What international relations can learn from psychology
Here, IR could do with a lesson from economics. Assumptions of man as a rational ‘homo economicus’ and of the market as the ultimately efficient allocator of resources – driven by principles of ‘rational’ optimisation – were belied, most dramatically during the global financial crisis. There is more to human behaviour than the simplistic calculus of utilitarian desires and their fulfilment, it would appear. Simultaneously, developments in behavioural economics – notably by Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow), Steven Levitt and Richard Thaler – showed that human choices are often “illogical but not irrational”. In similar vein, perhaps psychology – more than cartography – might help explore novel dimensions about geopolitical events and reveal fresh insights.
Such recourse to psychology is not new by any means. It is a reversion to the principles espoused by original strategic thinkers such as Sunzi, Plato, Kautilya and Machiavelli, when they emphasised the study of ‘human nature’ and the art of leadership. These strategists never underestimated the role of human agency; rather, they stressed the need to build both ‘character’ and perceptive judgement as tools to minimise risk and to overcome the inherent uncertainties in the understanding of events. Sunzi’s most well-known dictum is revealing: “If you know yourself, and know your opponent, victory will be yours in all of a hundred battles”.
Fortunately, psychology today is no longer about lying on a couch and recounting one’s fantasies to kindly old gentlemen with long white beards. Modern psychology straddles the arts-science divide, being grounded firmly on a biological base, with close links to neuroscience, probability theory, linguistics, evolutionary theory and philosophy. But how is all this linked to strategy and Sino-Indian issues? The key lies in understanding why and how the same event can produce different perceptions in different people. Without this knowledge of how the human brain decodes perceptions, we could draw inappropriate and even wrong conclusions. It is somewhat like saying that to drive a car well, one must be thoroughly familiar with (and consider) any quirks or biases in the steering wheel or brake pedals. Some examples from recent research show how our behaviour can be counter-intuitive (‘illogical’), yet sensible and explicable (‘rational’).
A wealth of evidence now shows that human perception is influenced by several factors such as emotional state, culture, language and display. The pioneering work of neuroscientist Vilanyur Ramachandran produces some brilliant examples. He shows how amputees experience a feeling of intense pain in an amputated limb (not pain at the wound site, but on the imagined limb which Ramachandran calls a ‘phantom’). All logical explanation and placebo treatment fails to remove the pain sensation. Ultimately, another illusion – a ‘limb’ created by mirrors – produces the cure. He explains this elegantly, through simple neural feedback loops. The essential learning from the experiment is that all perception is disconnected to any objective ‘reality’ and is just a neural phenomenon generated by the brain.
Going beyond the ‘logical’
Geopoliticians and strategic thinkers view themselves as hard-headed, no-nonsense folk who base their views only on ‘facts’, strictly following logical reasoning and eschewing emotion. But as Kahneman’s experimental work shows, trained statisticians and scientists can be influenced by stereotypes into a confusion of judgement, and find themselves substituting the plausible for the probable. Our assessments and judgements too are influenced by context and recent experiences. And, going further, it is extremely difficult to dislodge deeply-held convictions merely through logical argument – 70 years of parliamentary debate have changed few beliefs. Our brain circuits for logical thought and emotional flows are intricately intertwined, creating resistance when deep convictions are challenged. The phenomenon of ‘cognitive dissonance’ then kicks in, causing us to ignore or devalue countervailing evidence, so that the original belief can survive undisturbed. On the other hand, a purely logical statement with zero emotional content would feel lifeless and robotic, and is unlikely to carry any credibility. All human communication is thus a well-crafted combination of logic and feeling; rather than ignore emotion, we should study its role.
Neither is human memory highly dependable. Rather than being an indelible photograph of an instant in time (and even an old photograph curls at the edges and turns a gentle sepia colour with age), a memory is an electrochemical trace that subtly changes form each time it is recalled, depending on the neural environment around it. We remember what we want to remember. Kahneman shows how our remembrance depends less on what actually happened during the course of an event but – crucially – on how that event ended. So a long and happy marriage that ends in a messy and bitter divorce leaves a painful memory. And a long and unhappy one that undergoes a miraculous transformation, vice versa. Such an ‘illogicality’ has a clear survival value and is thus quite ‘rational’ in evolutionary terms.
Finally, the science of psycholinguistics tells us that the language that we speak conditions the way we think. Sanskrit and Mandarin – which we can (with some liberties) consider the root languages of the Indian and Chinese populations respectively – differ in many respects. For one, an alphabetic script and a complex grammar for the former, an ideographic script with a grammar that eschews tense, declination, gender and case for the latter. Like different computer operating systems, each language fulfils all the roles required of it, but each also has specific areas of strength. That is not surprising, since every language evolves in a different environment and is designed to emphasise different shades of meaning. The resulting differences in ways of thinking do not necessarily imply a conflictual relationship. Rather, they generate a multiplicity and diversity of thought processes that – when put together – can be sources of innovation and creativity. Equally, an inability to decode the genius of each language can create a significant gap in understanding.
So if perception, logic, memory and language are such tricksters, how will we ever make any sense of our uncertain world, let alone unravel Sino-Indian issues? Is this a counsel of despair? Not at all. What we need to do is to apply our knowledge of psychological science to geopolitical events and observe how perceptions, emotions, memories and linguistic quirks might have distorted them, somewhat like light being refracted through a prism. If the ‘refractive indices’ of the components can be determined, we can unravel the nature of light that first entered the prism – the event itself. This, of course, means conceding a role to psychological enquiry in the explanation of geopolitical events.
Fortunately, in recent weeks, two perceptive observers of China – and eminent practitioners of diplomacy – have highlighted the importance of such deeper and underlying factors as the motive forces behind the persistent unease in Sino-Indian relations. Ambassador Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary, writing in The Tribune, remarks: “China believes that India should acknowledge the power disparity between the two sides and show appropriate deference to China.” Two weeks later, ambassador Shivshankar Menon, also a former foreign secretary and former national security advisor, raised the question of “how we remember major historical events” in The Wire. He explained the stranglehold that the 1962 war still has on India’s national consciousness: “Because we have internalised a narrative or story of the war that is powerful and lasting…. It has changes, significant moments and endings – as Kahneman says, our remembering selves construct or order experience/memory”.
Such insights probably find no place when national leaders sit together at summit meetings. And that is a pity. For the first step to repairing any damaged relationship – be it familial, marital, social, commercial or international – is to recognise the internal psychological impact of the external objective conditions, and then find ways to deal with them. This route to resolution and/or reconciliation has healed some deep rifts, both within and between nations. Sometimes, that may require the external objective problem – in this case, the border issue – to be settled first. But not always. In many cases, the path towards the ultimate resolution might start elsewhere, with no relation whatsoever to the external manifestation.
Ravi Bhoothalingam is an independent director on corporate boards and Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.
Published in arrangement with The Wire.