the individual s impulses and desires) Ego defense detracts from mastering reality and from responding rationally to the environment; instead, it leads to responses based on internal, psychological demands.

21 Psychohistory Psychohistory is the interpretation of historical events with the aid of psychological theory. Why do we apply the psychological theory on historical events? Jerome Frank maintains that as many as seventy-five chiefs of state in the last four centuries have suffered from severe mental distress while in power. Hitler, Wilson, and Stalin have all been described by their biographers as having had severe psychological problems. Let us watch the documentary Hitler and Stalin: Roots of Evil, to get a feel for the kind of analysis done by psychohistorians.

22 Critique of Psychohistory The problems that psychohistorians face are: Frequent inability to actually work with and interview their subjects - politicians, because the latter are notoriously secretive or dishonest about their personal lives. Having to rely on already published studies (biographical materials, speeches, letters, diaries, and interviews with relatives and associates of politicians) whose objectivity is questionable, keeping in mind that biographers are usually not drawn to their subjects because they are neutral toward them; they are usually attracted to them as heroes or repulsed by them as villains. Tendency to reductionism, reducing (in the most extreme form) the nation s foreign policy to the president s early childhood conflicts and related pathologies. Danger of overseeing the social, economic, and political environments of the time.

23 Stress, Politics, & War

24 Stress, Politics, & War The presence of stress causes not only the problems with decisionmaking, but may in fact also cause physical illness and mental disorder- which might further decrease decision-making ability. Hugh L Etang s investigation of prominent twentieth-century leaders suggests that acute stress has often led to the development of severe physical illnesses that impaired the ability for rational thought by national leaders. The effects of stress differ, however, with an individual s personality and with physical factors such as age, health, and fatigue. Increased age is associated with an increased susceptibility to illness and fatigue and with a decreased ability to cope with stress. Therefore, the decision to go to war may be influenced, not only by the personality of the leader, but also even by his/her age and health.

25 Stress, Politics, & War Should then political candidates for an office be required to undergo a rigorous psychological examination? Should frequent psychological checkups for the political elite be instituted just as often as physical check ups? Unfortunately, according to Cashman, political candidates are about as likely to submit to observation and testing by professional psychiatrists as they are to refuse campaign contributions from wealthy admirers. What can be done then to prevent the horrible mistakes of stressed-out or neurotic politicians? In the final analysis, states are probably best served simply by developing procedural checks on decision-making so that single leaders - whether or not they suffer from psychological or emotional dysfunctions - cannot on their own make the momentous decision of war and peace.

26 Images and our World Views Images are organized representations of certain attributes in an individual s mind about objects, events, people, nations, and policies. They are mental pictures of the social and political environment in which we live. Images contain not only our knowledge about these things, but also our evaluations of them - good, bad, neutral - and our attitudes toward them. An image is, of necessity, a simplification of reality. We keep in our mind only certain images of the events, politics, or people we think about. A great deal of information is lost. These separate images are organized into a more or less coherent and integrated whole - into a kind of belief system or world view - which contains beliefs, explanations, hypotheses, feelings, predispositions, attitudes, and so on.

27 Psychological vs. Operational Milieu Just as an individual s personality predisposes him to respond to certain situations in certain ways, so do his images and his belief systems. For a variety of reasons, which we will explore in this section, our images of the world around us may be seriously distorted. Two pioneers of international relations, Harold and Margaret Sprout, long ago made the important distinction between the psychological milieu (the world as perceived by the decision maker) and the operational milieu (the world as it really is, and the world in which politics must be carried out). They argued that decision-makers act on their knowledge of the former rather than the latter. We can only hope that the images and perceptions used by national policy makers are accurate, but we know that this is not always the case.

28 Operational Code Although several concepts have been used to describe the content of the belief system, the most widely used concept is that of the operational code. Alexander George defines an operational code as a particularly significant portion of the actor s entire set of beliefs about political life. Although there are certainly subtle differences in definition involved, belief systems and operational codes overlap with what might be called an ideology - a coherent set of political beliefs.

29 Why Images Resist Changes? Individuals seem to possess an inner striving for cognitive consistency. Our normal tendency is to try to reduce the inconsistencies between our various beliefs and feelings. A discrepancy between inconsistent parts of our image of the world causes cognitive dissonance. We don t tolerate cognitive dissonance very well, and we may attempt to deal with it by modifying our image of the world to account for this new, discordant information : in other words, by successfully performing reality testing. More likely, however, we will try somehow to retain the original image. This is especially likely if central, core values are challenged by the new information. Questioning of core values creates an identity crisis, which ego perceives as an attack and which makes it activate its defense mechanisms.

30 How Images Resist Changes? Many techniques exist for retaining the original image in the face of such discordant information: (1) we may simply ignore or reject the new information; (2) we may discredit the source of the new information; (3) we may twist or distort the information or reinterpret it in a way that conforms to our present image; (4) we may search for information that does conform to our present image of the world; or (5) we may simply treat it as the exception which proves the rule.

