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date: 16 August 2017

The Poliheuristic Theory of Political Decision-Making

Summary and Keywords

Poliheuristic theory focuses on the why and how of decision-making. The primary argument is that decision-makers are sensitive to both cognitive and environmental constraints and are particularly likely to focus on the political consequences of their decisions. Decision-makers use a two-stage process en route to choice, wherein heuristic shortcuts are implemented in the first stage in an effort to reduce complexity and in the second stage a maximizing strategy on the remaining alternatives in the choice set. The theory focuses on five main information-processing characteristics: order-sensitive, nonholistic, and dimension-based searching and noncompensatory and satisficing decision rules. The theory has been tested using numerous case studies and statistical and experimental analyses. These studies have provided strong empirical support for this theory.

In 2013, the United States decided not to attack Syria, despite domestic and international pressure to do so. This case shows the importance of political constraints on President Obama’s calculus of decision, leading to the adoption of the chemical disarmament of Syria.

Keywords: poliheuristic theory, satisficing, noncompensatory principle, two-stage processing, applied decision analysis, Obama administration, Syria, chemical weapons, empirical findings, empirical international relations theory


The poliheuristic theory of political decision-making provides the most thorough framework for examining process and choice in government and politics. Poliheuristic theory combines the two emphases of process and choice to provide testable hypotheses concerning how personal and situational variables may affect political decision-making. The theory also enables scholars to examine the influence of process on choice, i.e., the impact of decision strategies on policy outcomes. Therefore, poliheuristic theory addresses issues concerning both process and outcome validity and is thoroughly grounded in cognitive psychology and political science research.

Poliheuristic theory has primarily been applied to studies of foreign policy and national security decision-making. However, it has also been used to examine alliance formation decisions, problem representation, leaders’ decisions to participate in humanitarian missions, decisions on environmental initiatives, coalition formation, trade policy, emotions, and other related topics. It can also be used in medicine, marketing, finance, and other disciplines.

Many studies have also examined poliheuristic theory in a comparative manner, assessing its value-added attributes with respect to other theories of decision-making (e.g., Brummer, 2013; Christensen & Redd, 2004; Dacey & Carlson, 2004; Mintz, 2004a; Mintz, 2005; Sirin, 2012). Various studies have also critiqued the theory’s strengths and weaknesses, offering proposed improvements (e.g., Keller & Yang, 2016; Oppermann, 2014; Stern, 2004).

In this article, we first explicate the fundamental elements of the theory including its primary processing characteristics. We then review the different methodologies that have been used to test various elements of the theory as well as the varied subfields of political science that have been examined using poliheuristic theory. Finally, we present a case study illustrating poliheuristic theory using the U.S. decision not to use military force in Syria.

Poliheuristic Theory

The poliheuristic theory of decision-making integrates the conditions surrounding foreign policy decisions, as well as the cognitive processes associated with these surroundings (Mintz & Geva, 1997). Put another way, the theory addresses why decision-makers make the choices they do, and how they go about making those decisions.

The term poliheuristic is actually a combination of the word roots poly (many) and heuristic (shortcuts), wherein the theory posits that decision-makers use cognitive shortcuts as they endeavor to simplify complex decision tasks (Geva, Redd, & Mintz, 2001; Mintz & Geva, 1997; Mintz, Geva, Redd, & Carnes, 1997; Mintz, 2004a). Heuristics are “problem-solving methods which tend to produce efficient solutions to difficult problems by restricting the search through the space of possible solutions” (Braunstein, 1976, as cited in Abelson & Levi, 1985, p. 255). “Heuristics are judgmental shortcuts, efficient ways to organize and simplify political choices, efficient in the double sense of requiring relatively little information to execute, yet yielding dependable answers even to complex problems of choice” (Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991, p. 19). Sniderman et al. (1991, p. 19) further note that “people can be knowledgeable in their reasoning about political choices without necessarily possessing a large body of knowledge about politics.”

The principal assumption of poliheuristic theory is that decision-makers have at their disposal, and will actually use, an assortment of decision strategies en route to a choice (Mintz et al., 1997). More specifically, decision-makers will use a two-stage process as they process information toward making a final choice. Mintz (1993; see also Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993) states that the decision process consists of “an initial screening of available alternatives and a selection of the best one from the subset of remaining alternatives in an attempt to minimize risks and maximize rewards.” A nonexhaustive search characterizes the first phase of the process wherein decision-makers, prior to considering all alternatives along all of the dimensions, select “surviving” alternatives across dimensions (Mintz, 1993; Mintz & Geva, 1997; Mintz et al., 1997). Frequently, one or at most a few critical criteria are all that are needed for the rejection or adoption of courses of action in many foreign policy settings. Once the first phase has screened out irrelevant options and attributes, decision-makers will then use a maximizing or lexicographic strategy for choosing an alternative from the subset of “surviving” alternatives (Mintz, 1993; Mintz et al., 1997; Payne et al., 1993).

