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A nuclear war could destroy the world, but what if it’s all in our heads?

Nuclear war has returned to the realm of table talk, weighing on the public more than ever.

It's not just “Oppenheimer's” big box office hit: Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, the country's leaders have been issuing nuclear threats. Russia has also suspended its participation in a nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. North Korea fired demonstration rockets. The US, modernizing its nuclear weapons, has launched a surveillance balloon from China, which is building its nuclear arsenal.

“I believe the threat of using nuclear weapons is at an all-time high in the nuclear age,” said Joan Rohlfing, president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an influential nonprofit group in Washington, DC

In this environment, there is a significant risk that a conventional crisis will turn into a nuclear one. It only takes one world leader to decide launch a nuclear attack. And this decision-making process needs to be better understood.

Historically, research on nuclear decision-making grew out of economic theory, in which analysts often irrationally assumed that a “rational actor” made decisions.

“We all know that people make mistakes,” said Ms. Rohlfing. “We don't always have good judgement. We behave differently when we are stressed. And there are so many examples of human error throughout history. Why do we think nuclear power will be any different?”

However, increasing scientific understanding of the human brain has not necessarily led to adjustments in nuclear launch protocols.

Now there is an impetus to change that. For example, the organization led by Ms. Rohlfing is working on a project to apply insights from cognitive science and neuroscience to nuclear strategies and protocols – to keep leaders from falling into nuclear Armageddon.

However, finding truly innovative, science-based ideas to prevent an accidental or unnecessary nuclear attack is easier said than done. Likewise, the task is to present the work with appropriate nuance.

Experts must also convince policymakers to apply research-based knowledge to real nuclear practice.

“The boundaries of this discourse are extraordinarily well preserved,” said Anne I Harrington, a nuclear scientist at Cardiff University in Wales, referring to internal resistance she says government insiders have faced in challenging the nuclear status quo put. “So if you think you're going to bring about change from the outside alone – I don't think that's going to happen.”

The world's nuclear powers have different protocols for making the grave decision to use nuclear weapons. In the United States, unless the balance of power between branches of government is unlikely to change, the decision rests with one person.

“The use of the most devastating weapons in the US military arsenal can only be ordered by the President,” said Reja Younis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, who also has a PhD. International Relations candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In a nuclear weapons crisis, the president is likely to meet with the defense secretary, military leaders and other aides, Ms. Younis said. Together they would evaluate the intelligence and discuss strategy, and the advisors would present possible courses of action to the President.

“It could range from ‘let's do nothing and see what happens' to ‘let's do a full-scale nuclear attack,'” said Alex Wellerstein, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and leader of a research project titled ” The President and the Bomb.”

In the end, however, only the president decides – and he can do without advice from advisers. A president could just push the proverbial button.

“These are the President's weapons,” said Ms. Rohlfing.

Before his 2016 election victory, pundits and political opponents began to voice concerns about giving Donald J. Trump the power to order a nuclear attack. This debate continued in Congress through his tenure. When he left office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi openly called on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to limit his ability to launch nuclear weapons.

In this environment, Deborah G. Rosenblum, executive vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, invited Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist and current professor at Columbia Business School, to present a 2018 presentation to the organization It”Your brain in terms of disaster risks.” (Today, in the Biden administration, Ms. Rosenblum is Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs — an office that briefs the President on nuclear issues.)

In a black t-shirt and jeans, Dr. Cerf a room full of experts and researchers on what brain research had to say on existentially troubling issues like nuclear war. The visit followed a collaboration between Dr. Cerf and a non-profit organization called PopTech, whose conference Dr. Cerf moderated.

With a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the groups are working to submit science-based proposals to the government for improving nuclear launch protocols. Changing these policies is not impossible, but requires a concrete political scenario.

“You would need some kind of consensus that comes not only from outside groups but also from political and military insiders,” said Dr. Harrington. She added, “Honestly, you probably need the right president, too.”

The project includes a more publicly accessible arm: Dr. Cerf has interviewed influential security professionals such as Leon E. Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and director of the CIA, and Michael S. Rogers, former director of the National Security Agency. Excerpts from these interviews are summarized in a documentary series: “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

With this project, Dr. Cerf and his colleagues may have the opportunity to share their insights and suggestions with prominent past and present government officials. And he's optimistic about the difference these findings could make.

“I always think things will get better,” he said. “I always think that with a nice smile you can get the toughest opposition to listen to you.”

dr Cerf has the fast rhythm of one TED Talk Speaker. He was born in France and grew up in Israel. He attended physics college, earned a master's degree in philosophy, joined a lab at Caltech that studied consciousness, and then moved on to a Ph.D. there in neuroscience.

On the side, he did military service in Israel, worked as a white hat hacker, consulted for films and television and won one Moth Grand Slam storytelling contest.

dr Cerf said his main criticism of the system for initiating nuclear war is that despite advances in our understanding of the fickle brain, the status quo assumes largely rational actors. In reality, he says, the fate of millions depends on individual psychology.

one of dr Cerf's proposals are to scan presidents' brains and gain an understanding of the neural intricacies of presidential decision-making. Perhaps one supreme commander works better in the morning, another in the evening; One is better hungry, the other better full.

