Action readiness is considered a central property of emotions in most psychological theories. Emotions are the engine of behavior. They are the motivating, directing, prioritizing function of the brain, and impel to an immediate reaction to challenges and opportunities faced by the organism. Nevertheless, under sociopolitical malaise, emotions do not always lead to action.
People leave in societies characterized by particular emotional cultures, climates, and atmospheres that set the background to what emotions are felt under which circumstances. The impact of an emotion depends on how relevant, that is, emotionally significant is the event for the individual; on the implications of the event for the person’s well-being and immediate or long-term goals; on the individual’s capacity to cope with or adjust to the consequences of the event; and on the significance of the event with respect to individual and collective self-concept and to social norms and values.
Although emotions trigger action, events with high emotional intensity may mobilize defense mechanisms that distort facts, so that the event may appear distant or not concerning the individual personally. In such cases action is hindered because the meaning of the emotive event, although fully intellectually understood, does not have personal emotional reality. If the defense mechanisms prove inefficient or collapse, the event may be experienced as traumatic, that is, as a shocking occurrence that brings about a rupture in the continuity of existence, numbing of senses and mental faculties, and inability to think about what happened for periods that may last from days to years, although individuals and collectives may appear quite normal in carrying out everyday routines.
Interpretative “emotion work” in formal or informal contexts may change emotions from immobilizing to mobilizing, or from destructive to constructive, as the traumatic event is being “worked through” and a cohesive narrative about it develops. But even then, action and in our case, political action, depends on the individual’s available repertoire—political efficacy and resilience—built up from past recoveries and a sense of support from social networks, and hope in assessing the costs and benefits from the harms brought by acting and the harms brought by non-acting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leonie Huddy and Alexa Bankert
Partisanship remains a powerful influence on political behavior within developed and developing democracies, but there remains a lively debate on its nature, origins, and measurement. In this debate, political scientists draw on social identity theory to clarify the nature of partisanship and its political consequences in the United States and other developed and developing democracies. In particular, social identity theory has been used to develop an expressive model of partisanship, which stands in contrast to an instrumental model grounded in ideological and policy considerations. Included here are a discussion of the key motivational and cognitive components of social identity theory and an explanation of how the theory can be applied to the study of partisanship. The focus is on the measurement of partisanship, its social nature, its origins in convergent identities, and its ability to generate strong emotions and drive political engagement. Lastly, areas for future partisanship research are discussed. These areas include the study of negative partisan identities, coalitional identities in multiparty systems, and the political situations in which expressive and instrumental aspects of partisanship are most common.
Political narratives examine the ways in which stories, or narratives, are used to investigate the political world. Historically, stories have not been regarded as legitimate sources of data for such explorations. In recent years, however, this has changed, as “the narrative turn” hit the social sciences; still, while disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology were more amenable to this alteration—representing, as it does, not only different methodologies, but also a different epistemological framework—many political scientists continue to resist the idea that political narratives can offer a very particular, and almost unique, perspective on how individuals and groups construct the political world and are constructed by it. One of the most dramatic uses of highly effective political narratives, which blurs the boundaries between the personal and public, is that of Barack Obama, which is used as a central case study in this article.
Soli Vered and Daniel Bar-Tal
Intractable conflicts are demanding, stressful, painful, exhausting, and costly both in human and material terms. In order to adapt to these conditions, societies engaged in such protracted, violent conflict develop an appropriate socio-psychological infrastructure that eventually becomes the foundation for the development of culture of conflict. The infrastructure fulfills important functions for the societies involved, yet stands also as a major socio-psychological barrier to peaceful resolution of the conflict. Transforming the nature of the relations between two societies that were in hostile and violent rivalry requires a dramatic societal change of replacing the socio-psychological repertoire among society members and establishing a new culture of peace. This process of peacemaking is very long and extremely challenging; however, if successful, the past rival sides may establish stable and lasting peaceful relations.
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.
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.