The poliheuristic theory of foreign policy decision-making also makes the assumption that different environmental characteristics of the decision task as well as personal variations will lead decision-makers to adopt different decision heuristics (see Glad, 1989; Hermann, 1986; Hermann & Hermann, 1989). Decision strategies are comprised of procedures “that the decision-maker engages in when attempting to select among alternative courses of action, and a decision rule that dictates how the results of the engaged-in procedures will be used to make the actual decision” (Beach & Mitchell, 1978, pp. 439–440).

These decision procedures, strategies, and rules are not “fixed,” but instead may vary as a function of one’s goals, the decision domain in which a decision-maker operates, and other environmental and situational constraints (Mintz et al., 1997). The poliheuristic theory, then, credits the decision-maker with enough flexibility to adapt his or her decision process to changing problem and environmental demands and to his or her own cognitive/individual traits, making it compatible with a host of contingency theories of decision and judgment (Abelson & Levi, 1985; Beach & Mitchell, 1978; Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1988, 1993; Tetlock, 1992; Tetlock & Boettger, 1989).

Another unique premise of the poliheuristic theory and additional connotation of the prefix “poli,” besides the use of multiple heuristics, is its reference to the political aspects of decision-making in a foreign policy context. The assumption is that the decision-maker measures gains and losses, risks and rewards, costs and benefits, and success and failure first and foremost in terms of political implications (Mintz, 1993). Mintz and Geva (1997) note that domestic politics is “the essence of decision” and that politicians value gains and losses in political terms. Moreover, political leaders are always focused on their level of support, challenges to their leadership, and their prospects of political survival. Kahneman and Tversky (1979; see also Levy, 1992a, 1992b) note that because loss aversion overshadows all other considerations, leaders are focused more on avoiding failure than on achieving success (Anderson, 1983). DeRouen (2003) argues that a leader’s perception of the political consequences of his or her policies plays a decisive role in affecting the means chosen to deal with a foreign policy crisis. Mintz and Geva (1997, p. 84) state that “the political dimension is important in foreign policy decisions not so much because politicians are driven by public support but because they are averse to loss and would therefore reject alternatives that may hurt them politically.”

The poliheuristic theory thus represents the fundamental elements of two disciplines concerned with foreign policy decision-making: political science and cognitive psychology (Hermann, 1986, pp. x–xi). From the former come political issues such as those posed by Lasswell on questions of political decision-making dealing with who gets what, when and how, whereas the latter leads to a focus on how time constraints, uncertainties, task complexity, risks, etc. influence how the decision-maker rejects and selects alternatives.

Processing Characteristics of Poliheuristic Theory

Poliheuristic theory is based on five primary decision-making/information-processing characteristics: (1) an order-sensitive search, (2) dimension-based processing, (3) noncompensatory decision rules, (4) nonholistic search, and (5) satisficing behavior (Mintz & Geva, 1997; Mintz et al., 1997).

Order-Sensitive Search

The poliheuristic theory of decision also states that information processing and choice are order sensitive. This processing characteristic has its origins in the invariance assumption, which states that “preference order among prospects should not depend on how their outcomes and probabilities are described and thus that two alternative formulations of the same problem should yield the same choice” (Quattrone & Tversky, 1988, p. 727). Violations of the invariance assumption are particularly manifest in the context of framing wherein alternative and/or dimensions can be presented in different orders or sequences (Geva, Astorino-Courtois, & Mintz, 1996; Geva & Mintz, 1994; Kahneman & Tversky, 1984; Mintz & Redd, 2003; Mintz, Redd, & Vedlitz, 2006; Taylor-Robinson & Redd, 2003).

Poliheuristic theory argues, though, that the invariance assumption is violated not only in the context of framing but also when alternatives and/or dimensions are presented to decision-makers in a different sequence or order (Payne, Bettman, & Johnson, 1993). Mintz and Geva (1997, p. 87) state “that the choice of a particular alternative may depend on the order in which particular dimensions (diplomatic, economic, military, political) are invoked” (see also Geva et al., 2001). Anderson (1983), in studying the Cuban Missile Crisis, demonstrates how differences in the presentation and order of alternatives affected the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mintz et al. (1997) showed that an added alternative affected both the decision strategies that decision-makers employed as well as their choices. Geva et al. (2001) likewise found that the invariance assumption was violated in an experimental setting wherein the addition of a new dimension in the middle of the information-processing task led decision-makers to change their decision strategies and choices compared to when the decision dimensions were all present at the outset of the decision task.

