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date: 29 March 2017

The Political Psychology of Foreign Policy

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

For over sixty years now, scholars of International Relations 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 (for instance) has proven repeatedly useful. That approach has focused on the social psychology of foreign policy, although more attention has been directed in recent years towards 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 has become rather more eclectic and dynamic in its 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 towards 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 international relations theory, and it has often been treated as an addendum to studying international relations—and even an element of unnecessary complexity—rather than being absolutely central to what we study. Indeed, the study of Foreign Policy Decision Making (or FPDM) has acquired a reputation as a discipline that is merely “marking time.” But this perspective on the psychology of foreign policy is both wrong and analytically dangerous. Attempts to create international relations 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 failure of overly systemic theories like neo-realism to account for foreign policy outcomes have caused neoclassical realists to deliberately incorporate the psychology of decision makers into their theories. In short, knowledge of psychology has proven 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.