We all know the story of the Palestinian childern who spaked a bloodbath by throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. This is the textbook case of a “disporportionate reaction,” a phrase that musters leers from many international relations scholars. What prompts reactions like this? Are we hard-wired to react? To over-react?

Self-defense is a natural occurence. But maybe it’s our puzzling neurological framework that makes international affairs as messy are they are. Human beings have an innate tendency to overreact, writes Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist. Psychological studies have shown that human beings have outwardly-directed memories. In other words, we are much more aware of others’ actions than our own. Small wonder then, given this fact, that recent study has shown humans will respond, on average, with 40 percent more force than the initial attack.

He hit me first, so I’ll hit him back– harder. This is not a new phenomenon by any measure, but Gilbert seems to think it has some bearing on international relations:

Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

I’m a bit more skeptical.

In short, Gilbert’s insights are incredibly useful in the realm of interpersonal relations, but perhaps irrelevant in the realm of international relations. True, I as an individual can “turn the other cheek.” Mental life, as Gilbert duly noted, is a private affair. Ultimately, we are only responsible for our thoughts and our reactions. And I don’t think it’s too much to expect some people to act according to a virtue of harmony rather than a neurological dictum. But if this theory is to have any relevance in IR– if we are to see the better world Gilbert envisions– there must be a groundswell of individuals acting against their neurological urges. Politics makes clear the fact that the human animal is still, at some level, bound by biology.

If there’s an answer to the vexing problem Gilbert has presented– violence, instability, and fractionation– it lies not in understanding human psychology, but in understanding human institutions. Diplomacy, economics, and international law have enjoyed mostly good track records because they framed their debates in stark terms. They looked at the reality of human psychology– our imperfect, often selfish dispositions– rather than hoping for a transcendent moment of collective human virtue. And through these dark, pragmatic lenses, we have begun to see (at least on the whole) a paradoxical movement by societies toward these virtues.

Morgan and readership, a few questions for you: First, am I underestimating the human condition here? Can people really overcome their nature en masse? Economics assumes a rational, selfish actor– is this accurate? What are the dangers in assuming this?
– –Daniel Corbett

Advertisements