War Book + Politics & Persuasion Panel
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in early August, Rich Pickings presented the British feature film War Book at a special event at London’s Picturehouse Central. The event included a panel discussion exploring the personal and political themes in the film – themes of persuasion, judgment and decision-making in groups.
The film, which was written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper, takes place over three days as nine civil servants gather to participate in a policy-shaping role-play scenario. They are there to imagine Britain’s reaction to an international nuclear attack. At first the participants are casual, playing out the scenario against a backdrop of their own petty squabbles and personal ambitions, but as the scenario escalates the group begins to address the breakdown of civil order and witness the repercussions of their theoretical decisions. When personal politics crash irrevocably into the room, each is forced to look closely at what they really believe, and how much their decisions are actually worth.
After the screening we were joined by three panelists, each with a different area of expertise and a different perspective on the film and wider themes.
Professor Peter Ayton
Prof Ayton is Associate Dean Research & Deputy Dean Social Sciences in the Department of Psychology at City University, London. He studies behavioural decision theory. Specifically, his research investigates how people make judgments and decisions under conditions of risk, uncertainty and ambiguity.
Sue Einhorn is a Group Analyst who became a psychotherapist after many years as a youth worker, community development activist and lecturer. She is particularly interested in how the social context lives in our unconscious and how each person then shapes the social world around them.
Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and economist. She is Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and is an occasional contributor to The Economist, Guardian, FT and Foreign Policy.
The panelists discussed the film, focusing on the structure of the environment portrayed and the dynamics of the group of civil servants. They also talked in more depth about judgment, war games and different methods for creating an environment suited to rational decision-making in groups. Outlined here is some of the ground covered in the discussion.
Q: As a psychologist you specialize in theory of decision-making. Can you explain a bit more about what we are doing when we make decisions?
My favorite definition of a decision is ‘an irrevocable commitment of resources’. Most people use the phrase ‘decision-making’ in a colloquial way and think they know what it means. You commonly hear people say: “let’s not decide that now” or “let’s wait and see”. That of course is in itself a decision. You might feel like you’ve kept options open, but we live in a dynamic world – things are constantly changing. When you make a decision you are not picking a discreet option from a well-designed set of arrays – you can be very creative about coming up with new options.
Q: In the film characters were required to make decisions in an environment that was steeped in personal politics and grudges. What were your thoughts on what we saw?
Some of the themes that we’re being primed by the film to contemplate include the bullying culture of politics, the flippancy with which decisions are treated and the emotions which impact conversations. It’s tempting to think that if the meeting we see in the film had been organized and regulated better, the decisions would have been more rational – but I don’t think that is necessarily true.
One thing that psychologists in my field tend to agree on is that the ‘rational man’ image set out by economists is a non-starter. There are at least two views that follow from that. The first is that we are not perfectly rational, but we get by very well and the methods we have to cope with our imperfect brains are pretty effective. The second view is that we are cognitive cripples who are essentially doomed. This view tends towards a belief that there is not much hope for humanity because of the way we conduct our affairs and, ultimately, the way our brains work.
One of psychology’s key ideas in decision theory is that of ‘heuristic thinking’ – decisions made by rule of thumb. We saw a lot of heuristic and simplistic thinking in the film. The characters had very simple rules for why they were proposing or defending certain points of view. They also used coercive arguments presented in imperatives: “this is necessary”, “this is essential”. The extreme courses of action that were being decided on were being done so without thought of alternatives.
Signaling complexity can be seen as weakness in politics. Barak Obama has come into a lot of criticism for seemingly taking a very long time to decide what to do about things. People like a ‘decisive politician’. But it’s also important to have someone who thinks things through. What was shown in the film was preaching, coercion and provocation – not good decision-making.
Q: The film portrayed a role-play exercise in which participants reacted to a fictional situation. In a real crisis situation the levels of pressure and stress would presumably be even higher. How much do we know about the ways in which stress affects decision-making?
You can test how stress affects people’s decision-making performance by setting up tasks (such as computer games) and offering incentives (such as winning or losing a lot of money). Experiments like this have revealed measurable effects of time pressure and stress. It’s been shown that pressure has an impact not only on the efficacy of decision-making but also on the strategies of it. And time-limitation creates a situation that lends itself to coercion and very simple heuristics being applied.
Two psychologists – Elder Shafir from Princeton University and Amos Tversky from Stanford University – conducted an experiment in which a group of students who have just finished their exams after a grueling semester are offered a great deal on a holiday – they can book for a group of people at a massive discount. The catch is that they must book and pay a deposit immediately, without time for reflection or consulting with friends. They found that students who have been told they have passed their exams took up the offer and paid the deposit. A second group of students are given exactly the same scenario, but are told they have failed their exams. They also decide to take up the offer and pay the deposit. The reasoning is that the ones that passed need to celebrate, while the ones that failed need to cheer themselves up. A final group are given exactly the same scenario but have been told that they won’t find out the results of their exams until the following day – and they need to pay the deposit for the holiday today. This group chose not to take up the holiday offer. So: if you’ve passed your exam you go on holiday, if you’ve failed you go on holiday, but if you don’t know if you have passed or failed you don’t go. This experiment reveals that we can generate reasons for actions based on real factors, but if there are unknowns we prefer to ‘wait and see’… even if either outcome would lead to the same action. This is an example of irrational human thinking. According to economics, that shouldn’t happen – but it does.
