Nuclear deterrence and strategic stability have always rested on fundamental assumptions about the nature of human psychology that are dubious at best and demonstrably empirically false at worst. Rationality, for example, represents one of these beliefs that have little, or at least restricted, basis in reality. And yet the entire fate of the planet depends, in essence, on our collective delusion that pivotal actors, no matter how selfish, remain fundamentally rational and intent on preserving survival if nothing else. Like most judgmental biases, this perception may be mostly accurate most of the time. However, it suffers from systematic and predictable flaws that can occur in predictable ways that can undermine not only our notions of rationality but also the foundations of stability and deterrence.
There are many judgmental biases that could potentially affect decision making in general, with profound implications for nuclear decision making in particular. However, after providing a brief discussion of decision processing in general, this paper will concentrate on five of the most notable candidates for improving our understanding of the way human psychological architecture may not be well suited for understanding the enormous destructive potential of weapons in the nuclear age, and thus could hinder effective decision making in the realm. These include overconfidence, the planning fallacy, the illusion of validity, psychic numbing and the prominence effect. Alone, and in concert, each of these common processes can influence how leaders and others make judgments and reach decisions without recognizing the bias inherent in their choices. A brief comment on how evolutionary perspectives which typically argue against the notion of error actually support wider concerns in this particular arena precedes a discussion about the policy implications suggested by these insights.
Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She works in the areas of political psychology. She received her Ph.D.(Political Science) and M.A. (Experimental Social Psychology) from Stanford University and has also taught at Cornell and UCSB. She has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and the Women and Public Policy Program, all at Harvard University, and has been a fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences twice. She is the author of five books, a co-editor of two additional volumes, and author of over two hundred academic articles across a wide variety of disciplines encompassing topics such as gender, experimentation, national security intelligence, social identity, cybersecurity, emotion and decision-making, and the biological and genetic bases of political behavior.
Date / Heure
Date(s) - 16 October 2020
12h00 - 13h30