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Political Psychology of Foreign Policy

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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.

Keywords: Psychology, foreign policy analysis, cognition, emotion, personality, analogies, operational codes, somatic markers

The Psychological Tradition in Foreign Policy Analysis

There are significant elements of what would become known as the discipline of psychology present in the work of the most ancient thinkers on international relations, conflict, and war. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, for instance, recommends that leaders avoid out-and-out conflict by the judicious practice of psychological techniques against the adversary (Mair, 2007). “Taking all under heaven intact”—preserving the spoils of war—was preferable to all-out destruction, Sun Tzu argued, and he therefore recommended outmaneuvering the enemy through the use of mental power rather than violence. Indeed, it might even be possible to avoid conflict altogether through the adroit use of military threat in a way that avoided actual military use (a very early discussion, one might say, of what we would nowadays term conventional deterrence).

Sun Tzu—or rather his students, since it is considered doubtful whether he authored The Art of War himself—were writing around 475–221 B.C.E., and yet they more than grasped the essential role of human psychology in relations between leaders, as did Carl von Clausewitz (Payne, 2013). The explicit study of foreign policy analysis from a psychological angle, however, has been going on only since the 1950s, when Richard Snyder, H. W. Bruck, and Burton Sapin set out the basics of this kind of approach, making an argument has been especially influential ever since. Their book Foreign Policy Decision-Making—which first appeared in 1954—was the most significant work on this subject, and it remains so, even though it is probably little read by students nowadays (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1962).

Equally little read today, perhaps, are Joseph de Rivera’s The Psychological Dimension of Foreign Policy and John Steinbruner’s The Cybernetic Theory of Decision (De Rivera, 1968; Steinbruner, 2002), but both are often rightly seen as foundational texts in the history of the psychology of foreign policy analysis. De Rivera discusses the subjectivity of many phenomena in international relations in particular. “It is difficult even to intellectually grasp the fact that we construct the reality in which we operate. We take our perception of the world for granted,” he notes. “We know what is real. We live in this reality and act accordingly” (De Rivera, 1968, p. 21). Or rather, we think we know what is real, but our perceptions of the world are critical. Steinbruner, similarly, rejects the notion that leaders are fully rational, arguing that decision-making is fraught with uncertainty in governmental contexts and that psychology is critical to how real decisions get made.

In a more proximate sense, work by Alexander George, Charles Hermann, Margaret Hermann, Ole Holsti, Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Stephen Walker has had a particularly noticeable effect on modern scholars, as has seminal work by later scholars like Deborah Welch Larson and Yuen Foong Khong (for some representative examples, see Holsti, 1962, 1976; Jervis, 1968, 1976; George, 1969, 1980; Hermann, 1990, 1974; Khong, 1992; Larson, 1985; Lebow, 1981; Walker, 1977). As we shall see in this discussion, work within the psychology of foreign policy has often tracked, or been inspired by, the mother discipline of psychology itself. And in the 21st century, the approach remains a vibrant and thriving one, with at least five textbooks regularly used to teach the topic in the United States and elsewhere (Breuning, 2007; Mintz & DeRouen, 2010; Alden & Aran, 2011; Houghton, 2012; Hudson, 2013). Younger scholars like Marijke Breuning, Stephen Dyson, Valerie Hudson, Jacques Hymans, Juliet Kaarbo, Alexander Mintz, Rose McDermott, Jonathan Mercer, Mark Schafer, and Cameron Thies draw on all these influences in their work (see, e.g., Dyson, 2009a; Hudson, 2013; Hymans, 2006; Kaarbo, 2015; McDermott, 1998; Mercer, 1996; Mintz & Wayne, 2016; Thies & Breuning, 2012; Walker & Schafer, 2000).

