More than Imagination: Collective Processes and Individual Opportunities

Reduced to its essence, Robert Wright’s ambitious and instructive essay makes three empirical claims and then prescribes a class of policies.

First, it observes correctly that as individuals we carry in our heads models that help us interpret such phenomena as interactions among societies, the production of wealth, and social conflict. Second, the essay proposes, again correctly, that mental models influence our actions and reactions, including our dealings with individuals who differ from ourselves in appearance, cultural background, faith, or religiosity. Thus, a person convinced that human interactions produce zero-sum outcomes will view outsiders seeking enrichment as enemies who must be blocked, resisted, diminished, perhaps even killed. Teach the same person that interactions with outsiders can be mutually beneficial, and he will get interested in trade, joint investment, and educational exchanges. The essay’s third empirical claim is that ongoing conflicts between Muslims and Westerners stem largely from zero-sum mentalities that blind individuals on both sides to the potential gains from cooperation.

These three claims lead to the policy prescription that an effective way to reduce tensions among Muslims and the West is to reconstruct the dominant mental models on the two sides. If American TV screens flash fewer images of hate-spouting, straggly-bearded, and flag-burning Pakistanis, Americans will develop a more positive image of Muslims; and this change in perception will then predispose Americans to cooperate with Muslims and address joint problems in a spirit of good will. Likewise, if Arab textbooks stop blaming all ills of the Arab world on evil colonizers who prospered by plundering superior civilizations, Arabs will more readily recognize the immense benefits that they have already reaped from their interactions with the West. Their minds opened up to the possibility of mutually profitable cooperation, they will shed their hostility and start pursuing cooperative ventures with non-Muslims.

Wright’s three claims contain many grains of truth. Moreover, there is no doubt that changing Muslim and Western perceptions concerning their interactions with one another would diminish interreligious tensions, facilitate solutions to various global crises, and make it easier to generate effective responses to chronic problems of the Muslim world. Yet, achieving these desirable outcomes requires much more than campaigns to alter perceptions. Two of Wright’s claims are only partly true, and the missing factors have critical policy implications.

People’s actions and reactions depend on more than their mental models. They depend also, and in politically charged contexts primarily, on the prevailing social pressures. Consider the resident of an impoverished, Taliban-controlled area of Pakistan. When he opts to participate in an anti-American demonstration, he need not be acting on the belief that global trade produces zero-sum effects. His principal motivation may well be that by endorsing Islamism publicly and openly aiding a Taliban-supported cause he gains social status, economic advantages, and even physical security. Suppose we pluck that person out of the Pakistani-Afghan border area, place him in a peaceful neighborhood of Lahore, and give him a lucrative job. Living among Muslims at ease with modernity and facing a different set of social pressures, he will no longer feel compelled to demonstrate against foreigners. Obviously, what goes for one demonstrator goes for the rest. Each joins the demonstration, in part, because others in his neighborhood are demonstrating. Hence, what explains the anti-American demonstration in question is a collective process, not simply a faulty mental model that shapes myriads of individual actions independently.

The essay’s other problematic claim is that participants in global conflicts tend to think in zero-sum terms. In fact, such players are not necessarily overlooking opportunities that become obvious with a proper education. On the contrary, many troublemakers have a highly realistic understanding of their actual opportunities in life. Consider the extreme example of the suicide bomber. He (the typical profile is a poorly educated young man) knows that his own ability to benefit from global trade is very low. He also knows that if he succeeds in sowing fear in adversaries through death and destruction, he will be treated as a martyr, and his wife, children, and parents will gain social status. By participating in the suicide mission, he will thus give his kin material opportunities that otherwise would be out of their reach. Obviously hatred toward the adversary and a zero-sum mentality could be contributing motivations. The suicide bomber who believes that an adversary’s loss brings his own society an equivalent gain will have an additional reason to act. But such zero-sum reasoning is not a necessary condition for becoming a religious terrorist.

My two key points are (1) that Muslim hostility toward the West, such as it exists, is a collective process and (2) that the individuals who join anti-Western movements are motivated substantially by their opportunities. It follows that teaching radical Muslims to view their interactions with non-Muslims as positive-sum processes will not necessarily turn them into friendly, peaceful, and democratic-minded negotiators. For one thing, wealth-generating positive-sum processes are of no use to them if they themselves have no hope of sharing in the benefits. Although Pakistan as a whole benefits handsomely from producing footballs for Nike and Adidas, its youth in Swat and Waziristan remain mired in poverty. For another, Muslims trapped in radicalized areas will not consider themselves free to cooperate with even secular Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. Knowing that abandoning the radical cause is to risk severe retaliation, they may refrain from publicizing their changes of heart and mind in the interest of self-preservation.

Neither Pakistanis nor Muslims in general are suffering from a unique constellation of problems. Prior to 1989, Europeans living under communist rule found it prudent to refrain from criticizing their horribly inefficient regimes and from demanding the right to trade openly with other nations, to read books of their choice, and to travel abroad freely. Growing numbers understood that the French and the West Germans lived far better than them; and also that French and West German prosperity had something to do with liberties denied to peoples living under communism. Still, the vast majority remained quiet for years on end, because of perceived pressures to conform publicly to communist demands. If six communist regimes collapsed suddenly in 1989, followed by the USSR two years later, the reason is that interconnected political developments changed the perceived personal risks of dissent sufficiently to trigger anti-regime cascades. The consequent revolutions then ended the Cold War. The relevant point here is that the tensions between former communists and the non-communist world eased through collective processes that made public opposition to communism feed on itself. Many of the Muslims who now exhibit hostility to democratic and developed countries are in a bind analogous to that of the Russians and East Germans of the mid-1980s. As individuals they generally admire many aspects of the West, and if it were prudent, they would happily pursue available opportunities to cooperate with Westerners for mutual gain.