Q: If you could design a different system for a meeting such as the one we saw in the film, what would it be?
There are methods that social psychologists have devised for improving group process, some of which could be applied to a war game role-play situation. You could have a ‘Delphi’ group, where participants don’t reveal their identities, so they’re not in the same room and they communicate via anonymous narratives. That immediately strips away all the hierarchical, spurious aspects of the dynamic. When you have a room of people, there will always be things going on which have nothing to do with the quality of the arguments being made. And in some cases people will sabotage the greater good to bring their ego to the fore or push personal agendas. If it is anonymous you just focus on the quality of the argument. That isn’t to strip away the humans behind the arguments – values and emotions are essential parts of reasonable decision-making. There have been studies of people who have brain damage which has left them cognitively intact but emotionally dysfunctional. They often can’t make simple decisions, because decisions are typically critically dependent on emotions. But anonymizing a process could help to control the spurious elements – for instance the difficulties in countermanding someone with status either in or out of the room. The best system is one that allows the reasoned arguments to come through in the clearest way.
Q: In the film we see a group of civil servants playing out a high-level war game, in a policy-shaping exercise. How common are games like this in reality?
A lot of political analysis, like economics, imagines the state as some kind of rational actor that engages in something called ‘the pursuit of national interest’. But quite often we don’t look enough at the fact that it is made up of human beings who are making a guess of their interpretation of what the national interest is. We also don’t always account for the complexity and uncertainty of situations involving other players whose actions and motivations are unknown. So the nature of even just defending a selfish interest becomes very obscure. Part of the rationale of doing war games is to introduce that uncertainty and the human decision-making-under-pressure component. So these kind of role-plays do happen, and militaries particularly like engaging in them.
Often people look at political decision-making and see conspiracies. Those who have worked in and close to governments are less prone to seeing conspiracies and more prone to seeing cock-ups, because they see governments making errors time and time again. So seeing how people behave in groups and make decisions under pressure is probably quite a good guide to reality. That said, pretty much all the ways we have of imagining the future tend to be flawed. So this is one tool in a box of crystal ball gazing tools, all of which are inaccurate.
Q: Is there a standard structure for how games like this are organized?
There’s a lot of different formats you can set up for role-play. Often you will have a referee or gamesmaster. Originally war games were quite formalized, but since the ‘50s there’s been a desire to have games that are less formal to allow people to be more innovative and imaginative. The risk with this is that this could lead to daft decisions, so you allocate someone the role of the omniscient judge. That could be a political scientist or somebody who knows a lot about the countries involved and can say with some authority: “these people would never do that”.
One of the issues with these role-play is that when you have people in government together trying to imagine what will happen in the future, there is an element of Groupthink. Often people, especially junior people in the group, won’t want to say something that goes against the grain, or you have an enforced consensus – which isn’t good for original thinking and often comes up with the conclusion that what we should do is exactly what our existing policy already is. Another fundamental problem with war games is that they’re often designed to be quite fun because that stimulates people to think differently. But the enjoyment aspect divorces people from the reality, and if it is analysts playing the games they may not have any idea what it would feel like to be in that situation for real. Crisis simulations are usually done by people who wouldn’t be the decision-makers in reality – the real decision-makers are too busy.
Another issue is that war games often look at the different reactions of the different international players, and the people who are simulating a country’s response don’t really know what that country would do. Sometimes people are brought in to represent their own country – for instance an academic from Egypt to represent what the Egyptian Government would do. But that can be overstated. We’re from Britain, but that doesn’t mean we’d know how the British Government would react in a crisis. So there can be stereotyping built into these processes.
Q: In the film we see the decisions ultimately being made to reflect and justify policy decisions which have been made in the past. How could this be prevented?
One of the ways that crisis simulators try to get around that problem is bringing in outsiders who have not been involved in building up policy. But often the ‘outsiders’ are brought in from a small pool of trusted individuals. So you may think you’re bringing in outsiders to challenge your way of thinking but actually you’re picking outsiders who will re-enforce it… and you then come away with the conclusion that everything you’re doing already is correct.
Anonymized role-play systems are sometimes used. I know of an annual three-day gaming scenario for a European military, which is done remotely on computers. A central person then looks at the moves and decisions that come in on a screen and says whether they are plausible or whether the ‘player’ needs to come up with a more realistic decision.
I once went to a political meeting of young people in Kuwait who were opposition activists of various persuasions. They were debating the merits of gradual political change against very rapid political change, such as a revolutionary movement. They were using software during the meeting which displayed a graphical representation of how long each person was speaking for, so that no person was allowed to dominate the discussion and anyone who hadn’t spoken was encouraged to contribute. But of course as humans we have ways to bypass that. The film demonstrated very well the way that when one character is speaking others are looking around for someone’s eye to catch… other things are happening in the room as well as speaking and listening. So it’s very difficult to try to equalize discussion.