Rather than going into depth about what each of these scholars writes or summarizing their arguments, however, this brief, thematic article will examine the assumptions that they all share (Ripley, 1993). The psychological approach to foreign policy analysis can be summed up in five main assumptions or positions, and these will be used to structure the discussion that follows. First, and most simply stated, is the view that individuals matter. There is a special focus here on the psychology of elites or leaders, since foreign policy in most states is highly centralized. Second, advocates of this approach are committed to subjectivism, the belief that international political events do not exert a direct impact upon the minds of leaders, but that different decision-makers perceive the world around them in different ways (via what might one might call “the filter”). Third, advocates of the psychological view reject or modify the so-called Rational Actor Model (RAM). Fourth, in place of this approach, they argue that real leaders use a variety of cognitive and emotional short cuts, employing a diverse range of specific theories within a rather large tent. Finally, while departures from rationality can derive from ways in which the human brain operates, dysfunctions in decision-making can also stem from group pressures on individual reasoning1. We will take each of these assumptions in turn next.

Individuals Matter

As Baris Kesgin (2010, p. 339) puts it, “foreign policy decision makers are individual actors, and as all individuals, they too are bounded by the human mind. Hence, individual characteristics of decision maker (such as their beliefs, experiences, emotions, and conceptions of the self and nation) can have significant impacts on foreign policy decision making. The effect may be higher under certain circumstances, such as during crises when an individual has to make a decision under stress and time pressure and possibly with limited information.” Put differently, this approach usually works at the individual level of analysis and on the assumption that the psychology of human actors—especially that of leaders or elites2—is the most critical factor in explaining or understanding foreign policy.

Of course, the assumption that individual leaders make a difference is not wholly unique to a psychological approach (see, e.g., Ferguson, 1999; Byman & Pollack, 2001), and the notion that they matter is also compatible with some versions of a Rational Actor approach (or the RAM, discussed in a later section of this article). Many historians in particular share the belief that historical events are not inevitable. However, this is a central uniting theme within the circle of those who study the psychology of individuals and foreign policy. It is easy to see that this is also a necessary assumption because without it, the study of the psychological characteristics of individuals would make little sense.

The logical corollary of this assumption is that history takes on only a fixed form in retrospect, and that in many cases it could have worked out much differently in the past than it actually did3. Put another way, the assumption that individuals matter invites counterfactual reasoning and discussion of what might easily have been the case. Counterfactual reasoning has also been termed the mental manipulation of history, or “virtual history,” and it involves imagining something that we know was not the case in order to better understand what did happen (see, e.g., Tetlock & Belkin, 1996; Lebow, 2000, 2010).

Applied at the individual level, one very common example is the discussion that inevitably follows the question What would have happened if JFK had lived?—especially the possible impact on the Vietnam policies of the United States in the 1960s. Another counterfactual often posed is “What if a president other than Reagan had been in office at the end of the Cold War—would it have ended when it did?” The assumption that such individuals exert a material impact upon history—at least part of the time—is common to all who study the psychology of foreign policy. However, not all who feel that individuals matter will engage in the explicit or implicit study of human psychology or in theorizing about it, and so further delineations are necessary to categorize those who do take this assumption further.

Subjectivism and “the Filter”

Much existing work within international relations continues to assume that states make foreign policy decisions by responding rationally to whatever their objective national interests happen to be, perhaps because it greatly simplifies things to make such an argument. Most famously—or perhaps infamously—neorealism or structural realism assumes that “big, important things” shape a state’s foreign policy, that whatever happens in the world can be explained almost entirely by the structure of the international system, and that leaders—who tend to act rationally—merely respond to the structural cues derived from that system (Waltz, 1999). Neoliberalism explicitly buys into this assumption as well, as do all systemic level analyses of foreign policy. Indeed, some of these theorists rather mystically—and confusingly—pretend that it is somehow possible to explain what states do without recourse to established (i.e., lower-level) theories of foreign policy like those that utilize cognitive and social psychology, a position now rejected by neoclassical realists4.

The argument that it is subjectivism that matters, not objectivism, was apparent in the literature from the very start. Indeed, the central notion of the book Foreign Policy Decision-Making was the idea of “the definition of the situation.” As Richard Snyder notes, “it is difficult to see how we can account for specific actions and for continuities of policies without trying to discover how their operating environments are perceived by those responsible for choices, how particular situations are structured, what values and norms are applied to certain kinds of problems, what matters are selected for attention, and how their past experience conditions present responses” (Snyder et al., 1962, p. 5; italics mine). In other words, it is not the world out there that directly drives outcomes, since different leaders view the same structure quite differently. We always look at this through our own subjective mental filters. Snyder et al. (1962), therefore, recommend that we should try to understand how leaders perceived an event. “The manner in which they define situations becomes another way of saying how the state oriented to action and why,” they note, and we should try to show how—of all the worlds and all the events they might have seen—“the actors . . . finally endow only some with significance” (Ibid, p. 70). This kind of subjectivism, in which reality is filtered and only some things are actually judged to have this significance, has become an article of faith for those who study the psychology of foreign policy.