A campaign to increase Muslim awareness of potential gains from international trade, foreign investment, and joint research will have minimal observable effects, then, unless coupled with programs that enable the learners to profit from their new information. What sorts of programs would put in place the prerequisites for success? Campaigns that weaken hostile networks and make their members freer to choose for themselves are essential. So are projects that enhance the economic opportunities of radicalized adversaries, including ones that provide better skills and employment opportunities. Establishing the rule of law is another prerequisite, as it encourages individuals to think for themselves and to act on their own judgments.

Readers familiar with the trajectory of the American occupation of Iraq will notice that these suggestions conform to the logic behind the successful military surge of 2007. Sunni Iraqis are now noticeably friendlier toward American forces, and also noticeably less tolerant of militants. This is because the surge and associated policies have enhanced Iraqi security, weakened Sunni Islamist groups, and given the individual Sunni Iraqi a stake in domestic peace.

There is no question that we all need to be reminded, again and again as we sail through life, about the distinction between zero-sum and positive-sum interactions. It helps also to be alerted to the commonness of situations presenting opportunities for mutual gain. In teaching economics and political science it never ceases to amaze me how it comes as a revelation to many students that when a politically powerless pauper does business with an influential millionaire, both sides may benefit. For that reason alone, I consider Wright’s essay instructive and useful. Yet solving the world’s major conflicts requires an analysis grounded a richer sense of human behavior.

Timur Kuran is professor of economics and political science and the Gorter Family Chair in Islamic Studies at Duke University

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • This month’s Cato Unbound features an essay drawn from The Evolution of God, the ambitious new book by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero and The Moral Animal. In this essay, Wright explores the relationship between “moral imagination” and the possibility of religious tolerance and social cooperation. Wright argues that moral imagination is part of our evolved mental machinery. When we see others as potentially cooperative, moral imagination is awakened to better grasp the needs and interests of partners and allies. But when we see ourselves caught in a zero-sum game with others, moral imagination, and thus sympathy and the spirit of toleration, shrinks as we prepare for a fight. Wright argues that the widespread perception that “the West” and “the Muslim world” are playing a zero-sum game is an illusion created by a misfire of moral imagination. The media’s relentless focus on the truculent acts of a small minority of Muslim extremists encourages the sense that the larger, more moderate Muslim world is much more hostile than it really is. But this sense narrows moral imagination, making it harder still to grap the possibility of cooperation and the point of toleration.

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Robert Wright’s lead essay, philosopher Richard Joyce, author of The Evolution of Morality, emphasizes the distinction between potentially and actually engaging in mutually beneficial cooperation. That “the West” could be in a non-zero-sum game with the “Muslim world” doesn’t imply it is actually in one. Moreover, Joyce argues, “non-zero-sum” and “good” do not mean the same thing from the perspective of an individual’s or group’s interest. If there is gain to be had from conflict, reason may recommend it. Tolerance and understanding are wonderful, Joyce agrees. But he finds something “unsettling” and “morally troubling” in what he takes to be Wright’s “[attempt] to justify these attitudes purely by an appeal to self-interest.” There are psychological limits to what appeals to self-interest can accomplish, and the congruence of self-interest and cooperation is far from certain in many cases. Additionally, Joyce suspects that Wright may be guilty of a weakly supported conjecture when he posits an evolved adaptation for distinguishing between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games.

  • Timur Kuran, Professor of Economics and Political Science and Gorter Family Chair in Islamic Studies at Duke University, finds insight in Wright’s account, but argues that it is insufficient to really explain the sense of conflict between many Muslims and the West. Kuran argues that displays of hostility in conformance with local expectations and social pressures can pay off handsomely. An expansive sense of possible of positive-sum relations with distant others does nothing to change the incentives that arise from collective processes at the local level. Not even suicide bombers require a false picture of zero-sum conflict. They may martyr themselves simply to bring status to their families. Wright’s neglect of the such alternative causes of cultural conflict, Kuran argues, leads him to offer advice of limited value.

  • Jonathan Sheehan, associate professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, touches base with Blaise Pascal and reminds us that explicit game theory was first deployed as a religious argument aimed at conversion. In secular terms, a convert is a gain for one sect but a loss for another. But in religious terms, as Augustine noted, even the harsh coercion of heretics can be viewed as non-zero-sum–the heretic, whether he thinks so or not, has Heaven to gain. So, Sheehan argues, “the real stakes of the game do not matter. Or, more precisely, the nature of the game is the real stake.” To characterize the game as in fact non-zero-sum, as Wright does, is to miss the real moral and political issue about how the stakes of the game will be determined in the face of deep disagreement about what the game is. “Modern conflicts between ‘the West’ and ‘the Muslims,’” Sheehan concludes, “have less to do with misfiring mental machinery, and more to do with the absence of any recognized authority for determining the kinds of games we are playing, and which interests should count in them.”