Dimension-Based Processing

The poliheuristic theory asserts that decision-makers will process information along dimensions, rather than along alternatives. In other words, decision-makers will process information within a given attribute or dimension and across alternatives. For example, a national security decision-maker might access information about the political ramifications of choosing among various alternatives and then moves on to the military consequences of the same alternatives, and so on. An attribute or dimension can be represented in many different ways. It can be thought of as an organizing theme (OT) for related information as well as variables (Ostrom, Lingle, Pryor, & Geva, 1980). In this sense, a political dimension that conveys the political implications of a chosen alternative could include variables such as public opinion polls, domestic opposition, the leader’s popularity, and other factors related to this general organizing theme. Attributes and dimensions can also be thought of as adviser’s evaluations about the utility of pursuing a particular option. For example, the secretary of state would present evaluations pertaining to the diplomatic perspectives of given alternatives (Geva et al., 2001; Mintz et al., 1997).

These two “pure” models of information acquisition have been thoroughly reviewed in the cognitive psychology literature (see Ford, Schmitt, Schechtman, Hults, & Doherty, 1989; Payne et al., 1988, 1993). Dimension-based (intradimensional) processing denotes a strategy whereby individuals gather information within a dimension or attribute across the available alternatives. This process can be continued for additional dimensions according to the desires of the decision-maker. Conversely, alternative-based (interdimensional) strategies entail a process whereby a decision-maker sequentially reviews all items of information within a given alternative across dimensions and then proceeds in this manner for any subsequent alternatives (Payne, 1976). These two modes of decision-making represent two poles along an information-processing continuum (Riggle & Johnson, 1996).

Identifying alternative versus dimension-based information acquisition patterns is important because different decision theories predict that decision-makers will use one or the other as a function of task complexities, time constraints, cognitive abilities, etc. Expected utility is an alternative-based processing strategy. Changes from dimension to alternative-based strategies (or vice versa) can also be thought of as a response to cognitive complexity. Scholars such as Olshavsky (1979) and Payne et al. (1988, 1993) have shown that processing characteristics vary as a result of the choice environment. They argue that the strategy a decision-maker employs is very often contingent upon, among other things, the difficulty of the task being undertaken. Increasing task complexity leads decision-makers to adopt decision strategies that attempt to alleviate cognitive strain (Olshavsky, 1979). Russo and Dosher (1983) specifically state that intradimensional, or attribute-based, processing is cognitively easier and therefore more likely to be employed in cognitively demanding conditions. Therefore, strategy shifts from alternative-based to dimension-based procedures (or vice versa) can be “conceptualized as a movement between more complex, more demanding … reasoning (associated with the alternative-based strategy) and less complex, less demanding … rules (associated with a dimension-based strategy)” (Mintz et al., 1997, pp. 554–555).

Noncompensatory Decision Rules

Compensatory versus noncompensatory decision rules address how decision-makers comparatively view information in the process of making a choice. In general, the compensatory principle refers to decision strategies that attempt to make trade-offs among dimensions (Payne et al., 1993). High values on one dimension (attribute) can compensate for low values on another dimension (Payne et al., 1993; see also Billings & Scherer, 1988; Ford et al., 1989; Hogarth, 1987; Payne et al., 1988). Conversely, the noncompensatory principle suggests that “a low score on one dimension cannot be compensated for by a high score on another dimension” (italics added) (Ford et al., 1989; see also Billings & Marcus, 1983; Billings & Scherer, 1988; Hogarth, 1987; Payne et al., 1988, 1993). In other words, the noncompensatory principle posits that decision-makers do not make trade-offs between high and low scores. Psychologically, trade-offs are difficult to make because decision-makers find them difficult to execute as a result of “information-processing limitations” (Hogarth, 1987, p. 77).

Various decision models identified in the literature are categorized as noncompensatory in nature: disjunctive, conjunctive, lexicographic, and elimination by aspects (EBA) (Abelson & Levi, 1985; Ford et al., 1989; Hogarth, 1987; Olshavsky, 1979; Payne, 1976; Sage, 1990; Tversky, 1972). Both the disjunctive and conjunctive rules assume that the decision-maker chooses minimum cutoffs for each dimension (Abelson & Levi, 1985). The conjunctive rule stipulates that if a given alternative does not exceed all of the dimension cutoffs, then it is rejected. If more than one alternative exceeds the cutoffs on all dimensions, then the conjunctive rule will produce more than one acceptable alternative (Abelson & Levi, 1985). A decision-maker could then continue by making the cutoffs more rigorous and applying the conjunctive rule again or by adopting a different decision rule that could yield a single alternative. Abelson and Levi (1985) note that this situation will not occur if the decision-maker stops searching for alternatives in the event an acceptable one is identified, i.e., the decision-maker is satisficing rather than maximizing. Finally, the conjunctive rule implies that decision-makers use alternative-based (interdimensional) procedures for processing information. In contrast, the disjunctive rule specifies that an alternative is acceptable when it has at least one value greater than the corresponding cutoff as opposed to the conjunctive rule where an alternative must exceed all of the dimension cutoffs (Abelson & Levi, 1985).

