In an article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko rightfully draw attention to the way in which threats to U.S. national security appear overblown today. But because they understandably focus on demonstrating the relative safety of the United States, they do not give as much attention to research on the question of why threats get overblown. When they do turn to the cause, they underplay the central role of psychological factors.
In seeking to explain threat inflation, they suggest three factors matter: electoral politics, bureaucratic interests, and feedback loops. Politicians hype threats to get re-elected, other officials use them to justify and grow organizational budgets, and the militarization feeds on itself. But there is a deeper implication here: that policymakers cynically and deliberately ignore sound advice for selfish reasons. Yet if we really shine the light on decision-maker psychology, we have to call that assumption into question. Bad faith does happen, but we should not assume it is the sole or major cause of overstating threats.
Decades of scholarship suggest we also need to look at the way in which humans process information in the special circumstances of top-level political decision-making because we can then better understand how we arrive at conclusions about Iran, China, cyberwarfare, and other aspects of contemporary politics.
If we assume a U.S. leader is only and always a cold, calculating individual, then it often appears leaders manipulate policy in order to get re-elected. But international politics are complex and hard to understand. Rival foreign officials actively try to confuse, deceive, and obfuscate. Moreover, human beings have strictly limited capacities to process information. We rely – out of necessity – on existing beliefs about the world in order to cope with this complexity, as Robert Jervis has argued. If a political leader has an incorrect image of Iran, then, it is probably not because the leader is forsaking his or her core beliefs in exchange for victory at the polls or greater budgetary allocations, but that the leader is in fact acting in accordance with their best efforts to accurately perceive that state. The world is sufficiently complicated that genuine misperception is as likely a scenario as active manipulation.
A second psychological dynamic is “wishful thinking” where our motivation to feel safe drives our perceptions of reality. As Richard Ned Lebow made clear in Between Peace and War, we tend to underestimate threats that we think we cannot do anything about and focus instead on threats that we think we can do something about. To put it another way, if the task is larger and harder, we discount the need to do anything, because we cannot do anything that will relieve us from feeling threatened. This, of course, only makes us feel safer; we are not objectively less threatened.
If the task is smaller and easier, we emphasize the need to act, often aggressively. Not dealing with a threat that can be dealt with leaves us feeling unnecessarily unsafe. Crucially, this dynamic can operate without the decisionmaker being conscious of it. We need to feel safe, and are motivated to construct a view of reality that satisfies that need.
So Iran seems relatively easy. Imagine what 100 sorties could accomplish. Meanwhile, addressing climate change requires global collective action on a sustained basis for decades during which we may need to fundamentally shift how we in the United States live our lives.
It makes sense, then, that Iran pundits tend to cluster around paired beliefs. On the one hand, Iran is a threat and we can set back its nuclear program and regional ambition with a military attack. On the other hand, Iran is not a threat and an attack is unlikely to undermine Iran’s military and political agenda (and may even help Iran). Doves think action will not be effective and the threat is not major, and hawks believe the opposite on both counts. Of course, there is no logical or strategic reason for these two separate dimensions to co-vary, but there are powerful psychological reasons for them to do so in our subjective representations of reality.
A third point is that preconceived negative notions of others can create self-reinforcing dynamics. However the initial negative image starts (e.g. mass brutality towards one’s own population, taking over a U.S. Embassy, or occupying a small, oil-rich Gulf country), we tend to see each subsequent act by the same state in a negative light. Rather than sometimes giving the benefit of the doubt, we assume the worst. Diplomatic offers are seen as mere deception and tricks. If leaders of a rival state offer up conflicting statements, as they often do, we highlight the most confrontational and negative ones.
What we end up with, sadly, is a spiral of chronic misperception. Both sides continually see each other in the worst light and take provocative steps in reaction. Rather than a convergence of perspectives as we learn more about each other, we see a divergence that feeds greater and greater hostility.
In touching on these few (of many) psychological dynamics, we are left questioning the automatic assumption of bad faith by politicians who highlight threats, whether the charge is seeking electoral gain or larger budgets. Distinguishing between genuine beliefs and errant ones pursued for personal, electoral, or organizational gain is quite difficult, a suggestion deeply troubling to a social science that wants to believe every hypothesis can be tested.
In general, psychological findings should lead to some caution, especially when we in the scholarly community evaluate decision-makers after the fact. For the president or prime minister of a given country, the stakes are high, much higher than for scholars. For political leaders, a mistake in some cases could mean more than political ruin. It could mean massive loss of life, war, and deep human suffering. Those powerful factors shape what has come to be called threat inflation. In a particular case like Iran, the dominant threat assessment may be incorrect, but assuming the reason is bad faith rather than deeper perceptual factors is a leap we should not make easily or automatically.