Rejection (or Modification) of the RAM

Many analysts of international relations assume that states are rational, unitary actors. This approach is sometimes known as the Rational Actor Model (RAM) because it assumes that decision-making involves a deliberately ordered, rational, and organized process of which the decision-maker is fully aware, together with a series of conscious and rather deliberate steps (Allison & Zelikow, 1999).

Table 1. The Rational Actor Model (RAM)

The state behaves as a unitary actor, acting and speaking with one voice

Decision-makers are comprehensively ‘rational’ actors

Decision-makers are assumed to possess perfect information

The decision-makers generate a list of all available options, and they then weigh up the costs and benefits of various options

Decision-makers collectively select that alternative which delivers the greatest benefits relative to cost (maximizes ‘subjective utility’)

Decision-makers update their beliefs when new information becomes available

Source: Houghton, 2012.

The model is based on a number of assumptions about the mental behavior of human beings and the collective behavior of states, which are listed in Table 1. When we use the RAM, we ask ourselves what goals or objectives a state—sometimes our own, often that of an adversary—had in mind. In doing so, we reason backward, reconstructing the decision-making process as if the state were a single person with highly efficient reasoning capacities. This is known as the unified actor assumption. As Morton Halperin (1974, p. 4) puts it:

In trying to explain foreign policy decisions, most observers assume that decision makers are motivated by a single set of national security images and foreign policy goals. Supposedly decisions reflect these goals alone, and actions are presumed to flow directly from the decisions. Thus “explanation” consists of identifying the interests of the nation as seen by the leaders and showing how they determine the decisions and actions of the government . . . This type of analysis is the pervasive form of explanation for foreign policy actions of the United States and other governments.

In this view, the state—often depersonalized, as if it were not composed of and led by flawed human beings—is assumed to act rationally. Decision-makers are believed to arrive at objectives and to generate a list of all conceivable ways of reaching their goals through cost-benefit analysis. They then select the utility-maximizing choice (roughly equivalent in common English usage to “the best choice, given what your goals are”). When new information becomes available, moreover, the RAM assumes that people simply update their beliefs accordingly and may entirely alter the original decision made.

Some economists and advocates of the RAM within political science treat this model as if it literally described how states and policymakers behave, and some even claim the ability to predict events using this approach (e.g., Bueno de Mesquita, 2002). Others use it simply as a set of working assumptions, admitting that it does not describe how people behave in the real world. This second group is prepared to sacrifice a great measure of empirical accuracy with the expectation that doing so will generate powerful predictions (Friedman, 1953). What unites devotees of a psychological approach to foreign policy analysis, on the other hand, is a wholehearted rejection of the RAM, or at least the view that such a view needs to be greatly amended. One pioneer of the field of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler, distinguishes between what he likes to call “Econs” and “Humans,” implicitly questioning whether the first group really exists (quoted in Kahneman, 2011, pp. 269–270.). “Econs” are logical, consistent and fully rational; their preferences do not change, and they act in selfish ways to obtain what they know they want. “Humans,” on the other hand, are far less rational, often act in selfless (rather than selfish) ways, and are not at all sure what they want or what they will do. Paradoxically, then, there is at least one branch of economics nowadays that does not follow the teachings of the rational choice approach, and we shall return to this approach in the final section of this article.

In short, followers of the psychological approach revolt against oversimplification and insist upon empiricism, or the analysis of the world as it actually is. They are not interested in making simplifying assumptions for the sake of parsimony. Of course, doing this makes the analytical process rather messy; as soon as the complexity and greater “realism” of these other approaches is conceded, it becomes clear that much of human behavior is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. This is, however, a price that most scholars of a psychological perspective are prepared to pay.