Other ideas for improving the protocols that Dr. Cerf has spoken publicly in general can be traced back to existing research on decision-making or nuclear issues.

dr Cerf says an important factor is speaking order during the big meeting. For example, if the president begins with an opinion, others—necessarily further down the chain of command—are less likely to disagree with it.

The idea that the hierarchical order of speaking affects the outcome of a discussion is not new. “This is a classic experiment from the 1950s,” said David J. Weiss, professor emeritus at California State University in Los Angeles, referring to studies by psychologist Solomon Asch.

dr Cerf has also suggested reducing the time pressure of a nuclear decision. The notion that the response to a nuclear attack would be rigorous arose before the United States developed a more robust nuclear arsenal capable of withstanding a first strike.

“We know that compressed time is bad for most decisions and most people,” said Dr. Cerf – an idea that dates back at least to the 1980s. Ideally, he says, if the United States received information suggesting a launch, the president could assess it and make an immediate decision outside of the immediate heat of the action.

The group's main recommendation, however, echoes suggestions from other proponents: require another person (or people) to say yes to a nuclear strike. dr Wellerstein, who did not contribute to the group's research, says such a person needs the explicit power to say no.

“We believe that the system that we have, which relies on a single decision-maker who may have the skills to make that decision, is a fragile and very risky system,” Ms. Rohlfing said.

while dr Cerf and his colleagues are working on more work, the research he produced on the project does not directly address nuclear weapons. In a piece of paperparticipants made riskier decisions when pretending to be traders wanting to trade in unknown fruit of unknown value.

dr Cerf says research is relevant for high-risk, low-probability scenarios — like the start of nuclear war — that often have numerous sources of uncertainty. A nuclear decision maker may be unsure whether a missile is really airborne, what the yield of a nuclear bomb is, why the missile was launched, or whether more missiles will follow.

Another In Dr. Cerf's studies are about climate change. It found that when asked to invest money in climate outcomes, people would bet on global warming happening and were more concerned about its impact, more likely to support action, and more knowledgeable about relevant issues informed – even if they started out as skeptics. “You're basically changing your own brain without anyone telling you,” said Dr. Cerf.

He believes the results could be applied to nuclear scenarios, as betting could be used to raise awareness of nuclear risk and support policy change. The results could also be used to assess the thinking and predictions of presidential aides.

Some decision scientists disagree with such extrapolations.

“From there giving advice about the fate of the world — I don't think so,” said Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist who studies decision-making at Carnegie Mellon University.

Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and president of the nonprofit Decision Research, said that no psychological study can stop at the experiment.

“You have to switch back and forth between the laboratory studies, which are very restricted and limited, and looking out the window,” he said.

Experts say it's also important to avoid selling too good a story about behavioral science to policymakers and elected officials.

“It's really easy to sell them stuff if you're brave enough,” said Dr. Fischhoff.

Any brain, even that of a commander-in-chief, struggles with the full empathy required to understand what launching a nuclear weapon means. “We can't really understand what it means to kill 30 million people,” said Dr. Cerf.

There's a longstanding psychological term for this: psychic numbness, coined by Robert Jay Lifton. Just because humans are intelligent enough to wield destructive weapons, “doesn't mean we're intelligent enough to use them after they're created,” said Dr. Slovic, whose research has expanded the concept of psychic stunning.

To make matters worse, it's difficult to pay attention to all the important information. Add to this the tendency to make a decision based on one or a few less important variables. “When faced with decisions that conflict between safety and saving distant alien lives that we are deaf to because they're just numbers, we choose safety,” said Dr. Slovic.

dr Slovic has also examined factors that make people, including presidents, more likely to support nuclear launch. In an experimentFor example, he found that the more punitive domestic policies a person supported—such as the death penalty—the greater the likelihood that a person would support the use of the bomb.

Other researchers, like Janice Stonea political scientist at the University of Toronto, has studied scenarios in which military officers are reluctant to pass information up the chain of command that could trigger a nuclear missile launch.

This actually happened in 1983, when Colonel Stanislav Petrov's command center near Moscow received data indicating that the United States had launched ICBMs. Colonel Petrov believed it might be a false alarm and decided not to relay the warning to his superiors. He was right. Because the colonel feared nuclear war, waged under false pretenses, more than fear of retaliation, World War III did not break out.

In the past, according to Dr. Wellerstein, nuclear launch plans would have adapted to changing circumstances, philosophies and technologies. And presidents have changed protocols because of fears raised in their historic moments: that the military itself would launch a nuclear bomb, that the country would experience a nuclear Pearl Harbor, or that an accident would occur.

Perhaps today's fear is that individual psychology will determine a world-changing decision. With that in mind, understanding how brains might function in a nuclear crisis—and how they might function better—is worth working on.

What comes after the science – how to change politics – is complicated, but not impossible. While nuclear protocols appear to be permanent, they are written in word processors, not set in stone.

“The current system that we have hasn't completely fallen out of the blue,” said Dr. Wellerstein.

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