Theory of Mind and the North Korean Threat

Part of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq was the assumption that Saddam Hussein must have had something to hide. The argument that the administration used was that weapons of mass destruction must have existed, because no one would risk war and devastation unless they were hiding something. Now we are told by the current president that Kim Jong-un is an imminent nuclear threat to the U.S. and that the use of “considerable military force” is being considered, not excluding a preemptive strike. His development of nuclear weapons and missile systems that could reach our shores is seen as evidence that he is poised to attack us. The development of an ICBM capability has been called an intolerable milestone that our president says he will not allow. Thus, the administration is now forced to consider a military option as a logical response given that this fateful milestone already has happened and, the administration maintains that it is reasonable to conclude from Kim Jong-un’s threatening behavior that he must be stopped as soon as possible. 

Scientists who study a fascinating aspect of brain function and human psychology called “theory of mind” might see the matter differently. “Theory of mind” refers to the ability to project oneself into the mind’s eye of another person, to see the world from another’s individual perspective, and to predict their behavior based on their mental state, which may be different from ours. It is a capacity at the root of empathy and it is used extensively in criminal investigations. It allows us to understand that people can behave differently than us because they have beliefs and attitudes very different from ours and is thought to be a unique human trait based on highly evolved and complex brain functions. Brain researchers have become increasingly interested in understanding “theory of mind” and in accounting for instances where it seems to be deficient. For example, a popular theory of childhood autism is that affected children have a major deficit in theory of mind, in appreciating that other individuals may have a different mental state from their own. Theory of mind is tested in the laboratory by presenting a simple story; for example, a woman shows a child an empty box of peanuts and then places a pencil in the box. Another child is brought into the room and the question is asked of the first child what the new child will think is in the peanut box. Theory of mind allows the first child to appreciate that the new child will not know what the first child knows about the actual contents of the box, and will thus say, “peanuts.” An autistic child, not appreciating the different mental state of the new child, will respond to this question from his or her own mind set, responding that the new child will say, “pencil.” 

If Saddam Hussein were the second child, would he have said, “pencil,” as our mind set would prescribe? Or would his own mental perspective have dictated a different response based on a different mindset, one that perpetuated the perception that Iraq might have WMDs in order to sustain his image of strength and avoid being exposed as powerless, defeated, and defanged. This is in fact the response he made. What about Kim Jong-un? Does development of nuclear weapons and missiles reflect apocalyptic intentions as interpretation of his behavior based on the administration’s mindset would suggest? Do we have any evidence that he is suicidal? Do we think he does not know that any attack on us or our allies would lead to total destruction of his society, of all the new buildings and monuments he has recently erected as testimony to his power and divinity? Or is his mental state defined by a need to project omnipotence, to obscure the many failures of his society, to stick his chest out and roar as an insurance policy for his own survival? If he were to say “pencil,” that is behave based on how the administration’s mindset interprets his actions, there would be nothing left of him. Yet the escalating saber rattling reflects as in the case of Saddam Hussein an autistic-like failure of theory of mind and the likely false assumption that he will say “pencil.” Imagine if our administration might consider “peanuts.”   Wouldn’t that allow a new way of thinking to address this complex problem? 

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