Cognitive theory encompasses mental activities such as the observation of different stimuli in an environment; the memorization and recall of information; pattern recognition and problem representation; and complex activities like social judgments, analytic reasoning, and learning. Cognitive psychology also highlights the constraints that prevent individuals from acting as utility-maximizing, fully rational decision-makers. These constraints lead people to rely on a regularly occurring set of cognitive mechanisms to simplify the decision-making process.
Scholars of foreign policy have drawn from several prominent areas of cognitive psychology to inform their research. One such area looks at the beliefs and belief systems that are the building blocks for most judgments. Researchers have also examined how actors use cognitive biases and heuristics to cope with uncertainty, which is abundant in foreign policy settings. An important set of cognitive mechanisms examined in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) relates to judgments about policy risks and costs. Factors that facilitate and inhibit learning are crucial for understanding the conditions under which such judgments may improve over time. No cognitive process operates in a vacuum; instead these processes are moderated by an individual’s group context and emotions.
There are several challenges in applying cognitive theory to FPA. Such theories are biased toward populations that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. They are usually first tested using controlled experiments that measure group-level differences; whereas FPA scholars are often interested in the cognitive processes of individual leaders operating in chaotic environments. Individual-level psychological mechanisms may augment or offset one another, as well as interact with variables at the governmental, societal, and international levels of analysis in unpredictable ways. In light of these challenges, FPA scholars who employ cognitive psychology may wish to conceive of their enterprise as a historical science rather than a predictive one.
Richard Ned Lebow
Counterfactuals seek to alter some feature or event of the pass and by means of a chain of causal logic show how the present might, or would, be different. Counterfactual inquiry—or control of counterfactual situations—is essential to any causal claim. More importantly, counterfactual thought experiments are essential, to the construction of analytical frameworks. Policymakers routinely use then by to identify problems, work their way through problems, and select responses. Good foreign-policy analysis must accordingly engage and employ counterfactuals.
There are two generic types of counterfactuals: minimal-rewrite counterfactuals and miracle counterfactuals. They have relevance when formulating propositions and probing contingency and causation. There is also a set of protocols for using both kinds of counterfactuals toward these ends, and it illustrates the uses and protocols with historical examples. Policymakers invoke counterfactuals frequently, especially with regard to foreign policy, to both choose policies and defend them to key constituencies. They use counterfactuals in a haphazard and unscientific manner, and it is important to learn more about how they think about and employ counterfactuals to understand foreign policy.
There are lots of ways that emotions have been studied in psychology and various ways that their use has been examined in the context of foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most useful ways to examine the influence of emotion on foreign policy is through the lens of risk and threat assessment. Some approaches to emotion tend to categorize emotions as valence-based, in terms of broad-based positivity or negativity. Certainly, elements of this kind of approach can be useful, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which political conservatives appear to have a negativity bias. However, an investigation of discrete emotions allows a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the effect of emotion on risk analysis and threat assessment, in particular the effect of fear, anger, and disgust on decision-making under conditions of risky threat. Genetic, as well as environmental, circumstances can influence individual variance in the experience and expression of such emotions, and any comprehensive approach to understanding the influence of emotion on decision-making should take all these factors into account.
An improved understanding of foreign policy learning necessitates a clarification of what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have contributed to the understanding of foreign policy learning, a multidisciplinary area of inquiry. Learning theorists seek to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government. This cognitive dimension is important because actors may pursue a new course of action for politically expedient reasons rather than having genuinely “learned”—a distinction referred to as “complex” vs. “simple” learning.
Foreign policy learning can be internal or external. The former type of learning entails what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience. Learning theorists who focus on the individual level of analysis borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, the belief structures, and the cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking. Leaders whose cognitive structures are described as relatively open and complex—like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose learning brought about the dramatic changes that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union—are more likely to alter their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts.
Yet external learning occurs as well. Policy diffusion studies show that learning can result from demonstration effects. Foreign policy learning via diffusion is not instrumental, but instead occurs through osmosis. Privatization in the former communist states, China’s Foreign Direct Investment liberalization, and the diffusion of environmental norms in the European Union are examples of learning that is contagious, not chosen. A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another. Technological innovations, unlike lessons that involve political ideology, are generally easier lessons to transfer—for example, Japan’s success in applying lessons from the West to modernize its army in the second half of the 19th century.
The constraints to foreign policy learning are formidable. Decision makers are not always open to reconsidering views that challenge their beliefs. Leaders tend to resort to, and misuse, analogies that prevent learning. Even a change in a decision maker’s beliefs may not lead to foreign policy change, given the myriad political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and economic realities that often get in the way of implementing new ideas. Indeed, foreign policy learning and foreign policy change are not synonymous.