A Series of Theories About Human Behavior

Painted in a very broad canvas, the psychological approach is driven by a number of key assumptions, summarized in Table 2. From the psychological view, decision-makers are assumed to possess only imperfect information, and there are profound limits to our cognitive-processing capabilities. Individuals utilize various cognitive short cuts when generating a list of available alternatives. Not all conceivable alternatives are considered, and the decision-maker often selects the alternative that will do (in other words, the actor “satisfices” instead of maximizing utility, to use Herbert Simon’s phrase). Moreover, decision-makers often fail to update their beliefs in response to new information, an approach which lies in direct contradiction to the RAM. Emotions, which are also largely ignored by the RAM, may drive decision-making as well, and may indeed be essential to anything remotely approaching rationality.

It is worth emphasizing, though, that this perspective is composed of what is really a group of different theories, so it is difficult to portray it as a single approach. Especially important early contributions to the psychological approach were made by figures like Alexander George, with his work on personality and operational codes; Ole Holsti, on beliefs and images; and Robert Jervis, on the prevalence of misperception and the consequences of the human tendency to seek cognitive consistency in international politics (Holsti, 1962; George, 1969; Jervis, 1968, 1976). More recently, work on schema theory and the related topic of analogical reasoning dominated the psychological approach, and today, attention is increasingly focused on the part played by emotion in decision-making. While there are many different ways in which one could organize this very substantial literature, we will divide the following section into four categories: the impact of personality, operational codes and beliefs, cognitive theories, and the role of emotion.

Table 2. The Psychological Approach Summarized

Human beings (in an information-processing sense) are inherently ‘limited’ creatures who frequently rely on cognitive ‘short cuts’ (eg analogies, schemas and scripts).

Many pathologies in foreign decision-making from the way in which the human mind works, and misperception is common.

Personality, beliefs and images drive decision-making.

The ‘drivers’ or cognitive structures in our brains are remarkably resistant to change (eg belief systems).

Emotion may have a critical impact on decision-making via its effect on judgment, and this impact may sometimes be beneficial and sometimes not.

Source: Adapted from Houghton, The Decision Point.


The earliest work in this area was influenced and shaped by Freudian (or post-Freudian) analysis, psychiatry, and psychobiography. Works like Alexander and Juliette George’s Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House in particular started the psychological study of foreign policy, arguing that childhood experiences are critical to future personality development and political performance (George & George, 1964). In even earlier work, Harold Laswell—who might fairly be regarded as the founding father of political psychology—argued that political behavior was mainly the result of the displacement of private or personal conflicts into public life.

Violating his own earlier advice in textbooks written as an academic, Woodrow Wilson refused to compromise with Senate Republicans like Henry Cabot Lodge on legislation, and matters came to a head with the doomed League of Nations Treaty. George and George argued that Wilson’s rigidity (exhibited throughout his career, not just over the issue of the league) stemmed from a need to compensate psychologically for the father’s harsh treatment of his son. Dr. Joseph Wilson supposedly had a tendency to deny the young Woodrow affection when he failed to outperform his peers, producing a rigid and uncompromising personality in his son. Later on, Doris Kearns Goodwin made a similar type of argument about Lyndon Johnson’s inflexibility with regard to Vietnam—tracing it this time to young Lyndon’s treatment by his mother—and James David Barber pushed the tradition even further by developing a whole theory of presidential performance based on personality (Goodwin, 1976; Barber, 1992).

Newer work by scholars like Stephen Dyson—who has pioneered the systematic study of the characteristics of British prime ministers—continues to utilize a personality-based approach, although he combines a focus on the latter with an analysis of leader beliefs (see, e.g., Dyson, 2006, 2009a, 2009b). Dyson uses “at-a-distance” techniques to measure the cognitive complexity of Tony Blair, for example, and suggests that another British leader might well not have taken the United Kingdom into Iraq in George W. Bush’s wake after 2003. Dyson finds that Blair possesses only low conceptual complexity, but combines this with a high belief in his own ability to control events, as well as a high need for power (Dyson, 2006). Similarly, and this time utilizing Margaret Hermann’s methods of measuring complexity, he argues that Margaret Thatcher had a very strong tendency toward black-and-white thinking of a sort that brooked little or no discussion. This frequently brought her into clashes with colleagues and led to an uncompromising approach toward crises like the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 (Dyson, 2009b).

