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By Steve Yetiv


The Montréal Review, January 2014


"National Security through a Cockeyed Lens: How Cognitive Bias Impacts U.S. Foreign Policy" by Steve Yetiv (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013)


"Anyone who has been involved with policy making and execution...has experienced many of the cognitive biases and the personal and organizational dynamics discussed in Steve Yetiv's book... There are many times I wish I had had a book like this to wave around and point to, or quietly place in front of people to suggest they pause and think about their thinking, and I am sure that in the future I will use it as a reference."

--Frédéric Ruiz-Ramón, Perscitus International LLC; former U.S. Department of Defense official


Many political scientists, economists and other social scientists, as well as your average layperson, have tended to assume that  human beings are rational. Yet, scholars of cognitive psychology have demonstrated in experiments that rationality is sometimes elusive; that our decisions are impacted by many mental shortcuts that contribute to bad decisions; and that decisionmaking, while often reasonably accurate, is also frequently clouded by biases. These thinkers have identified a range of errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. These biases have been documented both in real world and laboratory settings. Some of these biases are referred to as "cognitive biases."

Cognitive approaches often posit centrally that individuals, and by implication, other types of actors like countries are sometimes non-rational or partly rational. In fact, a cognitive bias is a systematic deviation from what we consider rational thinking and as such is viewed by cognitive scholars as a predictable error caused by memory, social attribution, and statistical errors.

Focusing on foreign policy decisionmaking, I explore key events and developments in U.S. national security in the past four decades, especially related to the Middle East. They range from U.S. energy policy; to the Afghanistan war in the 1980s that spawned Al-Qaeda; to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The story of some of these events continues to unfold in history, including the ongoing saga in Iraq and Afghanistan, and America's struggle with oil dependence.

I address questions of this sort: Why has it taken the United States so long since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo to make any significant progress in achieving energy security, even though virtually every American President has called for major moves in that direction, especially to decrease oil consumption? What dynamics lead great powers to get locked into struggles that endanger their citizens, hurt their economies, and produce unpredictable results? Why did the United States invade Iraq in 2003 and why was the outcome so problematic, with thousands dead and much treasure lost? Why are Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and many who sympathize with some of their views, so viciously anti-American and far more vicious than other global radicals?

I find in examining five episodes of U.S. national security that cognitive biases were more important in impacting U.S. decisionmaking and security than we commonly believe or even understand. By examining these episodes through the lens of cognitive biases, we add vital insight to our understanding of how decisions are made. For instance,  I show how the distorted cognitive lens of Al-Qaeda leaders contributed to the September 11 attacks and the ongoing conflict with America and the West. Their cognitive view of the world created a confused picture of America and its allies that drove their behaviors and continues to shape their actions.

I also find that overconfidence contributed to America's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 by making it underestimate the challenges that it would face. And even if the 2003 war was not about protecting oil unlike the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, U.S. foreign policy in the region has certainly focused on oil security because the world is so oil dependent. Another cognitive biases has added to this problem. Indeed, short term thinking-a prominent cognitive bias-has contributed to America's inability to develop a comprehensive energy policy, making the Middle East more important to the United States and enhancing its proclivity to be involved in the region. All of these developments are connected in history-linked through time, meaning that cognitive biases that impacted one event also played themselves out in other events.

In exploring these cases,  the book also sheds light on how the United States got involved in the Middle East over the past forty years. Cognitive biases have been largely ignored in this story, but they help explain a stream of events that are important to this tale, because they impacted key decisions and, in turn, events that shaped the contours of the American regional experience. We haven't looked at the American experience in the Middle East through this cognitive perspective and yet it can tell us something about American foreign policy there and offer a slice of the picture that we don't find in current accounts of the region, a slice that tells the story of an actor that looked at the region through cognitive lenses that sometimes led it and its adversaries astray and clouded their view of reality. This is not just a story about America and its adversaries, but about the human condition.

At a broadest level, the book says something about rationality. The case could be made that we would be fortunate if all decisions were made by computers that were totally rational and identified options for dealing with a problem or situation, carefully weighed their costs and benefits, and picked or tried to pick the best option. But of course this isn't reality. To what extent human beings and countries go through this process of rational thinking is one of the biggest questions that we face as citizens and sovereigns. This book argues  that we tend to be quasi-rational; we often try to go through the process of being rational, but sometimes face cognitive biases in doing so. That view clashes with the dominant view among academics and citizens, certainly as it pertains to the behavior of states in world politics where the behavior of states is assumed to have been the result of rational thought that aims to maximize national interests by choosing the best option, among several competing ones, for doing so. Indeed, we usually explain their decisions as if they went through a rational process of thought, weighing their options and doing what was best for the country. We don't usually explain their decisions and actions as if they were impacted by cognitive biases such as seeing what they expected to see in world politics or focusing excessively  on one factor in their calculations at the expense of other important considerations. Yet much work in psychology has demonstrated the systematic ways in which individuals can deviate from rationality, and drawing on such findings can enhance our understanding of how decisions are made.

There's a practical upshot to all this analysis. Despite the critical importance of decision making, remarkably little thought has gone into how we can improve it. As psychology professors Katherine Milkman, Dolly Chugh, and Max Bazerman argue, "the optimal moment to address the question of how to improve human decision making has arrived. Thanks to fifty years of research, psychologists have developed a detailed picture of the ways in which human judgment is bounded."  This book illuminates cognitive biases in order to try to help leaders and laymen avoid bad decisions and produce better ones, and the final chapter discusses a wide range of approaches for decreasing the impact of cognitive biases and for making better decisions. That's no easy task but various techniques may help in that regard for individuals and leaders.


Steve Yetiv's previous books include "Explaining Foreign Policy," "The Petroleum Triangle" and "The Absence of Grand Strategy." The American Library Association has twice recognized him with Choice Outstanding Academic Book awards. Yetiv has also published more than 250 op-eds in national publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.



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