A PSYCHOLOGY professor, even one who has won the Nobel Prize,
does not seem the obvious person to consult if you want to sort out
a crisis in international affairs. But perhaps someone from the US
State Department has been along to one of the lectures by Daniel
Kahneman, the Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Princeton. That
would explain why, after all the tough talk after Russia's
annexation of the Crimea, the sanctions begun by Washington and
Brussels this week proved to be fairly feeble - and a very good
There is no Nobel Prize in psychology. Professor Kahneman got
his for economics, after pretty much creating the idea of
behavioural economics, which looks at the psychology of judgement
and decision-making. His bestseller Thinking, Fast and
Slow (Allen Lane, 2001) reveals the extent to which economics
is not a science, but a dark art deeply rooted in our psyche.
Its central thesis is that we make choices in two ways: fast,
intuitive thinking, which he calls System 1, and slow, rational
thinking which he dubs System 2 (Comment, 14 March). We kid
ourselves that we mainly do System 2 thinking, but all too often it
is just a post-facto rationalisation - and often a fallacious and
self-deluding one - for our System 1 instincts and prejudices.
On Start the Week on Radio 4 on Monday, under the
expert coaxing of the presenter Tom Sutcliffe, Professor Kahneman
explained how this affects the way we take risks. Our fear of
losses is a much more powerful drive than our hope of gains. So we
tend to be loss-averse and therefore risk-averse. But when we are
put in positions where we seem certain to lose, then we gamble
more. Faced with a small certain loss, we will often take the risk
of an even bigger loss, so long as there is even a small chance
that we might win.
The lesson for geopolitics is that if you box a man like
Vladimir Putin into a corner, he may see his only choice as to come
out fighting. The Russian president is a dangerous and unpleasant
man, but he has been provoked into his present belligerence by
Western attempts to woo Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of
influence - the West's using a trade deal with the EU, and the
prospect of the former Soviet satellite joining NATO.
The Kremlin has responded with a military occupation of Crimea.
Hardly a shot has been fired in the process, but that has not
prevented high-minded moralising about freedom and democracy from
the people who brought you the invasion of Iraq.
Yet, for all the huffing and puffing, the United States and the
EU, having talked themselves into a corner, in which they have been
forced to impose sanctions, have come up with a package of travel
bans and asset freezes which look fairly weak by comparison with
the previous robust rhetoric.
What we must hope is that, with honour respectively satisfied,
East and West can now sit down and come to a constructive agreement
that reforms Ukraine's economy and opens it to the West, but
maintains it as a buffer state between Russia and Europe, outside
NATO. Eventually, the aim should be to turn the buffer into a
bridge across which latter-day Cold Warriors from Washington and
Moscow can one day engage in more amiable intercourse.
It is probably a fait accompli - after a 97-per-cent
majority vote - that Crimea will once again be part of Russia, as
it was until 1954. But attempts to reach a mutually beneficial deal
over the rest of Ukraine are far more likely to prevent President
Putin from moving his troops into Russian-speaking east Ukraine
than will any amount of big stick-waving.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the
University of Chester.