When the Yom Kippur War Broke Out, Two Psychologists Rushed to the Frontlines

Nov. 29 2016

In 1969, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—both professors of psychology at Hebrew University—began an enduring collaboration (and close friendship) that would lead them to do pioneering research in understanding how people process information to make decisions. Kahneman eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work, which Tversky probably would have shared had he not died a few years beforehand. When the Yom Kippur War began in 1973, the pair immediately made their way from California to Israel, where they reported for duty at the IDF’s “psychology field unit.” Not content to sit in an office devising questionnaires, the pair grabbed rifles, jumped on a jeep, and set off for the Sinai Peninsula. Michael Lewis describes some of what they did there:

Danny [Kahneman] . . . had a gift for finding solutions to problems where others failed even to notice that there was a problem to solve. As they sped toward the front lines, Danny noticed the huge piles of garbage on the roadsides: the leftovers from the canned meals supplied by the U.S. Army. He examined what the soldiers had eaten and what they had thrown out. (They liked the canned grapefruit.) His subsequent recommendation that the Israeli army analyze the garbage and supply the soldiers with what they actually wanted made newspaper headlines. . . .

He also somehow found his way to the Israeli Air Force. Fighter pilots were also dying in unprecedented numbers because of Egypt’s use of new and improved surface-to-air missiles provided by the Soviet Union. One squadron had suffered especially horrific losses. The general in charge wanted to investigate, and possibly punish, the unit. . . .

Danny explained to the general that he had a sample-size problem: the losses experienced by the supposedly inept fighter squadron could have occurred by random chance alone. If he investigated the unit, he would no doubt find patterns in behavior that might serve as an explanation. Perhaps the pilots in that squadron had paid more visits to their families, or maybe they wore funny-colored underpants. Whatever he found would be a meaningless illusion, however. There weren’t enough pilots in the squadron to achieve statistical significance. On top of it, an investigation, implying blame, would be horrible for morale. The only point of an inquiry would be to preserve the general’s feelings of omnipotence. The general listened to Danny and stopped the inquiry. “I have considered that my only contribution to the war effort,” said Danny.

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The Dangers of Diplomacy with Iran

Aug. 21 2018

Although President Trump’s offer to meet with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic was rejected, the possibility of direct negotiations remains. Ray Takeyh and Mark Dubowitz warn that Tehran could use talks to stall and gain leverage over Washington:

The mullahs understand that just by staying at the table, Americans usually offer up concessions. [They] are betting that the Trump administration may become weaker over time, preoccupied with domestic politics. Best to entangle America in protracted diplomacy while awaiting what the regime expects will be midterm Republican losses in Congress and the return of a more flexible Democratic president to power in 2021. This is what [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei probably meant when he stressed that negotiations have to wait until America is softened up.

Diplomacy would surely blunt the impact of U.S. pressure. The mullahs believe they can undermine the escalation of [U.S.] sanctions by being diplomatically flirtatious and know well that America seldom disrupts negotiations with military action. Indeed, as a prelude to the talks, Iran may even resume its nuclear activities to frighten the Europeans and gain leverage by putting even more pressure on Washington to adjust its red lines.

Should negotiations begin, the Trump team should take sensible precautions to avoid the predicament of the Obama negotiators. The administration will need to maintain its maximum-pressure campaign and its negotiating demands. . . . Any negotiations with the Islamic Republic should be time-limited, and Washington must be prepared to leave the table when it confronts the usual pattern of regime bombast and mendacity.

Donald Trump should insist on direct talks with the supreme leader, as he did with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: Rouhani is a lame duck without any real influence. The administration also should demand that Europeans join its sanctions policy targeting Iran’s ballistic-missile program, support for terrorism, and human-rights abuses as a price for their participation in the talks.

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More about: Ali Khamenei, Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy