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date: 27 March 2017

Cognitive Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

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, but instead is 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.