Scholars face significant obstacles in studying foreign policy learning. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Despite attempts to make sense of the confusion, scholars face the daunting challenge of improving understanding of how learning is shaped and funneled through the interaction of agents and the structures in which they are situated, as well as the relationship between learning and foreign policy change.
For over 60 years, scholars of international relations (IR) and foreign policy have focused intermittently on the psychology of leaders and decision-makers in general, but attention has waxed and waned. Within political science, interest in the psychology of foreign policy seems to have peaked in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, but it would be quite mistaken to think of the topic as somehow passé. Since that time, the work of Irving Janis on groupthink (to cite just one instance) has proved repeatedly useful. That approach has focused on the social psychology of foreign policy, although more attention has been directed in recent years toward individual or cognitive psychology. Cognitive consistency theory, schema theory, and analogical reasoning have all particularly influenced the field, and each continues to provide the analyst with vital clues as to why people make the decisions that they do.
The methodology of studying foreign policy psychologically has also undergone significant change. Reacting to the strongly positivist focus typified by James Rosenau, a more recent generation of scholars have become rather more eclectic and dynamic in their approach to studying how foreign policy is made. This generation has also produced an extraordinary range of theories, discussed in this article, which depart from or significantly modify the well-known Rational Actor Model (RAM) of state and leadership behavior. Prospect theory, and poliheuristic theory in particular, have come onto the scene in recent years. Most recently, a welcome and much-needed turn toward the study of emotion (as opposed to merely cognition) has been especially evident in the study of the psychology of foreign policy.
It has never been clear exactly where foreign policy theory fits within IR theory, and it has often been treated as an addendum to studying IR—and even an element of unnecessary complexity—rather than being absolutely central to what we study. Indeed, the study of foreign policy decision-making (FPDM) has acquired a reputation as a discipline that is merely “marking time.” But this perspective on the psychology of foreign policy is as wrong as it is analytically dangerous. Attempts to create IR and foreign policy theories that conspicuously leave out psychological variables—or that simply “assume away” how real individuals actually behave—have proven repeatedly insufficient and have led to marked changes in the way that psychology is treated within the study of foreign policy. Most notably, the rise of constructivism and the failure of overly systemic theories like neorealism to account for foreign policy outcomes have caused neoclassical realists to deliberately incorporate the psychology of decision-makers into their theories. Within the discipline of psychology, meanwhile, a whole new field called behavioral economics that rejects the simplifying assumptions of a rational choice perspective has sprung up in recent years. In short, knowledge of psychology has proved invaluable to those attempting to understand why leaders make the decisions they do, and the entire approach remains indispensable to those who study foreign policy in general.
Sabine C. Carey and Neil J. Mitchell
Pro-government militias are a prominent feature of civil wars. Governments in Colombia, Syria, and Sudan recruit irregular forces in their armed struggle against insurgents. The United States collaborated with Awakening groups to counter the insurgency in Iraq, just as colonizers used local armed groups to fight rebellions in their colonies. An emerging cross-disciplinary literature on pro-government non-state armed groups generates a variety of research questions for scholars interested in conflict, political violence, and political stability: Does the presence of such groups indicate a new type of conflict? What are the dynamics that drive governments to align with informal armed groups and that make armed groups choose to side with the government? Given the risks entailed in surrendering a monopoly of violence, is there a turning point in a conflict when governments enlist these groups? How successful are these groups? Why do governments use these non-state armed actors to shape foreign conflicts whether as insurgents or counterinsurgents abroad? Are these non-state armed actors always useful to governments or perhaps even an indicator for state failure?
We examine the demand for and supply of pro-government armed groups and the legacies that shape their role in civil wars. The enduring pattern of collaboration between governments and these armed non-state actors challenges conventional theory and the idea of an evolutionary process of the modern state consolidating the means of violence. Research on these groups and their consequences began with case studies, and these continue to yield valuable insights. More recently, survey work and cross-national quantitative research contribute to our knowledge. This mix of methods is opening new lines of inquiry for research on insurgencies and the delivery of the core public good of effective security.
Role theory first emerged as an approach to the study of foreign policy with the seminal work of Holsti, who argued that decision makers’ conceptions of their state’s role on the world stage influenced that state’s foreign policy behavior. Holsti’s approach was ahead of its time. The potential of role theory to contribute to the agent-structure debate has not always been appreciated. In fact, early research employing role theory often maintained a close connection to structural theories of international relations, especially among U.S.-based scholars.
In the last decade or so, there has been a renewed interest in role theory that differs from earlier work in that it more clearly connects with psychological approaches to foreign policy analysis. It also takes more seriously the domestic sources of role theory through inquiry into horizontal and vertical role contestation. Much of this new work intersects with constructivism, although it remains grounded in empiricism.
