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Inside Therapy: Are Our War Advisors Thinking Like Toddlers?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Are we conducting national security policy with the mental approach of a child? What can therapy show us about the flaw in this type of thinking? Photo: barkandbloom/flickr.

In a recent editorial for the New York Times, national security correspondent Scott Shane made a moral case for drones. Drones cause fewer civilian casualties than missiles and bombs, he argues. And as a result their use is not only ethically permissible, it may even be ethically obligatory.

The United States is faced with this dilemma because we believe there are people in faraway places plotting to attack and kill us. And for human beings, the threat of being killed poses a very significant problem.

As a therapist, I’m interested in the way people respond to problems. When confronted with one, our nervous system imagines various responses, assesses the advantages and disadvantages of each, and guides us to choose the option that makes the most sense given our current understanding of how the world works.

Relying on the "best of bad options"

Since Mr. Shane’s problem has to do with the accidental killing of innocent people in foreign countries, his response is to use a weapon that is least likely to do that. And because every weapon carries some possibility of "collateral damage," the question becomes about what is the best of our bad options—missiles, bombs, or drones.

But this framing of the question leads to an extraordinarily limited range of responses. It dramatically reduces human beings’ extraordinary capacity for creative problem-solving, and essentially locks us in a box of bad options.

The worst part is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

The toddler response

Imagine a little boy who learns that the only way he can get his needs met is by taking the toy he wants. When he's little, taking the toy is the only option available to his little mind. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn't. But when that boy has become a twenty-five year old man, his cognitive and imaginative range are far greater; his behavioral repertoire is vastly increased. If he’s still responding to problems the way his three year old self would, we’d think something was wrong. In the old days, therapists would say he was relying on primitive defenses—responding to the ghosts of a distant past rather than surveying the current situation with fresh eyes and adult abilities.

Yet this is more or less the way Mr. Shane is responding to the problem addressed in his editorial. Our current situation is very different than when we were a young species, hunting and gathering our food, needing to protect ourselves and our rations. Today, our imaginative scope and technological capacities are far greater, making possible ever more creative solutions to the problems we face. Yet most policy analysts are still addressing national security problems with a remarkably narrow range of responses.

The dilemma here is that none of the responses Mr. Shane considers (firing missiles, dropping bombs, or sending drones) seem to be working. None have brought an end to the terrorist networks they aim to dismantle. Which raises the question: What if instead of analyzing which is the best of these bad options, Mr. Shane took the lid off the subject and asked: "What is our best option?"

What is our "best option"?

This frame leads to a wider range of responses to the problem. We might now consider the option of walking away from the region entirely. Or we might consider the option of using money currently spent on military operations to build schools in those countries instead—and hospitals and infrastructure. We might consider any number of things.

But here’s where an interesting thing happens in the nervous system. When human beings have gotten in the habit of using a particular strategy to solve problems, they often stick with that strategy even when it’s not working. Then—as soon as we begin considering untested alternatives to a familiar but ineffective course of action—the objections begin: “What naive idealism. If we don’t take out the terrorists before they pull off their attacks, they’ll kill hundreds or thousands of our people. Maybe millions if they get a nuke.”

What’s happening here is that the idea of a novel course of action is triggering part of the brain called the amygdala, which is in charge of hitting us with a jolt of fear whenever it perceives something threatening (a broadcast about terrorist plots, a new idea we come up with, even an angry spouse). Our fear then causes us to imagine worst-case scenarios. Finally, instead of changing our approach, we go back to the old way of doing things. We fall back on what’s familiar.

Lessons from therapy

I see clients repeat different versions of this pattern every day. I remember meeting one man whose wife was unhappy with how often he was away; she frequently threatened to leave. He didn’t want this, but each time she raised the specter of walking out, his response was the same. He would say something along the lines of: “Go ahead! See if I care!”

Her threat to leave confirmed his worst fear: that he’d failed her, and she would abandon him. His feigned indifference confirmed her worst fear: that she was a terrible wife, and he didn’t care about her.

When either began to imagine different ways of addressing the problem, he or she would—predictably and understandably—pull back in fear.

“It’d be crazy to ask her why she’s so unhappy. Her list of the ways I’ve let her down would never end. She’d tear me to pieces.”

“I couldn’t ask him to spend more time with me. He’d laugh and go on another trip. I couldn’t bear it.”

And so the two had been locked in the same set of narrow responses to their problem for over a year—responses which assured that the problem would intensify. When we fear the worst, we start preparing for it—which increases the possibility of it happening.

The brain’s fear circuits kept us alive early in our evolution as a species, when it was often helpful to respond to threats swiftly and violently. These days, such responses are rarely effective—in fact they’re usually counterproductive. Though as Mr. Shane’s editorial demonstrates, they frequently prevail.

Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence. www.archieroberts.net


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