The reality is that political and military decisions are often made by a small number of people in a room and in that environment somebody being persuasive and charismatic can have great impact.
There’s a political philosophy book called ‘The Theory of Justice’ by John Rawles, a British liberal academic, which asks ‘how could we come up with the ideal political system’. He imagines a situation where everybody is cut off from their lives and context and personality and turned into pure anonymous rationality. They imagine what the ideal political system would be… and they imagine a British liberal model. The book has been criticized for that same issue, that by trying to anonymize people you are cutting out important things, such as their values and backgrounds, things that affect their views.
Q: We’ve talked of the problematic sides of structuring roles plays. Can you think of any positive examples of their benefits?
Recently we have seen the five permanent members of the Security Council come together to ensure that they keep the ‘nuclear club’ relatively exclusive, and this has been done through diplomacy with Iran. One of the most popular war games that has been played in recent years is the possibility of the US or Israel unilaterally attacking Iran’s nuclear facility and what that would unleash in terms of retaliation across the Middle East. So far this has not happened, and maybe looking at those scenarios and the enormity of them is part of what has persuaded governments to try to avoid it and come up with a more diplomatic approach.
Q: The film portrays decision-making in a pretty dysfunctional dynamic. As a group psychotherapist, what was your response to what we saw?
My job as a group psychotherapist is to encourage an environment where people can think and reflect. The situation we saw in the film was the opposite of that. There was no element of safety. The person chairing was not the person with power, the atmosphere was one of great hostility and the whole method of voting (aye or nay by hands up, majority to
win) belies thinking. There was nothing that allowed reflection and no way of not conforming. I found it an extremely frightening film, not just for the nature of their decisions but the bullying and bigoted nature of their culture. The film showed a group of older people, unable to let empire go, coercing younger people into thinking in their old ways. If you think in binary, black-or-white terms it is impossible to have reflective thinking.
If you could design a different system for a meeting such as the one we saw in the film, what would it be?
I would make sure everybody knew their position and someone was present holding the balance to ensure the meeting was ethical, courteous and respectful. I would want to ensure that everyone’s opinion was felt to be equally important. The problem with the situation in the film – and I imagine in many political situations – was that there was a secret in the room, and those who knew it were more powerful than those who did not.
For me, one of the most important things for human beings is that we let new generations come in with their own ideas, and start influencing things. Otherwise all you do is replay history. So you need an environment where everyone is listened to and given time to think. The film showed a scenario where history is repeated: people of a certain power and a certain generation managed to squash people of difference, people with any other ideas.
In group relations, understanding power dynamics and interaction is central. Understanding who has the formal power and who has the informal power. Seeing how people establish their credentials. I wouldn’t like an environment where people were anonymized, because I think you do need to think about what it’s like to be, for instance, an ethnic or gender minority in the room and how that impacts relations.
I think it is impossible to strip all the social dynamics out of meetings and group decision-making, so we shouldn’t try. Instead we should learn to manage and understand the different, complex things that are going on. When you can observe all these complexities and take them into account you can also start to see how to work with them.
On war games:
Pax Sims is a blog about war games, run by Professor Rex Brynen of McGill University in Canada – https://paxsims.wordpress.com
On the psychology of group processes and decision-making:
Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Rensho (2007). Why Hawks Win (2007), Foreign Policy 158: 34-38:
Rose McDermott and Jacek Kugler, (2001). Comparing Rational Choice and Prospect Theory Analyses: The US Decision to Launch Operation ‘Desert Storm’, Journal of Strategic Studies Volume 24, pages 49-85: http://goo.gl/rsrgr0
Kerr, N.L. & Tindale, R.S. (2004). Group performance and decision making Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 55, Pages 623-655:
On the theory of ‘Groupthink’
Esser J.K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR AND HUMAN DECISION PROCESSES
Volume: 73 Issue: Pages: 116-141:
Sunstein, C.R. & Hastie, R. (2015). Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter. Harvard Business School Press.
You can see Cass Sunstein discussing the book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ-F26BPQrA
On the psychology of Foreign Policy Decision Making:
Alex Mintz and Karl DeRouen, Jr. (2010). Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mark Schafer and Scott Crichlow (2010). Groupthink Versus High-Quality Decision Making in International Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.
A review of these books is: Deborah Welch Larson (2012). Review of Alex Mintz, and Karl DeRouen ‘Understanding Foreign Policy Decision Making’ Perspectives on Politics, 10, pp 227-228.
It can be downloaded here: https://goo.gl/ePKdGj
On Group Analysis:
Gerhard Wilke (2015). The Art of Group Analysis in Organisations: The Use of Intuitive and Experiential Knowledge; Karnac Books
Morris Nitsun (1996). The Anti-Group: Destructive Forces in the Group and their Creative Potential; Routledge
War Book is viewable on iTunes from September 7th 2015
This event was presented with the support of a Wellcome Trust Engaging Science Grant.