Both lexicographic and EBA models necessitate the rank ordering of dimensions in terms of importance (Abelson & Levi 1985; Ford et al., 1989; Hogarth, 1987; Payne, 1976). The lexicographic rule posits that the decision-maker chooses the dimension that is most important to him or her and then selects the alternative that is the most appealing (Payne et al., 1993). The lexicographic rule, therefore, implies a dimension-based (intradimensional) process of information acquisition. Hogarth (1987) points out that the disadvantage of this rule is that it can yield choices that are inconsistent. Specifically, it can lead to intransitive choices that take the form of X is preferred to Y, Y is preferred to Z, but Z is preferred to X. In essence, the lexicographic rule implies that the order in which options appear can determine the choices that are made rather than the true preferences expressed by the decision-maker (Hogarth, 1987). As discussed earlier, this pattern violates the invariance assumption and denotes that decision-makers are sensitive to the order in which information is accessed and/or presented.

Tversky (1972) introduced EBA into the literature on cognitive psychology. In EBA, the decision-maker selects his or her most important dimension and then begins accessing information along that alternative. Any alternatives that do not meet a certain predetermined threshold (cutoff) are eliminated, and then the decision-maker selects the next dimension and so on until only one surviving alternative is left (Tversky, 1972). This process may lead to what is often referred to as the “paradox of EBA”: a decision-maker ends up choosing an alternative based on his or her least important dimension (Maoz, 1990, p. 187). A decision-maker using an EBA strategy ends up rejecting alternatives that are unfavorable, while a lexicographic rule suggests that the decision-maker pursues alternatives that are favorable (Mintz, 1995). Both EBA and the lexicographic rule imply that decision-makers process information intradimensionally en route to a choice.

Both expected utility and cybernetic theories of national security–level decision-making postulate that decision-makers typically utilize compensatory decision rules as they process information en route to a final choice. In contrast, the poliheuristic theory of decision-making posits that decision-makers employ noncompensatory rules of decision-making. Mintz (1995, p. 337) states as follows: “Numerous experimental studies … [investigating] how decisions are actually being made reveal that seldom do decision-makers employ holistic or compensatory processes during complex decisions” (italics in original) (see also Ford et al., 1989; Payne et al., 1988).

The noncompensatory principle of decision-making has been examined using multiple research methods and in a number of different substantive contexts. We present here a few of the more important contributions that have addressed the noncompensatory principle.

The literature on the noncompensatory principle began as a concern with the cognitive and psychological processes of decision-making in general. The noncompensatory principle was first discussed by scholars such as Einhorn (1970, 1971), Payne (1976), and Olshavsky (1979), who were interested in how the complexity of decision tasks affected decision processes. Using various experimental methods (verbal protocols and information boards), they found that the use of noncompensatory strategies increased as task complexity increased. Billings and Scherer (1988) used an information search board in an experiment between judgment and choice and found that choice situations led to more EBA (i.e., noncompensatory) strategies than did judgment situations. Ford et al. (1989, p. 75) summarized the literature in general that employed both verbal protocols and information board experimental methodologies and found that “noncompensatory strategies were the dominant mode used by decision-makers” (see also Payne et al., 1988). While these studies are important and paved the way for future research, they have been restricted to decision-making in general and have excluded the study of political decision-making.

Mintz (1993), in his study of the Persian Gulf War, began the extension of the noncompensatory principle to the field of foreign policy decision-making. Specifically, he argued that the decision by the United States to attack Iraqi forces in Kuwait followed the noncompensatory principle of EBA. Mintz (1993, p. 598) specifically argued that the political dimension is the paramount attribute in noncompensatory processes in a foreign policy context. Moreover, “in a choice situation, if a certain alternative is unacceptable on a given dimension (e.g., it is unacceptable politically), then a high score on another dimension (e.g., the military) cannot compensate/counteract for it, and hence the alternative is eliminated” (Mintz, 1993). By examining historical documents and written accounts of the deliberations leading up to the conflict, Mintz (1993, pp. 606–607) was able to show that the political dimension was the most salient in President Bush’s decision calculus with the military/strategic dimension also playing a critical role. He further points out that there was no comprehensive (i.e., search for compensatory trade-offs) evaluation of all the alternatives and in fact it was quite obvious that President Bush did not consider the withdrawal option at all (Mintz, 1993, p. 607). In another study, Mintz (1995), using two Israeli case studies, showed that the noncompensatory principle could be applied to theories of coalition formation as well.