As foreign policy analysis increasingly seeks to understand the foreign policies of a broader array of states—including smaller states that face significant constraints on their ability to act in the international arena—role theory provides an attractive framework. Its focus on decision makers’ conceptions of their state’s role in international politics enhances the ability to make sense of the foreign policies of a wider array of states in the global arena. In essence, role theory allows foreign policy analysis to move beyond a U.S.-centric or global-north-centric field to become more broadly comparative.
Deborah Welch Larson
Social identity theory (SIT) from social psychology provides a means to explore the influence of identity and status concerns on foreign policy. The theory argues that groups are motivated to achieve a positively distinctive identity. Groups compare themselves to a similar but slightly higher reference group. Inferiority on important dimensions may lead to the adoption of an identity management strategy: social mobility (emulating the higher-status group to gain admission), social competition (striving to equal or surpass the dominant group), or social creativity (revaluing an ostensibly negative characteristic as positive or identifying an alternative dimension on which the group is superior).
Applied to international relations, states may pursue social mobility by emulating the values and practices of higher-status states in order to be admitted to a higher standing, much as Eastern Europe did in seeking admission into the European Union after the end of the Cold War. If elite groups are impermeable to new members, and the status hierarchy is perceived to be unstable or illegitimate, aspiring powers may engage in social competition, which usually entails territorial conquest and military displays. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sought to catch up with and surpass the capitalist states. If elite clubs are not permeable, but the status hierarchy is stable, states may seek status through social creativity—either reframing a negative trait as positive or seeking preeminence in a domain apart from geopolitical competition. Social creativity may entail creating new international institutions, promoting new norms, or engaging in major diplomatic initiatives in order to increase the state’s prestige.
Research applying SIT to international relations has addressed the question of whether anarchy necessarily leads to conflict between states, the diffusion of values, the selection of an identity discourse on the domestic level, and state efforts at moral leadership.
Critics have charged that SIT does not clearly predict which identity management strategy will be chosen in a given situation. From a realist perspective, the selection of a strategy for enhancing a state’s status is constrained by geographic position, size, and natural endowments. But this argument does not take into consideration the availability of social mobility and social creativity as ways to achieve status that do not depend on relative military power.
Stuart J. Kaufman
The symbolic politics theory of ethnic war starts from the insight that most political behavior is not rational but intuitive, driven by “symbolic predispositions” such as ideological beliefs, normative values, and prejudice. The way leaders lead is by using rhetoric not to appeal rationally to followers’ interests but to appeal emotionally to their symbolic predispositions.
According to symbolic politics theory, the path to ethnic conflict begins with group narratives that are hostile to another group. These narratives help to generate hostile and prejudiced symbolic predispositions. If group members perceive a social threat, such as to their group identity or status, they become more likely to join mass movements agitating for a politics of redistribution—discriminating in favor of their own group at the expense of rival groups. If people feel physically threatened, they become more likely to support a politics of protection leading to violent ethnic conflict. These popular attitudes and moods are turned into social movements or military mobilization if aggressive leaders emerge, framing political issues in terms of these threats, and if those leaders are both credible and supported by effective organizations. A series of case studies has demonstrated that this process—from narratives to prejudice and threat perceptions, harnessed by leadership and organization—is what occurred in ten ethnic civil wars, including the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Israel-Palestine, and the Philippines. The theory also explains less violent cases such as Gandhi’s nationalist movement in India.
This theory is hypothesized to apply to international war, as the politics of national identity is similar to the politics of ethnic identity. The theory also suggests a way of reconciling realist, liberal, and constructivist accounts of international relations through political psychology and a scientific realist ontology.
Rose McDermott and Christian Davenport
The current practice of conceiving and examining international relations within the dogma of the existing dominant paradigm in international relations unnecessarily truncates our understanding of how historical factors influence current events and restricts our ability to generate flexible and creative hypotheses to predict, and perhaps more successfully intervene in, future events. In many ways, these constraints result, at least in part, from the temporal, strategic, and behavioral isolation embedded in these models, which limit our ability to understand, integrate, and address how states deal with one another comprehensively. Substantial theoretical and empirical purchase can be gained through the application of an integrated explanatory rubric of evolutionary modeling, invoking the central concepts of variation, selection, and retention. Models derived from evolutionary psychology, applied not only to human cognitive architecture, but also to the interaction of these psychological dynamics with environmental factors including institutions, provides a richly generative framework from which to derive meaningful and novel hypotheses about politics in general and international relations in particular. It also allows for a progressive and cumulative research agenda that can build a more comprehensive and descriptively accurate foundation for understanding the nature of interaction between people and societies as well as between states themselves. Such an approach provides a useful framework for understanding the dynamic and interactive nature of international relations, sheds light on existing limitations as well as empirical findings, and facilitates insight into areas not yet explored.