Although this approach has been heavily criticized for being difficult to handle methodologically, great strides have been made in this area, and it remains a vibrant approach. And it is almost certainly true that personality affects foreign policy in some way, even if that impact is notoriously hard to pin down. At the same time, some early works produced counterreactions, both against post-Freudian, psychobiographic types of analysis and the supposedly unscientific style in which these arguments were constructed. The main focus of later work would still be on leader rigidity. But might inflexibility be explained by beliefs alone, rather than some mixture of beliefs and personality?

Operational Codes and Beliefs

The work of Snyder and his colleagues, as well as James Rosenau’s later “pre-theory” of foreign policy, encouraged the hope that foreign policy analysis would one day put the discipline on a “scientific” basis, using the right methodological techniques (Rosenau, 1966, pp. 115–169). This approach, which is loosely referred to in political science as positivism, uses the natural sciences as a model for how we should garner knowledge about the social world, and in the 1960s, it was part of a broader movement known as the behavioral revolution (Eulau, 1963). Early operational code analysts shared the concerns of that movement, troubled that research about foreign policy decisions never seemed to accumulate. It tended to be based on single case studies, it was argued, and so some began to search for more rigorous techniques instead, using quantitative (statistical) approaches instead of qualitative ones (Neack, Hey, & Haney, 1995).

Ultimately, the attempt to turn foreign policy analysis into a science did not succeed. Later analysts have certainly not abandoned the search for a single, unified theory of foreign policy altogether and have not wholly abandoned the search for explanation, but their methods nowadays are a mixture of the neopositivist and the postpositivist. The study of personality jarred with this empirical approach, however, and it led to an increased focus on what could be measured—an individual’s beliefs, set against his or her behavior.

Perhaps ironically, it would be Alexander George who encouraged the study of what became known as operational codes of leaders and the search for more scientific, or testable, theories. George would prove instrumental in inaugurating this trend (George, 1969). In a celebrated and influential article, he expanded on earlier work by Nathan Leites to divide a leader’s beliefs into two fundamental categories: philosophical and instrumental. The operational code, George argued, provides a “set of general beliefs about fundamental issues of history as central questions as these bear, in turn, on the problem of action” (Ibid, p. 191). Philosophical beliefs have to do with a leader’s general philosophy about the nature of political life, while instrumental ones deal with more practical questions, such as how one goes about implementing one’s chosen political objectives. A leader’s philosophical beliefs have to do with the answers to questions that animated classic political thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, such as “What is the political world like?” Instrumental questions, on the other hand, are questions having to do with “How should we achieve our goals?”

The operational code approach focuses on the individual, looking at the ways in which leaders differ in their reactions to the same political environment. Here, we see the continued influence of subjectivism. If the objective situation were really what determined everything, we would not need to bother studying a leader’s beliefs since they would not add anything much to the explanation (they would be epiphenomenal, in other words). But while George conceded that there are some circumstances where situation or environment would in effect force a leader’s hand, in general he maintained that subjective beliefs could be expected to shape behavior in most circumstances.

Having laid out the basic form of operational code analysis, George left it to his followers to apply the theory empirically. One of the most prolific of these has been Stephen Walker. One of the best known of his articles was an operational code analysis of former U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger (Walker, 1977). Examining Kissinger’s work as an academic scholar prior to joining the Richard Nixon administration in 1969, Walker demonstrates a strong correlation between Kissinger’s writings as an academic and his actual behavior in office, albeit on only one important issue (policy-making with regard to Vietnam between 1969 and 1973). Walker (1977, p. 147) concludes that “in spite of the exigencies of bureaucratic politics and alliance diplomacy, plus the personal intervention of President Nixon at key points, Kissinger dominated the conduct of the American foreign policy that terminated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He acted according to the instrumental principles of his operational code.” The individual made a difference, and so did his particular psychological characteristics.

