In a provocative NYT Op-Ed piece titled “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t,” Harvard psychology prof Daniel Gilbert writes about recent psychological research demonstrating that human beings seem to be hard-wired to overreact to provocation. It seems to be built into our neurological circuits.
On first thought, that seems innocuous enough -- just plain common sense, really. But combine it with the scenario sketched by a physics prof at UC-San Diego, and you get to The End Of The World As We Know It in eight short steps.
According to the psychology professor
Gilbert begins by discussing the nature of provocation and retaliation, ranging from siblings fighting in the backseat of a car to the latest Mideast violence, and looks for some general principles.
What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.But it turns out that arriving at a truly proportionate use of force is difficult, if not impossible, for most people. Gilbert describes an experiment in which volunteers are set up with a device to put pressure on another volunteer’s finger. Then they switch roles, and each is asked to deliver the same amount of pressure to the other subject.
If the first principle of legitimate punching is that punches must be even-numbered, the second principle is that an even-numbered punch may be no more forceful than the odd-numbered punch that preceded it. Legitimate retribution is meant to restore balance, and thus an eye for an eye is fair, but an eye for an eyelash is not. When the European Union condemned Israel for bombing Lebanon in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, it did not question Israel’s right to respond, but rather, its “disproportionate use of force.” It is O.K. to hit back, just not too hard.
The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.In other words, escalation seems to follow provocation as night follows day.
Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.
According to the physics professor
Jorge Hirsch is the physics prof, a fellow of the American Physical Society, and the organizer of a recent petition, circulated among leading physicists, opposing the new, more aggressive nuclear weapons policies adopted by the US in the past 5 years. He’s really worried, and he explains why in a Common Dreams post filled with links to more information and titled "Nuke Iran, Blame the Jews: Who Benefits from the Israel-Lebanon Flare-Up?"
He’s worried about the U.S. getting involved in the current conflict and going nuclear against Iran, as Seymour Hersh warned could happen more easily than most people are aware. And as the title of his post suggests, Prof. Hirsch worries that the world will unfairly blame Israel. But that’s the least of his worries.
In the end of course we will all lose. Because the nuclear genie, unleashed from its bottle in the war against Iran, will never retreat. And just like the US could develop nuclear weapons in only 4 years with completely new technology 60 years ago, many more countries and groups will be highly motivated to do it in the coming years.Spooky to think that the only thing standing between us and this possible future is George Bush, and that he has more than 2 years left in office.
Think about the current disproportionate response of Israel, applied in a conflict where the contenders have nuclear weapons. 10 to 1 retaliation, starting with a mere 600 casualties, wipes out the entire Earth's population in eight easy steps. Who will be willing to stop the escalation? The country that lost 60,000 citizens in the last hit? The one that lost 600,000? 6 million?
As the nuclear holocaust unfolds, some will remember the Lebanon conflict and subsequent Iran war and blame it all on the Jews. Others will properly blame Americans, for having allowed their Executive to erase the 60-year old taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, first in doctrine and then in practice, despite having the most powerful conventional military force in the world. Others of course will blame "Muslim extremism".
And then the blaming will wither away as a three-billion-year old experiment, life on planet Earth, comes to an end.