Blogging avant la lettre

by Kieran Healy on January 11, 2007

_Analysis_ publishes a lot of relatively short papers, but this one — by G.E.M. Anscombe — from 1966 seems close to the limiting case. The link goes to the JSTOR copy, which requires a subscription. No matter. I shall reproduce the paper in full here, including notes:

*A Note on Mr Bennett* _By G.E.M. Anscombe_

The nerve of Mr Bennett’s argument is that if A results from your not doing B, then A results from whatever you do instead of doing B.1 While there may be much to be said for this view, still it does not seem right on the face of it.

1‘”Whatever the Consequences”‘, Analysis, January 1966, p. 96.

That about settles it. (Indirect hat tip: Carolina Sartorio.)

Pro-war bias

by John Quiggin on January 11, 2007

The fact that people are so willing to support war is a puzzle that requires an explanation. After all, war is a negative-sum activity, so war between rational parties doesn’t make sense – there’s always a potential settlement that would leave both sides better off*. And empirically, it’s usually the case that both sides end up worse off relative to both the status quo ante or to a possible peace settlement they could have secured at a point well before the end of the war. Even the observation that rulers start wars and ordinary people bear the costs doesn’t help much – leaders who start losing wars usually lose their jobs and sometimes more, while winning a war is by no means a guarantee of continued political success (ask Bush I). All of this suggests that looking for rational explanations of war, as in the ‘realist’ tradition (scare quotes indicate that this self-ascribed title has little to with a reality-based focus on the real world) is not a good starting point.

So it makes sense to look at irrational sources of support for war. In this pice in Foreign Policy Daniel Kahneman (winner of the economics Nobel a couple of years back) and Jonathan Renshon start looking at some well-known cognitive biases and find that they tend systematically to favor hawkish rather than dovish behavior. The most important, in the context of today’s news is “double or nothing” bias, which is well-known in studies of choice under uncertainty as risk-seeking in the domain of losses (something first observed by Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their classic paper on prospect theory).

The basic point is that people tend to cast problems like whether to continue a war that is going badly in win-lose terms and to be prepared to accept a high probability of greater losses in return for a small probability of winning or breaking even (terms which are somewhat elastic in this context). So we get the Big Push, the Surge, the last throw of the dice and so on.

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