Nonholistic Search

As inferred above, the poliheuristic theory of foreign policy decision-making posits that when decision-makers compare policy options, they do so within a very limited choice set. As stated above, heuristics serve as cognitive shortcuts that allow decision-makers to quickly eliminate courses of action as a function of environmental or individual cognitive constraints. As Mintz and Geva (1997, p. 84) state, “Holistic decision-making is cognitively demanding, while nonholistic, heuristic-based models are typically streamlined by rules that offer cognitive shortcuts. The selection of an alternative is not based upon the detailed, conscious consideration of all aspects of the alternatives.” Instead, nonholistic rules use a simplified process whereby the decision-maker can eliminate sequentially any alternative by comparing them “against some standard, across a few attributes [dimensions] … or across alternatives” (Sage, 1990, p. 233). The poliheuristic theory posits that decision-makers use less cognitively demanding decision procedures than what expected utility, subjective expected utility, or other multiattribute utility models might suggest.

Mintz and Geva (1997), using experimental data, found that only 20% of the decision-makers in their study accessed all of the available information included in the decision task. Moreover, on average, subjects viewed only 73% of the available information, implying that more than a quarter was ignored. Mintz and Geva (1997) point to a qualitative study conducted by Freedman and Karsh (1991) on the Persian Gulf War. Freedman and Karsh (1991, p. 35) state that during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990–1991, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein rejected outright the option of withdrawing from Kuwait because “there was an absolute certainty in [his] mind of what could not be sacrificed—his political survival.”

Oppermann (2014) used a case study of decision-making in the British Labour Party under Tony Blair to show that the decision-makers are more likely to adopt noncompensatory decision rules as a function of issue salience. Specifically, he found that under conditions of low domestic issue salience, the use of noncompensatory decision rules did not effectively reduce the decision matrix. Conversely, when issues were of high domestic salience, the noncompensatory screening of alternatives on the domestic politics dimension was effective, as was the case during decision-making related to Labour decisions regarding a single currency.

Geva et al. (2001) and Mintz (2004b), using experimental research, found evidence supporting the noncompensatory principle, noting “the appearance of a negative political value early in the process was sufficient to eliminate that alternative from being chosen” (Geva et al., 2001, p. 34).

Satisficing Behavior

Poliheuristic theory posits that decision-makers “satisfice” rather than “maximize” utility, although it is possible that in the second stage of information processing they may actually maximize (Mintz et al., 1997). Satisficing implies that decision-makers will

seek a satisfactory solution rather than attempt to search every nook and cranny of the problem space. Even the expert chess player, for example, does not pursue each and every alternative possibility at each choice point, but simply examines a number of possibilities that satisfy him/her that s/he is making the correct, or at least best, move.

(Sage, 1990, p. 309)

Simon (1957) first introduced the notion of satisficing in his boundedly rational model of decision-making. Satisficing implies that decision-makers stop searching for information once they have found a satisfactory alternative; moreover, this alternative need not be an optimal one, merely one that satisfies some a priori minimum threshold (Monroe, 1991; Zey, 1992). Specifically, a satisficing strategy suggests a process whereby alternatives are considered one at a time in the order they occur in the choice set (Payne et al., 1993). Again, as noted above, order matters with respect to information processing. A satisficing strategy suggests that the decision-maker compares alternatives to predetermined values or thresholds along a selected set of dimensions instead of “evaluating each alternative on each dimension and comparing the sum expected utilities of all alternatives” (Mintz & Geva, 1997, p. 87). Suedfeld and Tetlock (1992, p. 67) argue that in the real world,

values, alternatives, probabilities, and outcomes are not as clear as is required for ideal decision-making. The need to make many choices in a short period of time, the complexity of the interactions that determine outcomes, and the uncertainty surrounding probabilities, all compel human beings to make their choices by bounded rationality: a simplified model of the decision environment.

The poliheuristic theory is satisficing not only because it is concerned with finding “acceptable” alternatives instead of maximizing ones, but also because it is possible that not all dimensions or alternatives will be considered prior to a decision being made. Mintz and Geva (1997) and Redd (2008) found evidence of satisficing in their experimental studies.

Since its creation over 20 years ago, poliheuristic theory has been tested using many different methodologies and in many different subfields of political science. An additional point to be made here is that the theory was initially addressed almost exclusively by scholars at and/or associated with the Program in Foreign Policy Decision-Making at Texas A&M University but has since expanded to include studies from authors all over the world. In the following paragraphs we briefly review some of the literature.

Multimethod Testing

Initially, poliheuristic theory propositions and hypotheses were tested primarily using experimental methods (Christensen & Redd, 2004; Geva et al., 2001; Mintz et al., 1994, 1995; Mintz et al., 1997; Redd, 2002, 2008). Keller and Yang (2008, 2016) continued the use of experimental methods to test various aspects of poliheuristic theory and found that leadership style and situational context affect the noncompensatory threshold at which decision-makers reject alternatives as politically unacceptable as well as problem representation and option generation prior to the first stage of the two-stage process. In addition to these experimental tests, the theory has been tested repeatedly with various case studies as well as with quantitative nonexperimental methods, and even using formal modeling.

