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Cognitive Biases and Counterinsurgency

By Taylor Marvin

Kevin Drum recently started a series of blog posts that looks at some of the under-appreciated cognitive biases that influence our thinking. Drum makes an obvious but popularly neglected point — because these types of cognitive biases are an inherent part of our collective mental structure they influence all of our decisions, including political ones. This has important implications. We’ll often find ourselves drawn to specific political preferences that aren’t strictly rations for reasons that could be just as driven by our basic cognitive failings as the merits of the policy itself.

This influence of these cognitive biases extends to counterinsurgency theory as well, particularly what’s termed the sunk cost fallacy, a theory that basically states that once invested in an uncertain outcome we tend to dramatically overestimate the bet’s chances of success. A classic experiment illustrates this fallacy nicely: when gamblers had already bet money on a particular horse they tended to believe their chosen horse had a much higher chance of winning a race than a gambler about to place a bet on the same horse. None of the two gamblers had any different information to influence their risk assessment, but since the those who had already betted were already committed to a particular investment they revised their risk appraisal to justify their decision. Of course this isn’t rational: betting on a particular horse does absolutely nothing to improve its chances of winning. But despite its irrationality the sunk cost fallacy seems to be an inherent part of our mental structure, and universally affects our decision making processes. The sunk cost fallacy is related to another human cognitive bias, loss aversion — our tendency to strongly try to avoid any losses even if it means forgoing possible gains. Most people would prefer to forgo a gain of say, 10 dollars, if it came at a cost of 5 dollars that they already possessed. Again, this isn’t rational but seems to be a universal part of our thinking.

Both these cognitive biases have a deep effect on counterinsurgency and the rationality of war in general. One of the most common popular arguments against withdrawing from Afghanistan is how much we’ve already invested in the conflict. If we admit defeat now, the argument goes, all the lives and money we’re already spent there will be in vain. This argument is familiar — it’s the same one that was heard forty years ago to justify continued involvement in Vietnam. It’s also very powerful. The United States has invested a huge amount of money, time, and lives into Afghanistan. If we leave now, these resources would have been wasted. But despite it’s emotional appeal, this argument doesn’t make a lot of sense. The fact that we have already invested in a conflict doesn’t do anything to change our actual chances of success and doesn’t justify further investment. The gambler analogy is helpful — it would be absurd to encourage a gambler to continue to play at a slot machine just because he had already lost money there. But when it comes to political discussions this this logic is common, because it seems the root of this argument is hardwired into our brains.

Of course there is occasionally real justification for this type of argument. If past costly investments into a conflict have significantly increased a player’s chances of a successful outcome they can justify continued investment. This is particularly true in a conventional war. If your past losses, though painful, have chanced the balance of a conflict by destroying irreplaceable enemy resources than it can make sense to continue to invest in your military bet. But in counterinsurgency this is less certain. A counterinsurgency campaign will only succeed when the counterinsurgent force is able to construct the stable social and economic network that disenfranchises militants, allowing for their political marginalization and eventual defeat. This is an extremely complex task that is largely out of the counterinsurgent force’s hands. If America’s past investment in Afghanistan has significantly contributed to raising our probability of establishing this eventual social stability than it can justify further investment. But in Afghanistan this is unclear — no one knows if the resources we’ve already sunk into our Afghan experiment have done anything to significantly improve our already meager chances of success. At this point in the conflict security and the legitimacy of the central Afghan government seem to be decreasing, not getting better. It’s wrong to assume that just because we’ve sunk so much into this conflict we need to continue it — the justification for war should rest on our chances of success and our benefits and costs of winning or loosing. What we’ve already invested in Afghanistan will make any eventual withdrawal nor painful, but does nothing to increase our chances of success.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan will have real costs: the fall of the central government and a return to Taliban rule, an enormous loss of US prestige and credibility, and most importantly the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans. We need to be hones about this: if we fail in Afghanistan the people who helped us and had the courage to try to better their country will die, and we bear the same responsibility for these deaths as if we murdered them. If we leave Afghanistan millions of women will return to lives of ignorance, oppression and slavery. These costs are real, they are horrible and we should recognize them. But they don’t change the fundamental calculus of the conflict. If our chances of winning this war don’t justify further investment in the risky, expensive gamble of rebuilding Afghanistan it’s a bet we shouldn’t continue to lose on. The tragedy of Vietnam was how Americans leaders with a responsibility to make rational decisions refused to recognize this universal calculus of war. Politicians sending young Americans off to suffer and die in a war they privately acknowledge to probably be unwinnable is a crime we can’t repeat. This is all that should influence our decisions in Afghanistan. Recognizing the cognitive biases that prejudice our decision making is a step towards an honest conversation, one that we need to have.

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