“What does psychology have to say about peace with the Palestinians?”

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman addressed that question on a diverse panel that included David Axelrod, Dan Ariely and Sharon Stone at the Israeli Presidential Conference today.

It’s hard to imagine a worse constellation of psychological factors, he said. From a psychological point of view, we’d say conditions are bad for peace because we have the following:

  1. Asymmetric power. The powerful inevitably become less sympathetic, less empathetic, and prone to contempt. People very quickly accept their power and all the privilege that comes with it. Peace between superiors and inferiors (in terms of power) is quite complicated, especially when the other side feels differently about themselves. This is all psychologically inevitable.
  2. Immediate, certain and painful losses vs. dubious, uncertain and long term gains. To achieve peace Israel has to give up things that it is very comfortable with. Right now they have a relatively stable situation. It takes very little time for people to adapt to a situation and feel as though it’s permanent. We have a situation which is pretty good, and we have to think about the costs of peace, which are huge. I’m talking about the population, not the leadership. Just the structural situation. Very unfavorable. A group faced with a requirement to achieve peace by making immediate and painful concessions. The concessions are clearly very painful. If we learned anything from psychology it is that there is a very large asymmetry between our attitudes towards potential gains and losses. And here we know what the losses are and the gains are dubious, ambiguous, uncertain, and delayed. Gains are less compelling than losses. Worse, the losses are certain and the gains are dubious. Even worse, the losses are immediate and the potential gains are long term.
  3. How each side views the other. Here too, the psychology is quite discouraging. In every quarrel there is an asymmetry between the way people perceive themselves and the way they perceive their adversary. People usually see themselves as reactionary. The adversary’s view of themselves is typically quite different. If you shake your memory for personal or spousal conflicts, you’ll probably think of examples. We tend to say “you are always,” to attribute your adversary’s negative actions as typical of who they are, and our own as a reaction to them. What is less typical is to think about what you’re doing that is generating reaction in the other side.
  4. Fear of betrayal. If there’s one thing we really hate it’s being betrayed. Our fear of betrayal is intense. We hate being betrayed. Our fear of missed opportunities to make peace, our fear of not trusting someone who should have been trusted is much smaller. But the first kind is judged as folly, as naivete. Even anticipating that is extremely costly. Peace involves trust. To whatever extent Israel may hope that it will retain a great deal of the military situation, it will relinquish control, and relinquishing control is very painful.

Kahneman closed by saying he was hopeful that with leadership we could find our way through. He didn’t address whether or not our aversion to the proposed solutions was perhaps a sign of psychological health, of our psychology successful protecting us from destructive delusions.

Dan Ariely asked “Why do you think that leaders are going to have more foresight? Are they more rational and thoughtful rather than less, or is that wishful thinking?”

“Foresight and long term thinking aren’t the traits that get them selected,” Kahneman admitted. “They’re selected for other reasons, not long term vision. … We know a fair amount of what makes a leader charismatic and most of that is superficial. People want a leader that looks decisive. They want somebody quick and spontaneous not reflective and thoughtful. We prefer people who seem to know what they want to do. Who induce passion and strong emotions.

“A politician must exaggerate. They must speak in the language of solving problems. Reducing the problem by a little bit is what you’re likely to achieve, but that rhetoric, the truthful rhetoric, isn’t what you need. So to get elected you have to promise people things that you can’t deliver.”

And if a politician must exaggerate, how much more so former politicians that are now inspirational speakers.

Sort of put the presidential leadership conference in perspective.

“Maybe we shouldn’t promote peace, but a pilot study,” Ariely offered. “The sacrifices for full peace are just too much. We should try something in a small way.”

“That’s very interesting,” Kahneman said. “It may be difficult for the other side to accept. They do not want their cage gilded. They’re afraid that by accepting local improvements they’re giving up their long-term goals.”

And now we were through the looking glass.Because we’re sitting at the presidential conference in honor of, and in the presence of, Shimon Peres. And these brilliant thinkers, who were born here, served in the Israeli army, and came here to honor him seem to have entirely forgotten the former president’s most dramatic achievement, the Oslo Accords.

The Oslo Accords were presented as “Gaza and Jericho first.” It was exactly what Ariely proposes, a small pilot. Far larger than I would have liked, of course, but small enough that most of us have survived its catastrophic failure. A situation that had been improving got much worse. Importing Yassir Arafat and his troops surprisingly did not bring the desired peace and security for anybody in the region.

And then Israel did it again. She withdrew from Lebanon. And Hezbollah took over. It brought war, not peace.

And then Israel did it again. She withdrew from Gaza. And Hamas took over. It brought war, not peace.

Professor Kahneman gave a great discussion of the psychological conditions interfering with our dream for peace.

Perhaps the psychological barriers are our great savior from our leaders’ delusions. The catastrophic failures of the previous pilots might lead responsible people to consider other options.