Poliheuristic theory has been applied in numerous case studies wherein scholars explain leaders’ decisions using various elements of the theory. As noted above, the two-stage concept of the theory has been examined in the context of decision-making by the Labour Party in Great Britain under Tony Blair (Oppermann, 2014); the role of identity in negotiation decision-making in the Cyprus conflict (Sirin, 2012); the role of third parties in negotiations related to British decision-making regarding Palestine and the Jewish homeland (Beckerman-Boys, 2014); an analysis of the Iran hostage rescue mission by the Carter administration (Brulé, 2005); noncompensatory decision-making in autocratic regimes (e.g., Saddam Hussein’s decision to remain in Kuwait, Pakistan’s decision not to send troops to Iraq, and Gorbachev and the Soviet foreign policy during the 1980s “revolution”) (Kinne, 2005); Clinton’s decision-making in Kosovo (Redd, 2005); Germany’s decision to participate in EUFOR RD Congo (Brummer, 2013); the Eisenhower administration’s decisions to intervene in Guatemala in the 1954 U.S.-led coup (Taylor-Robinson & Redd, 2003), and their decision not to intervene in Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (DeRouen, 2003); U.S.–China and U.S.–Iraq decisions with respect to leaders’ empathy and the noncompensatory principle (Keller & Yang, 2009); and U.S. decisions with respect to participating in international conferences on ozone depletion and climate change (Below, 2008). In all of these case studies, the authors found support for various propositions of poliheuristic theory. Although Mintz et al. (1997) did not specify initially which dimension will be noncompensatory for leaders in the first stage of the decision process, virtually all tests of the theory in the foreign policy and domestic policy arenas pointed to the political dimension as the noncompensatory one.

With respect to quantitative nonexperimental tests, DeRouen and Sprecher (2004) tested elements of the two-stage proposition using the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) data set and found that domestic political losses negatively impact the use of force in response to crisis triggers. James and Zhang (2005) used ICB data to help explain Chinese decisions to intervene in various crises, specifically focusing on the two-stage process and noncompensatory decision rules and found support for noncompensatory principles, as well. DeRouen (2000, p. 317), using a simultaneous equations model, examined the diversionary theory of force and found that “presidential decisions to divert are made in the context of poliheuristic decision processing.”

Poliheuristic theory has also been examined using formal modeling. Dacey and Carlson (2004), Goertz (2004), and Ye (2007) all used formal models to assess various aspects of poliheuristic theory, usually in the context of comparing it to other theories of decision-making in international relations.

Applied Decision Analysis

Mintz (2005) introduced the applied decision analysis (ADA) procedure. ADA consists of “reverse engineering” of each decision in an attempt to identify the decision DNA and a dominant pattern of decision-making of world leaders. ADA has been used to analyze Putin, Erdogan, Mao, Saddam Hussein, Netanyahu, Obama, and many other world leaders (see Mintz & Adamsky, forthcoming). The method has been used with great success to predict terrorist leaders’ decisions. ADA is based on the poliheuristic theory of decision-making, although numerous studies have utilized it to uncover the dominant “decision rule” of world leaders and other key decision-makers.

The procedure consists of the following tasks (Mintz & DeRouen, 2010, pp. 89–90):

  1. 1. Identify the set of alternatives available to the leader—for example, use force, apply sanctions, or do nothing.

  2. 2. Identify the set of dimensions or decision criteria that may explain the decision—for example, a military dimension, an economic dimension, a political dimension, and a diplomatic dimension.

  3. 3. Assign weights (importance level) to dimensions (optional)—for example, rate the military dimension of the decision to use force as very important, the economic and political dimensions as important, and the diplomatic dimensions as somewhat important.

  4. 4. Identify implications—for example, the economic implications of the use of force alternative in the case of Iraq in 2003 were high, in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

  5. 5. Rate implications of each dimension on each alternative.

  6. 6. Identify decision rule(s) used by leaders—for example, determine whether the leader utilized a poliheuristic decision rule, a maximizing rule, or a satisficing model.

Case Study: The U.S. Decision Not to Attack Syria in 2013—A Poliheuristic Perspective

President Obama declared on August 20, 2012, that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria or elsewhere: “a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation” (Obama White House Archives, 2012). President Obama called use of such weapons as crossing a “red line” and vowed that such an infringement would alter his heretofore avoidance of intervening militarily in the conflict.

However, President Assad of Syria used chemical weapons on his people in Damascus on August 21, 2013 (White House, 2013). This act was in direct violation of the “red line” delineated by President Obama, and consequently, the expectation was that it would evoke a military engagement by the United States in Syria. As is now known, the United States refrained from attacking Syria even though Assad crossed the “red line” President Obama set.

