What Does Cognitive Bias Mean for Deterrence and the Ethics of Modern Deterrence

June 2019 No Comments

“What Does Cognitive Bias Mean for Deterrence and the Ethics of Modern Deterrence

Speaker: King, I. (Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS))

Date: 25 June 2019

Speaker Session Preview

SMA hosted a speaker session presented by Mr. Iain King (Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)) as a part of its SMA General Speaker Series. Mr. King began by stating that there is currently no singular consensus definition of modern deterrence. Furthermore, the cases in which modern deterrence can be applied varies among individuals as well. He explained that modern deterrence encompasses both old-fashioned and nuclear deterrence, and focused on ten key characteristics that distinguish nuclear deterrence from all other types of deterrence, some of which include: 1) nuclear deterrence is incredibly binary (there are no degrees of attack or harm; you either use a nuclear weapon or you do not); 2) there are a small number of actors involved, all of who are known; 3) there is rarely ever an attribution problem; and 4) the stakes are very high and are likely to be symmetric. Mr. King also discussed a series of practical lessons to be learned about practical deterrence, namely: 1) it usually pays off attack across multiple domains; 2) it is often most effective to tailor deterrent efforts towards a particular adversary; and 3) norms have been especially important in areas where there are more than two actors. Furthermore, Mr. King outlined how a new model of deterrence can be constructed and provided two historical precedents: the Wild West in the US and the current environment in East Africa. The two primary considerations to keep in mind when developing a new model of deterrence are: there are rarely rational actors, and not everyone thinks like you. Mr. King also spoke about cognitive biases. He stated that when one applies the cognitive model to deterrence, five lessons are learned: 1) project your messages early; 2) embed normalcy in habits; 3) use individuals’ tendency to presume their luck to your advantage; 4) be mindful of groupthink; and 5) follow through on deterrence threats in order to remain credible and reinforce your will and capacity. Mr. King also spoke about ethics and how they are vital to deterrence. He discussed four primary approaches to ethics (the consequence-based approach, the rules-based approach, the virtue-based approach, and the “ethics-free” approach) and how they perceive deterrence. To conclude, Mr. King stated that the US needs a blend of these four approaches to make ethical deterrence viable.

Speaker Session Audio File

Download Mr. King’s Biography and Articles


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