Tag Archives: Cognitive biases

What Putin got wrong

In his speech last Thursday to the Valdai Club, Vladimir Putin said the following:

The use of the threat of a nuclear missile attack from Iran as an excuse, as we know, has destroyed the fundamental basis of modern international security – the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The United States has unilaterally seceded from the treaty. Incidentally, today we have resolved the Iranian issue and there is no threat from Iran and never has been, just as we said.

The thing that seemed to have led our American partners to build an anti-missile defence system is gone. It would be reasonable to expect work to develop the US anti-missile defence system to come to an end as well. What is actually happening? Nothing of the kind, or actually the opposite – everything continues.

Recently the United States conducted the first test of the anti-missile defence system in Europe. What does this mean? It means we were right when we argued with our American partners. They were simply trying yet again to mislead us and the whole world. To put it plainly, they were lying. It was not about the hypothetical Iranian threat, which never existed. It was about an attempt to destroy the strategic balance, to change the balance of forces in their favour not only to dominate, but to have the opportunity to dictate their will to all.

This isn’t the first time that Putin has denounced the proposed American missile shield in Europe, nor the first time that he has expressed his disbelief that the project is meant to protect Europe against Iran. See, for instance, this video in which he bursts out laughing when the idea is suggested to him.

Continue reading What Putin got wrong

Fundamental Attribution Error

This week, my graduate students will be discussing the effects of cognitive biases on foreign policy decision making. Previously, I wrote about misperception. Today, I want to address a related cognitive bias – the Fundamental Attribution Error – which has a similarly negative effect on policy making.

The Fundamental Attribution Error describes our tendency to attribute our own practical and moral failures to external factors while attributing other people’s failures to their personal character. Conversely, we attribute our successes and good deeds to our own character, and others’ successes to some external factor. If we succeed, it is because we are skillful, and if we do good, it is because we are good people. If we do something wrong, it is because something outside our control, and which we could not have predicted, intervened to prevent our otherwise sensible and good plan from succeeding. By contrast, if others succeed, it is because they are lucky, and if they fail, it is because they are incompetent or evil.

For instance, once it became clear that the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq had gone disastrously wrong, its supporters did not acknowledge their aggressive instincts, bad judgment, or any other internal characteristic, but rather blamed external factors for their mistake: ‘Saddam lied about weapons of mass destruction, and so it was perfectly reasonable for us to be mistaken about them’; ‘Nobody could have known that those in charge of the operation would have been so incompetent’; ‘Iraq turned out to be in a much worse state than we could possibly have predicted’; and so on.

By contrast, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, we attributed its actions to the evil character of Saddam Hussein. We dismissed as irrelevant external factors which might help to explain Saddam’s actions, such as misinterpreting American signals about what was permissible, or genuine grievances about Kuwait’s behaviour.

The Fundamental Attribution Error accentuates the misperceptions I wrote about in my earlier post. It also prevents people from reconsidering faulty policies. When a new Ukrainian government took over in February 2014, it believed that it would bring an era of prosperity to Ukraine. Instead, its seizure of power brought war. But the Fundamental Attribution Error meant that its members could not attribute the tragedy which struck their nation to their own errors. Rather, they had to attribute it to something external – Russia. Everything which went wrong was Russia’s (and particularly Putin’s) fault. That mode of thinking precluded any analysis of their own mistakes, and encouraged them to press on with the very policies which had produced war.

Unfortunately, liberal democracies which claim to pursue ‘values-based’ foreign policies may be especially liable to the Fundamental Attribution Error due to their high sense of their own righteousness. When their policies fail, and particularly when they fail in a manner which is costly in terms of human life, such democracies are confronted with severe cognitive dissonance because of the contrast between the negative consequences of their actions and their view of themselves as ‘good’. The Fundamental Attribution Error provides a way of eliminating this dissonance. During his 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush promised a ‘humble foreign policy’. He never delivered on that promise, but the idea remains a very sound one.