This section attempts to discern and explain, using poliheuristic theory, the U.S. decision not to attack Syria in 2013. We do so by maintaining that political considerations with regard to both congressional opposition to such an attack and lack of public support were noncompensatory for the president. As will be shown below, this was crucial in formulating the administration’s plan to accept a chemical disarmament of Syria.


The U.S. administration was faced with the following alternatives outlined in then–Secretary of State Clinton’s 2014 memoir:

  1. 1. Do nothing, and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region.

  2. 2. Intervene militarily, and risk opening Pandora’s Box and wading into another quagmire, like Iraq.

  3. 3. Send aid to the rebels, and watch it end up in the hands of extremists. [or]

  4. 4. Continue with diplomacy, and run headfirst into a Russian veto. (Clinton, 2014, p. 460)

On September 9, 2013, another alternative, chemical disarmament of Syria, was added to the choice set of the president (Kerry, 2013).

Dimensions (Decision Criteria)

The dimensions affecting the president’s decision included:

  1. 1. Political considerations:

    1. a. Public opinion

    2. b. Support on Capitol Hill

    3. c. The opinion of the President’s closest aides

    4. d. The opinion of Cabinet officials

  2. 2. Support of the UN Security Council

  3. 3. Russia’s stance

  4. 4. Economic considerations

  5. 5. U.S. credibility

According to poliheuristic theory, the main dimension affecting the president’s choice and shared by all democratic leaders is the political dimension: “Politicians will not shoot themselves in the foot by selecting alternatives that are likely to have a negative effect on them politically” (Mintz & DeRouen, 2010, p. 85). Thus, political considerations are weighted most heavily in the decision-making process and considered noncompensatory. In this case, they consisted of public opinion as well as a lack of support on Capitol Hill.

According to Mintz and Wayne (2016), President Obama’s policies and actions during this time period were heavily influenced by the intricacies of his second-term Cabinet, wherein the president surrounded himself with loyalists and had become indifferent to contrarian views (Ignatius, 2013). The prevalence of this internal dynamic can be surmised from David Rothkopf, who claimed that “the true believers—as one first-termer called McDonough, Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, among others—have moved up and gained power, … many of the powerful people who often offset their views—such as Hillary Clinton, … Leon Panetta, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates—have moved on” (Rothkopf, 2014). Hence, when contemplating a policy, the president awarded greater importance to the support of his closest aides than to the support of Cabinet officials which precluded consideration of the Cabinet’s position as a whole (Mintz & Wayne, 2016, p. 82).

In the case at hand, support of the UN Security Council was an additional dimension, as the council had convened in order to formulate a solution to the crisis and hence the U.S. was bound to take its members’ stance into account.

Concluding the dimensions outlined heretofore were two dimensions that were idiosyncratic to the Syrian crisis: Russia’s stance and U.S. credibility resulting from Obama’s delineated “red line,” and finally, the economic dimension that all leaders attend to, with the case at hand being no outlier.


On August 30, 2013, the Obama administration released a declassified report on the occurrence of a horrific chemical attack by the Assad forces in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. It was accompanied by independent footage (Chollet, 2016; Warrick, 2013). The use of chemical weapons placed U.S. credibility in a precarious situation. President Obama found himself expected to resort to a “change of calculus” due to the crossing of the “red line” by the Syrian regime (New York Times, 2013).

Among the four initial alternatives the Obama administration had according to Clinton’s records (2014), the administration initially preferred undertaking limited air strikes as the military intervention of choice—U.S. credibility was on the line. However, Obama was also strongly intent on “[being] remembered for getting out of the Middle East wars, not embarking on new ones” according to New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Peter Baker (Fitzgerald & Ryan, 2016). Instead of commencing the strikes, however, and without consulting his Cabinet, “the President had called Hagel late the night before and told him he ‘wanted to explore another option’” (Chollet, 2016; Fitzgerald & Ryan, 2016, pp. 127–128). That option was seeking Congress’s approval.

During the administration’s lobbying on the Hill, it soon proved that “[d]espite the administration’s strong advocacy and support from a small minority of hawkish politicians, Congress and the American people proved strongly opposed to the use of force” (Chollet, 2016). According to poliheuristic theory, these political considerations were noncompensatory to the president. Without congressional support, the administration did not have the vote to support an attack. The public was not enthusiastic about the use of force, either.

By September 2013 the chemical disarmament of Syria alternative had surfaced and entered the choice set for the administration through the Russian utilization of Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks (Obama White House Archives, 2013; Shear, Gordon, & Myers, 2013). Facing a dynamic decision-making scenario, President Obama compared his key alternatives: namely, limited air-strikes and chemical disarmament. Because of lack of support by Congress and the emergence of the disarmament option, the president’s U.S. credibility dimension took a back seat to the noncompensatory political considerations. Consequently, this dimension became compensatory, while noncompensatory perennial political considerations, led by congressional opposition, strongly affected the president’s decision.

