Hawks more likely to be Hedgehogs? – Triumph of Religious Pseudo-certainty

November 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

In 2006 at the Center for the Study of Rationality in the Hebrew University, Daniel Kahneman gave a talk titled “Biased Biases: Do Cognitive Biases Give an Advantage to Hawks over Doves”.  He repeats much of that same thesis, in this lecture (shared above) at the New School for Social Research  entitled “Why Hawks Win”.

To summarize, it demonstrates that given phenomena such as fundamental attribution error or Illusion of transparency and rhetorical advantage to pseudo-certainty …hawks will influence political decision-making far more than doves.


War Birds by John Trever

He adds here in this lecture that hawks  tend to be hedgehogs, alluding to the Greek poet Archilochus’s phrase: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

This is contrary to my own impression. Most hawks that I am familiar with in political decision-making, of most third world nations are illiterate bluffers with no expertise in any field so to call them a hedgehog is a compliment they don’t deserve. Nevertheless the  following interesting exchange in the Q&A made me pause.

Q from the audience: how might a formal bias be built into the political decision-making system to bias the system against the hawks?

A: I don’t think it can be done

Peter Sloterdijk in his 2009 book Du mußt dein Leben änder  (You Must Change Your Life) introduces a set of attractive metaphors and labels to discuss his study of man as a “practicing being” and the varieties of self-formation.

On the immunitary constitution of humans  he argues that: “after centuries of experiments with new forms of life the realisation has dawned that humans whatever ethnic, economic and political situation may govern our lives exist not only in ‘material conditions’ but in symbolic immune systems and ritual shells.”

Considering this realisation,  ‘European Enlightenment’ is an anomaly and indeed “…why should Europeans be the only ones on a metaphysical diet when the rest of the world continues to dine unperturbed at the richly decked tables of illusion?”

Now it may be argued that this is not really the case that on average ‘Europeans’ may have less explicit but sufficiently elaborate ritual shells. But for the sake of argument  it’s not too difficult to link this to the Kahneman’s  discussion of rhetorical advantage.

The pseudo certainty of subjects (non-European or otherwise) who dine on just such “richly decked tables” of illusion should grant them undue advantage in political decision-making spheres. Or in simpler language it’s not just the case that the “best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” given our biases we find the passionate or the religious more convincing.

If this isn’t enough another  weapon in the armory of the religious or the pseudo-certain mob is demography.  Eric Kaufmann discusses some  highlights of his recent work titled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth. The findings show the more religious people are, regardless of income, faith tradition or education, the more children they have. Within Judaism, the Ultra-Orthodox may achieve majority status over their liberal counterparts by mid-century.Evangelical and neo-traditional Christians will eventually dominate Christianity in the United States and Europe. 

…so if the religious are to inherit the earth a doubting minority’s prospect of overcoming the existing bias in favor of all things Hawkish becomes null. Unless this doubting minority has control of institutions and industry for which it would need to devise superior symbolic immune systems that would enable it to outperform existing religions

One quick argument against Eric Kaufman’s thesis is that secularism or religious belief are not genetically determined. They are, like all values, absorbed, or rejected. The hope is that even though the ultraorthodox in all communities are breeding more their children may change/lose faith.

On the other hand stronger religions retain members more effectively than moderate faiths because when you leave a fundamentalist religion, you leave your entire life — family, friends, leisure — behind, not just one compartment. Moreover, retention rates have been rising as fundamentalists have become better organized and began to harness modern technologies of communications, media and record keeping, which help weave a whole world around their members.

Another trend possible trend is that even the few children of secular parents would be drawn to “the richly decked tables of illusion”  since relativism cannot inspire.

Some research in the US seems to support this:

Only about 30 percent of those who grow up in an atheist household remain atheists as adults. This “retention rate” was the lowest among the 20 separate categories in the study.

What these findings according to Dr. Mark Gray of Georgetown University reflect is that “… in the U.S. atheists are for the most part ‘made’ as adults after being raised in another faith. It appears to be much more challenging to raise one’s child as an atheist and have them maintain this identity in their life,”
Again to restate this using the polished terminology of Sloterdijk, a culture as a grooming system for transmission of regionally essential cognitive and moral principles to subsequent generations is essentially neophobic. Uncontrolled growth of new practices are judged decadent when the aim is to produce sufficient number of similar juniors. Neophobia of culture is based on a concern for return of the similar (similar challenges or threats) in subsequent generations.The extent to which a liberally opened civilization seem free from neophobias is possibly due to its “assurance in its reproductive capability its didactive techniques and the attractiveness of its mode of life” to “dispense with suppression of unwelcome variation and instead embrace the hazardous habitus of a broad tolerance for variation.”

Any thing which would impact this assurance ought to make the variation-friendly attitudes, variation-hostile. Works such as Kaufman’s if not intending just such an impact, are warnings nevertheless. If there is a hostility reinforcing loop then it may influence the system as follows:

The degree of assurance of the secular culture if threatened by demographic trends and its non-adoption by variation-hostile communities living within it should slowly make it more hostile so by some time in future when the proportion of variation-hostile minority is larger, the variation-tolerant majority (if they were ever so) is no longer tolerant. Of the hawks and doves in both camps, the more convincing will be the ….  and so on.

To be considered:

# Are hawks more blind to varieties of systemic risk which bring about tragedies in the management of commons?

# Leon Festinger …how about cognitive dissonance? What degree of inequality in the perceived power is necessary for the mind, to justify retroactively the choices that are born of necessity


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