What if a state works like human brains?

– the emotion and the decision-making of Israel

Since the first Arab-Israeli War had ended in 1949, even thought many agreements were made between Israel and their Arab neighbor, peace wasn’t fallen upon the Middle East area. The conflicts within the area are the results of the complicated relationships ranging from religion, history, oil interest, and the geopolitics during and after the Cold War. The result was endless military confrontation between Arab states, Israel, and Palestinians. Israel is one of the key reasons why Middle East area was put on the map of world politics. For more than half century, Israel has grown from a state that didn’t even have land to the most powerful country in the area.

Every war shows series of intensive decision-making processes. From analyzing the motive of the opposite side to acting or reacting with the diplomatic or military actions, every step is about analysis and prediction. There is no formula when it comes to wars. In Richard Foster’s article “The danger of irrational fear in Middle East,” he argues, “The more powerful a country becomes, the more powerless it feels.” According to his argument, despite the fact that Israel is the most powerful military state in Middle East area, its fear for Iran’s nuclear weapon would lead to an irrational and dangerous action.

Explaining Israel’s military action with fear is not a news. In the 1967 June War (Six-day War), the preemptive strike was taken by Israel to response to the mutual defense pact between Syria and Egypt, and to the Palestinian guerrillas operating from Jordan. According to Israel, surrounded by hostel neighbors left it no choice but to take action.  If there is any truth in it, then it’s not hard to see that the fear of Israelis really is dangerous to the peace in Middle East area.

But does fear really lead to irrational behavior or even the dangerous one?

The neuroscientists has been researching on how the fear effects human brains in the decision-making process, and those research shows that it’s impossible for human brain to make a decision with only rational analysis. Without the help of emotional brain, none of the decision can be made[1]. Pfister and Bohmm’s research also provide us a new way to understand rationality: “the appropriate emotion might be called rational.” [2] Pfister and Bohmm developed a 4-Emotional-Functions framework in decision-making. Fear is categorized under “speed function”, which means fear will induce a speedy decision.[3] A speedy decision is not equal to an irrational decision. Therefore, for an individual, experiencing fear during the decision-making process doesn’t indicate an irrational outcome. If this is how human brain works, and since all the decision made by a national state are actually made by a group of people, the same rule might apply to a state’s decision-making process.

Since all the decisions are not simply about maximum the good or minimize the bad but with the help of emotions, the discussion on whether Israel’s fear would lead to an irrational and dangerous action should be redefined: “whether is the action Israel takes in response to its fear appropriate or inappropriate?”

If we review the 1967 June War with from this perspective, what Israel faced at that time wasn’t just the deteriorating relationships with its neighbors, it also faced an ambitious leader of its biggest threat: Nasser. After the Suez Cannel Crisis put Nasser as an Arab hero, he started to spread his idea of Pan-Arabism. The threat Israel felt come from two ways: (1) it was surrounded by Arab states; (2) the relationship between Nasser and USA was deteriorating, and USA supported Israel. Either could make Israel the only target for Egypt’s military action: on the one hand, since Nasser was promoting Pan-Arabism, there was no way for Egypt to attack other Arab states at that moment; on the other hand, there was no way for Egypt to challenge USA’s power by attacking USA directly, the best way to send a signal to USA would be hurting its ally. It was clear that Israel had all the right to worry about its safety when Egypt make the mutual defense pact with Syria, whom Israel had most minor border conflicts with since 1948. To Israel, all those moves meant for one thing: Egypt was preparing itself to have a war with Israel.

Israel made its decision and lunched a preemptive strike. Apparently, this decision was made and made with speed with the help of fear. The preemptive strike was shocking to the rest of the world because after the two disastrous world wars, people tended to believe that whoever started the war must have an ethical reason: greed or power. Especially when Jewish people were the victim of Nazi’s ambition. To Israel, the situation back then was not just feeling its safety was threatened; it was about its survival. Taking actions before the enemy was well prepared was an appropriate emotional decision, thus, based on Pfister and Bohmm’s definition, it was a rational decision.

Fear is just one of the emotions that affects the decision-making process. We’ve learn to analyze the international relations with rational choice approach, constructivism approach, and all kinds of theories, but if we sees a state as a person, and use what we know about how human brain make decision to understand a state’s behavior, it might give us a whole new perspective on what is rational and what is not. Since human are emotional, and a state is a kind of the human community, it has feelings like fear, love, anger, joy, guilt…etc.. With the help of the improving technology used in understanding human brain and human behavior, the result might also benefit the social science fields.


Jonah Lehrer. How We Decide. Mariner Books, New York. 2010

Pfister and Bohmm. The multiplicity of emotions: A framework of emotional functions in decision-making. Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 3, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 5–17.

Richard Foster. The danger of irrational fear in Middle East. 2012 www.jsonline.com

[1] Jonah Lehrer, p.15 “ At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational. A person without any emotions should therefore make better decisions. His cognition should be uncorrupted. The charioteer should have complete control…  To Damasio, Elliot’s pathology suggested that emotions are a crucial part of the decision-making process. When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind.

[2] Pfister and Bohmm, p.8  “We agree with that view and believe that the issue of rationality should be based on the validity of emotional evaluations rather than on formal coherence. If our emotional appraisals are appropriate, that is, if we fear what objectively is to be feared, and if we hopefully anticipate what will actually make us happy, then these emotions might be called rational.

[3] Ibid. p.10


One thought on “What if a state works like human brains?

  1. Interesting. We definitely have to look at the state as an entity composed of irrational humans. However, I think it’s too much to think of the state itself as something with human emotions.

    “Since human are emotional, and a state is a kind of the human community, it has feelings like fear, love, anger, joy, guilt…etc.. ” That’s not logical conclusion!

    Q -> P. R is made up of many Q. R does not equal P.

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