War and Human Nature

War and Human Nature

War and Human Nature

War and Human Nature


Why did President John F. Kennedy choose a strategy of confrontation during the Cuban missile crisis even though his secretary of defense stated that the presence of missiles in Cuba made no difference? Why did large numbers of Iraqi troops surrender during the Gulf War even though they had been ordered to fight and were capable of doing so? Why did Hitler declare war on the United States knowing full well the power of that country?

War and Human Nature argues that new findings about the way humans are shaped by their inherited biology may help provide answers to such questions. This seminal work by former Defense Department official Stephen Peter Rosen contends that human evolutionary history has affected the way we process the information we use to make decisions. The result is that human choices and calculations may be very different from those predicted by standard models of rational behavior.

This notion is particularly true in the area of war and peace, Rosen contends. Human emotional arousal affects how people learn the lessons of history. For example, stress and distress influence people's views of the future, and testosterone levels play a role in human social conflict. This thought-provoking and timely work explores the mind that has emerged from the biological sciences over the last generation. In doing so, it helps shed new light on many persistent puzzles in the study of war.


The Greek historian Thucydides analyzed decisions about war and peace over two thousand years ago. People, he argued, were motivated by calculations of self-interest, but other factors mattered as well, factors like fear and honor, that were not quite the same as self-interest. If you asked a social scientist today what drives decisions about war, you would get the answer that people make decisions about the use of organized violence more or less in the same way that economists say people make economic decisions, that is, in a coherent, stable, and efficient manner. This book is an exploration of a more complicated understanding of human decision making. It does not reject the explanation of decision making offered by the economists, which is often a useful analytical tool. It does, however, argue that processes other than conscious calculation play a role in human decision making along with conscious calculation. Emotion, stress, and hormones such as testosterone are important players in human decision making. By understanding the role of these other cognitive mechanisms, we can often better specify the limits within which conscious, rational calculations are performed. We can also specify the ways in which human decision making may change as our bodily states change. This helps us understand why the behavior of decision makers may not be stable over time, though their behavior could be understood as rational at any one moment. These other nonconscious factors can enable rational decision making, but they do lead to decisions that we would not understand or predict if we did not take those factors into account.

The evidence for this argument comes from many sources. It includes data from college students who participate in psychological experiments. It includes data from people receiving medical treatment for mental disorders. in such cases, we must be very careful not to extrapolate directly from these findings to the behavior of leaders in the real world, who, after all, tend not to be college sophomores or brain-damaged. Yet those experiments and the data from the treatment of patients can help us understand the operations of the human mind. What happens when certain portions of the brain responsible for understanding human emotion, for example, are disabled? By answering this question, we can begin to see how the behavior of people who have not experienced brain damage may be affected by the operation of those portions of the brain. By un-

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