One feature of core beliefs—attitudes that are so central to an individual that questioning them would lead to fundamental change—seems to be their rigidity, a factor that analysts of foreign policy like George had noticed early on. Working in the early 1960s, Ole Holsti also showed how Secretary of State John Foster Dulles kept to his uncompromising belief that communism represented a moral evil (Holsti, 1962). A staunchly religious figure who despised “Godless” communism and everything it stood for, Dulles clung to this belief even in the face of information that showed—or strongly suggested—that he was wrong. There were some indications during the 1950s that the Soviets were seeking détente with the United States, but Dulles explained this away by dismissing it as an indication of Soviet “weakness.”

Cognitive Theories

Holsti’s analysis of the rigidity of some beliefs suggested the importance of cognitive consistency theory and helped to pave the way for a range of cognitive theories then popular within psychology (which still retain many adherents today, as do the personality and operational code approaches). The RAM, as we have already seen, suggests that decision-makers update our beliefs when new information comes along, since this supposedly causes us to revise our whole interpretation of the situation. But cognitive consistency theory argues—among other things—that we often fail to take this new information on board (Festinger, 1957). In real life, we frequently cling to our existing preconceptions, and in fact, we have a tendency to rationalize away information that does not already fit what we think. Holding beliefs that are incompatible with the facts is intensely uncomfortable—leading to a state of what the psychologist Leon Festinger (1957) called “cognitive dissonance”—and we are thus motivated to bring things back into balance now, creating a state of “consonance.”

During the 1970s and 1980s, schema theory had a particular influence on how foreign policy was studied as well. That approach (and the associated idea of mental scripts) argues that we are in effect “cognitive misers.” Rather than treating each piece of new information on its own merits, we assimilate knowledge into preexisting categories that we have created in our brains. This is cognitively efficient—for one thing, it avoids reinventing the wheel—and it is also relatively easy to do. When we put things into mental boxes, we classify them in a way that makes information easier to handle. Deborah Welch Larson (1985) showed how different cognitive theories could be used to explain the onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, for instance. Although she concluded that a range of cognitive theories were useful for understanding that event, she helped to put schema theory on the theoretical map among scholars of foreign policy decision-making.

In a related vein, much work from the 1970s to the 1990s placed a particular emphasis on the role of analogical reasoning (Khong, 1992). Some historians had studied the relevance of analogies in the formation of foreign policy in the past, but Yuen Khong showed how such an approach dovetailed neatly with schema theory. He was also influenced by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, arguing that leaders tend to use historical analogies that are both available (spring readily to mind because they are recent or vivid) and representative (they seem to match the attributes of the problem under consideration). History, he argued, was not some kind of random “grab bag” from which anything convenient was pulled, but there was in fact a pattern to which analogies got used. Faced with the dilemma of too much information or too little, we often unconsciously cut a path through complexity and ambiguity by using analogies, using seen as a form of cognitive short cut. Faced with a complex situation in the Middle East in 1990–1991, for instance, George H. W. Bush very often used the Munich or World War II analogy, frequently comparing Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, to Adolf Hitler and implying that if Saddam were not stopped in his tracks, he would rampage across the Middle East much as Hitler had done in Europe during the 1930s. As Khong showed, Lyndon Johnson did something very similar in the 1960s, viewing Vietnam through the cognitive lens of Korea rather than Dien Bien Phu (even though the latter would have proved a “better” comparison, as things turned out).

The Role of Emotion

Some cognitive models (most notably cognitive consistency theory) always had a motivational aspect to them, as well as a cognitive one, and some work during the early 1980s predated the turn toward emotion (for an example, see Lebow, 1981). The movement toward pure cognition in that decade was probably excessive, however, in the sense that the model for many cognitive models was the laboratory computer. But human beings, as we know, are not exactly like computers—for one thing, we “feel” as well as “think”—so in the 21st century, the psychological approach has followed its mother discipline in placing increased emphasis on the role of emotion in judgment and decision-making.

As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has suggested, practically the only individuals who actually make decisions in the laborious, time-consuming fashion of the RAM are people who have experienced damage to the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain located at just about eye level that is closely associated with emotions and decision-making. In his book Descartes’ Error, he relates the story of a brain-damaged patient whom he calls “Elliot” (Damasio, 1994). When asked to set up a time for his next appointment, Elliot begins an all-encompassing attempt lasting several hours to weigh up the pros and cons of every conceivable date in his diary until finally his exhausted doctors ask him to stop. What psychologically normal decision-makers do instead of this is to process information via the use of heuristics, which permit us to reach a decision more quickly and expeditiously than we could if we were to replicate Elliot’s approach.

