Defense secretary Leon E. Panetta’s recent announcement that the military will officially lift its ban on women in combat roles was heralded by many as a leap forward for equality in an important American institution, and bemoaned by others as a case of sacrificing efficiency for political propriety. Given that men have dominated every aspect of the U.S. military since its inception, the move is a welcome recognition of women’s critical role in the modern armed forces. Action on this issue, however, is long overdue.
Lifting the ban on women in combat is one of many apparently progressive, but ultimately common sense moves that took a long time to adopt. As with other significant institutional changes, rational decision-making on this issue is precluded by what psychologists call loss aversion. When weighing future possibilities, we humans tend to have a much greater fear of suffering negative consequences than of missing out on positive consequences of equal magnitude.
For example, few people would take a bet in which they had a 90 percent chance to win $10 and a 10 percent chance to lose $90, even though the expected value of the bet is neutral. This choice seems perfectly reasonable, as $1 gained is worth slightly less than $1 lost, due to diminishing returns. Furthermore, it may be desirable for an organization like the military to be risk-averse in uncertain situations. However, the striking effects of loss aversion cannot be explained simply by diminishing returns and rational avoidance of risk.
In Daniel Kahneman’s recent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he points to several studies that have shown humans tend to weigh negative outcomes approximately twice as heavily as positive ones. In other words, to convince the average human to accept a bet in which there was a 50 percent chance of winning and a 50 percent chance of losing, the potential winnings would need to be twice as great as the potential losses. You would not accept a 10 percent chance to lose $90 until the alternate possibility was to gain $20.
Setting aside any argument about gender equality (I will return to this momentarily), the decision over whether to lift the ban is essentially a complicated version of the gamble presented above. Any significant change in institutional policy will bring with it unforeseeable consequences. Women may not be as big and strong as men, but they are also less impulsive and may make better decisions in combat. We will not realize all the results of putting men and women side by side on the battlefield until we have actually done so; for now, the best we can do is predict what will happen. This type of situation inevitably leads to irrational thinking, and the military’s decision-making process was undoubtedly affected by loss aversion.
We can forgive loss aversion in many contexts because it is an inherent part of human decision-making and usually harms only those who make irrational choices. Loss aversion may cause a small business owner to forego investment in a new technology that would most likely benefit the business and increase profits until the technology has been more widely adopted. In this case only the business owner, and perhaps a few employees, are hurt by the mistake. Few would argue that all citizens have a moral imperative to make rational profit-maximizing decisions because of the incremental benefits (in taxes paid) to all other citizens.
Here, however, a moral element comes in. The military’s decision regarding the ban is not only relevant to those making the choice; it affects an entire class of people who have historically been discriminated against in the organization. There may be no moral obligation to reform irrational decision-making when only private interests are at stake, but in this case, women have received unfair treatment.
As the military warmed to the idea of women in combat, loss aversion caused it to needlessly drag its feet on the issue until the perceived benefits so heavily outweighed the potential costs that the ban was lifted. We did not need to wait this long. In cases such as this one, we have an obligation to use rational judgment so that loss aversion does not cause unnecessarily prolonged discrimination.
Now that the ban has been lifted, it seems that we have already leapt over whatever rational or irrational hurdles stood in the way of putting women in combat, but the transition will almost certainly not pass without a snag. There will be cases in which women make bad decisions on the battlefield, as men already do, and there may be cases in which a woman fails to succeed at a task that, in hindsight, a man might have been better equipped to perform. Unfortunately, these bumps in the road will probably receive more coverage than cases in which excellent choices made by female troops lead to important military successes.
We owe all the women who want to serve this country a fair evaluation, based not on our instinctive reactions but on a carefully considered cost-benefit analysis. In the next few years, we will have the opportunity not just to predict, but to observe the real results of putting women in the same combat roles as men. My intuition is that a few small but well-publicized problems will be far less important than the significant benefits that will come from adding to the military’s talent pool. I can only hope that our natural instinct to highlight the negative does not overshadow the positive effects that we see from this change.
Nick M. Phillips ‘16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Greenough Hall.