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Military Conflict Decisions: Why Weakness Leads To Aggression


From Syria to Afghanistan, to Russia and Ukraine, the United States finds itself confronting some major foreign policy challenges. There are old rivalries and new one testing the limits of the United States.

NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about matters related to individual and organizational behavior, but today, he's found some new research that's relevant to the way we think about foreign conflicts and he's in our studios. Shankar, welcome back.


GREENE: So Russia's aggression in Crimea, you were finding some research that might tell us what the United States ought to do or should think about doing. What are we talking about here?

VEDANTAM: Well, I'm not sure the research can give advice to the United States, but it might give some perspective, David. I came by some interesting work by Jeffrey Berejikian. He's at the University of Georgia. He's looking at whether a theory widely known in behavioral economics can tell us something useful about these foreign policy conflicts.

Now, the theory is called prospect theory. It was developed many years ago by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky, and among other things, prospect theory looks at how individuals behave when they're confronted by losses. And, you know, we've talked about this, David, in a different context.

You know, let's say you're in a casino and you've lost $100. Do you play it safe or do you try and gamble your way out? What would you do?

GREENE: I'd try and gamble my way out, which is surely the right answer.

VEDANTAM: So Berejikian asked whether the same kind of behavior might describe, not just individuals, but how nation's behave when it comes to military conflicts. Let's say you have a country that has suddenly experienced a loss or some kind of deterioration in its security environment. How does that country behave and is it guided by prospect theory. Here he is.

JEFFREY BEREJIKIAN: If you're in an eroded security position and you try to upset the status quo, there's a very good chance that that might make you worse off. But there's some chance that you might actually improve your position. This is a classic prospect theory or behavioral decision theory choice, this choice between a certain bad outcome and a gamble.

GREENE: So let me just try and apply this to the situation in Ukraine, Shankar. I mean, Russia has enormous emotional ties to Ukraine, especially Crimea. Crimea was part of the Soviet Union for a long time, then it was lost. Vladimir Putin had a president in Ukraine who was sort of pro-Moscow. He was ousted from power so that's the kind of loss that you're saying Russia has felt.

VEDANTAM: That's right, David. And in many ways, it's exactly like the guy in the casino. The rational thing to do when you're down $100 is not to make your position worse. You're at risk. You should actually back down and do the safe thing. Prospect theory, however, finds individuals do exactly the opposite. The guy in the casino, just like you, David, is likely to say, I'm going to double down and try and make back my $100.

Berejikian decided to empirically test this in military conflicts. He looked at 174 conflicts between 1816 and 1999 to see when a country was likely to flex its muscle and act aggressive. Now, the classic model of deterrence suggests that you act aggressive when you have a strong hand, when you can throw your weight around. But is that what actually happened? Here's Berejikian again.

BEREJIKIAN: What we find, though, is that as the security position of a state erodes, it's more likely to initiate a dispute. It's more likely to threaten the stable deterrent relationship that had been established and lash out against its rivals.

GREENE: So Shankar, I know we're trying to apply social science to Vladimir Putin. I mean, there are a lot of people who study Russian intentions and have a lot of different theories about what he might be thinking and doing right now. But you're saying that this is some research that suggests that strength does not lead to aggression. It's actually a feeling of weakness that leads to aggression.

VEDANTAM: Right. I mean, the conventional narrative about Putin's behavior in the United States is that he's acting aggressive. He's belligerent. Some people have called him insane. I think what Berejikian is suggesting is that there might be a different way to think about Putin's behavior. Prospect theory is suggesting that we weigh gains and losses differently and we're wired - there's actually neuroscience research to back this up - we are wired to pay disproportionate attention to losses.

So if Putin's in a mind state where he experiences that he or Russia has experienced huge losses, he's much more likely to take gambles and risks than if we was acting from a position of strength.

GREENE: Shankar, it is always good to talk to you.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @NPRGreene and @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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