This Is Your Brain On War

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

As I write, the livestream from Gaza of news about death continues. If I give a casualty count, it may be outdated before I finish typing it. It won’t include those Palestinians—civilians and Hamas fighters—who may be buried in rubble in the Sajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which the Israeli army has invaded in search of rockets and of tunnels leading into Israel. Nor will it include recent deaths of Israeli soldiers; the military often delays such announcements for hours. Collapsing under the weight of the Gaza reports is whatever initial support Israel had in the West as its cities came under rocket fire. The same reports have fed criticism of Hamas in the Arab world.

he war isn’t a hurricane; it didn’t happen by itself. Leaders on both sides made choices. In Israel, despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war, most of the public seems to think the government is doing the right thing, perhaps too timidly. I doubt anyone can judge public opinion accurately amid the chaos and fear in Gaza, but credible estimations are that support for the Hamas government rises in proportion to Israeli attacks.

Maybe just to keep my own sanity, I have to ask: How do leaders believe that such flawed decisions were the only reasonable choices? How can masses of people keep supporting those policies even as they prove disastrous? What’s wrong with our heads? By that I mean not just the heads of Israelis and Palestinians but of human beings, since I don’t have any cause to think that the sides in this conflict are being uniquely irrational.

In a 2007 article that now reads as if written to explain the 2014 Gaza war, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow psychologist Jonathan Renshon succinctly gave some answers. Human minds, they said, have hard-wired biases that favor hawks. People are too optimistic about their own strengths, including the strength of their armies. They prefer to double down rather than to cut their losses. They’re sure that other people can read their thoughts and understand their good intentions—even while they misread their opponents’ intent.

You can go down this list and find painful proofs in the events of recent weeks: Hamas appeared absurdly overconfident that rocket fire would force Israel to stop air attacks and loosen its siege on Gaza. When that didn’t work, rather than accept a ceasefire, it upped the ante by sending gunmen through tunnels to surface in Israeli territory. Israel thought Hamas would surely fold in the face of air strikes. When that didn’t happen, it quintupled its bet with the ground invasion. The Israeli government thinks the world has to understand that it’s acting in self-defense, even as whole families die in Gaza. This isn’t just a PR ploy Or rather, the PR is sincere, which doesn’t make it more convincing outside Israel.

While I can’t match the breadth of Kahneman’s research, I live within the laboratory of Israeli-Palestinian relations and inside this latest, horrid experiment. On that basis, I’ll suggest several more shared biases that warp decisions and make it easier to ignore mistakes afterward.

First: The other side in a conflict appears more unified than it is. On your own side, you know the divisions. You know the names and the faces of proponents of each nuance. To most people, though, the opposing side is a faceless mass. “The Palestinians” or “the Arabs.” “The Israelis” or even just “the occupation.”

A leader is supposed to do better. The Israeli prime minister has several agencies that map the fissures between and within Palestinian organizations. But that advice has to overcome the monolith bias, which is usually fiercer on the political right. …

Read the rest here.

2 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain On War”

  1. “despite an unusual number of protests so early in a war,” ??? but how many participated? and were they all far, way-out leftists, communists and Arab extremists?

    hard to continue reading when this is thrown up ‘so early’ on in the article.

    but this, “hard-wired biases that favor hawks”, sounds like left-wing bias.

  2. And this: “Hamas as becoming too pragmatic, too moderate”. No fear, they didn’t change to any moderation. Still as terroristic and unyielding and committed to its Charter: no Jews anywhere in ‘Palestine’ as its haram.

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