The president rejected the notion of acting in complete opposition to Congress while an actionable alternative could be resorted to. As the punitive air strikes alternative now ranked negatively on the foremost noncompensatory dimension because of Congress’s projected negative vote, the president chose to reject it and opted for chemical disarmament.

Eliminating limited punitive strikes and opting to embark on chemical disarmament President Obama proceeded to evaluate the alternative’s costs and benefits so as to maximize their ratio according to the noncompensatory nature of poliheuristic theory (Mintz, 1993, p. 610). Thus, the president shifted his focal point to a reduction of costs; in the second stage of the poliheuristic process, a rational assessment of benefits versus costs reveals the following for the chemical disarmament alternative:

  • Russia’s stance—As key stakeholders in the outcome of the Syrian crisis due to their lease of naval facilities in the country and the alliance with the Assad family, which can be traced back to the Soviet era, the Russians were highly opposed to any foreign interference that did not serve their interests on the ground. Thus, learning of the August chemical attacks, they immediately blocked a UN resolution seeking to condemn the attack and authorize any measures needed to ensure the safety of the Syrian people (Sharp & Blanchard, 2013). Consequently, Russia became the progenitor of the chemical disarmament alternative, ergo, choosing to embark on the disarmament as a joint U.S.–Russia cooperation, maximized the value that could be derived not least by preserving the Kremlin’s interests but also by securing their key political considerations manifested in projecting their global image as a key actor.

  • Support of the UN Security Council—Any resolution on the use of force in Syria would have led to a deadlock in the Security Council, primarily due to Russia’s as well as China’s veto rights (Sharp & Blanchard, 2013). However, once disarmament became feasible, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China supported the alternative (Bloomberg News, 2013). The U.S. choice to present the Council with the disarmament option for a vote enabled it to act in a troubled area of the world, which resulted in a maximization of the alternative’s value. Moreover, it minimized the costs for the United States through a unanimous agreement in the Council, which precluded a need for the United States to act unilaterally as it did in the Iraq War.

  • Support on Capitol Hill—Many lawmakers had throughout the crisis expressed their opinion on the need for the United States to act in Syria, which suggested that both parties questioned the validity of the U.S. cause for intervention (Blake, 2013). Hence, given Congress’s reluctance, opting to entrust the disarmament to an international body embodied an added virtue of eliminating the legislators’ political accountability were it to fail.

  • Public opinion—Among the American public, there was an overwhelming opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria in general and very modest support for an American intervention in case the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its own people (Doherty, 2013). The overall opposition was also slightly mitigated if the intervention policy promised not to risk American lives (Good, 2013). Hence, negotiation for the disarmament to be undertaken by an international body held a virtue of promising to annul any risk for U.S. soldiers and obviated the need for intervention. It thus served as a maximization of value for the administration, which is accountable for any loss of life among its constituency.

  • Monetary value—The Chemical Weapons Convention requires that “each State Party shall meet the costs of destruction of chemical weapons it is obliged to destroy,” thus, although the actual destruction was not to be left to Assad independently, opting to transfer its costs onto Syria by making it a signatory of the convention allowed for a minimization of the alternative’s costs (Freeman & Alikhan, 2013).

  • Support of Cabinet officials—John Kerry, replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, initially voiced the need for stronger action throughout the crisis and publically endorsed a U.S. military intervention after the detection of the Damascus chemical attack (DeYoung & Faiola, 2013). However, as a proponent of the chemical disarmament alternative, Kerry suggested that military action could be avoided if the disarmament were carried out (Martosko, 2013). Adopting Kerry’s proposal and having its originator run point allowed for the best possible outcome from the U.S.–Russian negotiations on the matter; according to senior political analyst Marwan Bishara (2016), the Kerry–Lavrov relations are the mirror image of the fraught Obama–Putin relations.

  • U.S. credibility—During the negotiations, the American stance aimed at securing a threat of punishment as an integral element of the outcome (Borger, 2013). Contingent upon the fruition of its efforts, the alternative’s damage to the U.S. image would be minimized. However, in the final draft of the resolution, the threat of consequences due to a Syrian infringement was only partly accommodated for by calling for such consequences to be decided upon through a resolution on the matter (Lederer & Lee, 2013).

As is now known, the UN Security Council Resolution 2118 of September 2013 transferred the responsibility and hence costs of the destruction of chemical stockpiles onto Syria while conducting a joint UN-OPCW mission to ensure its consummation (Lederer & Lee, 2013). Both these clauses resulted in a maximization of the aforementioned ratio.


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