31 But images can change! How? Since there seems to be a bias in favor of maintaining one s present image, what does it take to bring about a change? It appears that a change in images comes about more easily if new information descends all at once rather than piece by piece over extended periods of time. Small bits of information coming at irregular intervals stretched out over time are easily discounted, assimilated, or otherwise coped with. On the other hand, dramatic pieces of conflicting information that descend in droves virtually demand that the individual takes action to deal with the discrepancy. The occurrence of spectacular events, however, may not be enough to induce a major change in image. Real change may require both spectacular events and the accumulation of less impressive, long-term developments that challenge the image.

32 Evoked Sets & Decision-Making Not only is our interpretation of reality affected by our present images, but our expectations and our evoked sets - what we are concerned about when the information is received - also determine how we will interpret information from the environment by creating predispositions to notice certain things and to neglect others. A perfect example can be found in the July crisis that preceded the outbreak of World War I. British Foreign Secretary Grey sent a note to the German government warning of dire consequences if war were to begin. Kaiser Wilhelm s evaluation of this note was conditioned by the fact that he had just received information of the Russian military mobilization. The timing of these two messages predisposed him to view the British letter as part of a joint British-Russian plot against Germany. The British information was interpreted in light of the just received Russian information. In this instance, the Kaiser s evoked set played a part in his (mis)perception of a combined Russian-British threat to Germany in 1914.

33 National Self-Image or National Role Conceptions National self-image or national role conceptions - the way we view our own nation and its place in the world. National leaders may perceive their states as world leaders, as neutral mediators and conciliators, as reliable allies, as aggrieved revolutionaries, as pillars of the international community, as protectors of the weak, and so on. Certainly, how a state s leaders view its role in the world affects its behavior. For instance, American willingness to intervene with force around the globe stems at least in part from the tendency of American leaders to perceive the United States as a state with special responsibilities in the international system - as the leader of the free world, the defender of freedom, and the arsenal of democracy. Michael Brecher maintains that the Israeli perception of Jews as victims - the Holocaust syndrome - has led to an exaggerated fear for Israel s survival in the face of Arab aggression, which is seen as another attempt to impose a final solution upon the Jews. This is turn played a major role in the Israeli decision to go to war in 1967.

34 Misperceptions Misperceptions occur when an individual s perceptions of the world do not correspond to reality. There is a plethora of evidence that misperceptions by national leaders abound in international relations. This is in part natural. Policy makers cannot ultimately know what is really going on in much of the external environment. International politics are rarely experienced directly. Instead, national leaders learn about them through second-hand reports (press, cables from diplomatic stations around the world, briefings by advisers, TV, radio, etc.) Additionally, as we have already seen, our understanding of external events is subject to the misinterpretation that is provided by our preexisting images and belief systems. Our perceptual screens are quite capable of distorting whatever information is received from the environment.

35 Misperceptions as Causes for War Foreign policy decisions, including decisions about war, are often viewed from the perspective of rational decision making. It is assumed that national leaders accurately perceive the international situation and whatever threats and opportunities exist in that environment, and then, on the basis of a costbenefit analysis, select those policies best suited to promote their national interests. We know, however, that many foreign policy decisions are, in fact, non-rational. Misperceptions may be a key component in such non-rational decisions. In fact, misperceptions by national leaders have frequently been cited as the immediate cause of war.

36 Patterns of Misperceptions Misperceptions fall into a number of readily identifiable patterns: 1. Misperceiving the opponent as having more hostile intentions and as undertaking more hostile activities than is actually the case; 2. Inaccurate perception of the relative balance of power between one s self and one s opponents - in particular, the perception that the opponent is weaker than is the case; 2a. The inaccurate belief that the opponent will give in to your threats and ultimata rather than go to war. 2b. The misperception of the degree of risk one faces in initiating a conflict.

37 Patterns of Misperceptions - cont d Misperceptions fall into a number of readily identifiable patterns: 3. Perception that war is inevitable. 4. Perception that the war will be relatively inexpensive and short. 5. Misperceptions of the intentions (and capabilities) of third states. 6. Misperception of oneself and the opponent s image of oneself.

38 Why Misperceptions? Two answers According to Richard Ned Lebow, there are two approaches to the question of why misperceptions - the cognitive approach and the motivational approach. Lebow summarizes the difference between the two approaches in the following way: According to the cognitive approach, misconceptions essentially stem from the human need to develop simple rules for processing information in order to make sense of an extraordinarily complex and uncertain environment. On the other side, according to the motivational approach, the driving force for misperceptions is the human desire to avoid fear, shame, and guilt. The cognitive approach advocates that cognitive consistency is the most important organizing principle of cognition. The motivational approach, contend that aversion of psychological stress is the most important drive affecting cognition. In summary, as to our misperceptions, the proponents of the cognitive approach say that they are caused by our expectations, in other words, we see what we expect to see, while the proponents of the motivational approach argue that our misconceptions are caused by our preferences, i.e. we see what we want to see.