The United States is just barely emerging from what has arguably been the longest period of war in its history. War-weary Americans say in polls that they support the speedy withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a prospect that seems ever more likely after a series of tragedies there in recent weeks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of more than 6,300 American soldiers and run up a cost of more than $3 trillion. For a beleaguered public battered by three years of depressing economic news, one might think another war would be entirely out of the question.
And yet, two polls published on Tuesday show that, even as they remain skeptical of military adventurism abroad and disgruntled over high gas prices, most Americans support the idea of a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent that country from obtaining nuclear weapons. A CBS News/New York Times poll found that 51 percent of Americans support military action against Iran. A similar poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos put the number even higher, at 56 percent.
Such high levels of support might seem inexplicable, especially to those, like President Obama, who have been counseling patience amid the drumbeat of war. The costs of a war with Iran would likely be massive and immediate: rising gas prices, heightened regional instability and a long, bloody conflict with Israel at its center. A war with Iran would also likely wipe out the gains of the last few years in the fight against terrorism, providing an immediate recruiting tool for groups like Al Qaeda. And it would add a match to the tinderbox that is the already volatile Middle East.
So, what explains the fervor for war? Findings in a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggest that our enthusiasm for a confrontation with Iran might have something to do with how we talk about Iran. Reports from Iraq and Afghanistan have been regular features on our TVs and in our newspapers for roughly a decade now. Iran, however, remains a relatively fuzzy notion to us. Americans of a certain age will have in their minds the images from the 1979 hostage crisis, but that’s it. Who knows or cares much about Iran?
That, according to the paper, makes it easy for us to homogenize Iran as one coherent group. Our minds think of “Iran” not as a country where a small subset of elites force decisions upon a relatively helpless public, but as a person, essentially — a single entity with its own intentions, desires and plans. As David Berreby of Big Think points out, we see this in the way our media discusses the Iran situation. Sentences like “Iran is trying to obtain nuclear weapons” are commonplace (in fact, they often appear in the very polls used to gauge public opinion). We don’t think of individual “Iranians,” like the government scientist who was assassinated one day on the street. Our minds are wired to think of “Iran” as one single entity — and an evil one at that.
And when we do that, according to the researchers, we judge the group’s actions much more harshly than we would the actions of a disparate collection of individuals. In the experiment, the researchers told test subjects about a fictitious group of people called the “Greels.” Some of the participants learned that the Greels all looked the same and did their Greel things together, like a sort of hive. Others learned that the Greels were all different, came in different shapes and sizes, and behaved as individuals. When researchers asked participants to judge various moral behaviors of the Greels, participants who learned that the Greels were one big homogenous group judged their actions much more harshly than those who saw them as individuals.
The finding is consistent with what researchers have already known for years about how human beings express empathy and compassion. We’re much more likely to be emotionally affected by an individual story of hardship than we are by generalized statistics about large groups of people. This trend might be what happens over the course of a war like the one in Iraq. At the outset, we saw “Iraq” as a single entity, similarly bent on “obtaining weapons of mass destruction,” and we judged that nation’s actions very harshly. Only when stories of individual suffering began pouring in on our TVs and in our newspapers did we begin to see Iraqis as individuals, and change our minds.
Berreby, for his part, suggests a solution of sorts for this kind of dangerous generalized thinking: Replace “Iran” with the names of individuals, like Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker. “The next time someone explains why the West might need to attack, try substituting ‘Farhadi and his family’ for ‘Iran’ and see how that feels,” Berreby wrote. Perhaps the same is true for our polls about a possible war with Iran, too.