But this process is not characterized by what might be termed “cold cognition,” since a variety of “hot” processes are involved as well. Although the study of emotion in still in its early stages among those who study the psychology of foreign policy—it is hard to study in elites (as opposed to masses), since leaders rarely submit to the use of imaging [i.e., functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)] techniques to illuminate the emotions that they are facing—some steps forward have already been taken (Crawford, 2000; Mercer, 2005; Renshon & Lerner, 2012). Renshon and Lerner (2012, p. 3), for instance, find that “emotions can have different effects on the content of thought (what exactly decision-makers think about) and the process of thought (how deeply and shallowly they consider information).” We have made particular progress in assessing how happiness, fear, and anger affect decision-making. For instance, being in a state of anger can lead a decision-maker to treat another leader more harshly, even though the latter may have played no role in eliciting the anger in the first place. Fear, on the other hand, produces a feeling of loss aversion and an unwillingness to take risks, while anger may lead to the opposite results. Work by James Blight on the Cuban missile crisis suggests somewhat similar effects. As Blight argues in The Shattered Crystal Ball, fear seems to have sharpened the reasoning processes of President John F. Kennedy and those around him rather than blunting these (which research on stress and decision-making has shown is possible at the low-to-moderate end of the scale). Indeed, fear may have an “adaptive” role in decision-making (Blight, 1990).

It is also possible that “emotional markers” lie behind many processes that were previously considered largely cognitive. For instance, people tend to use analogies that provoked some powerful emotion. Put differently, an “emotional heuristic”—rather than simply cognitive availability or representativeness—may lie behind a great deal of analogical reasoning. In this vein, Damasio developed the somatic marker hypothesis to help explain how decisions are made in the real world (Damasio, 1994, pp. 165–201). Rejecting rational choice approaches, he argues that we utilize emotional short cuts instead—associations between situations and the emotions that these have previously activated within us. Somatic markers are not conscious memories, but subconscious emotional reactions that link particular situations and how those situations make us feel. They also help shape decision-making by disposing us in favor of things that produce favorable sensations and against those that are unfavorable. As Sekuler and Blake (1998, p. 35) put it:

Our emotionally charged memories of places, objects, and even events become marked. These markers carry a somatic signature, meaning that they evoke a bodily feeling. Once you’ve had a painful experience in the dentist’s chair, you experience heightened nervousness each subsequent time you approach the dentist’s office. When you’ve enjoyed a pleasant afternoon in the park with a friend, you feel warm and happy as you approach the park a week or a month later. When something in the environment activates a somatic marker, a version of the original feeling is automatically reinstated. Somatic markers improve decision making by providing valuable clues about the consequences of alternative courses of action.

A good example from foreign policy is former U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance and the unpleasant, anxiety-producing experience of being a decision-maker in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War (he was Robert McNamara’s deputy in the 1960s). Damasio’s theory would suggest that after going through that experience, Vance’s brain stored it as a somatic marker (in other words, a link was created in his brain between that type of situation and how he felt about it). If Vietnam-type situations were encountered in later life, they would activate the somatic marker, and Vance would experience general anxiety and unpleasant sensations (or whatever associations were originally made). This would then dispose him against the kind of actions that he saw Johnson undertake (e.g., the use of military solutions like the bombing campaign Rolling Thunder). Later, in 1980, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s proposal that President Jimmy Carter use helicopters to rescue the hostages in Tehran might well equally activate a negative marker in Vance, causing him to feel almost exactly how he felt years ago when discussing Vietnam.

In contrast to the largely conscious process of matching one situation with another, this is usually held to be an unconscious or gut-level process in which emotion and feeling are believed to take precedence over conscious deliberation. Moreover, somatic markers enable a kind of psychological “time travel”; they take us back to the way we felt at the time and place that the marker was set down. We often talk of “being transported to another place,” and this is perhaps what was happening to Vance in 1980. Indeed, he felt strongly enough about the issue to resign over it when the mission went ahead.

Group (or Social Psychological) Influences

It is technically only partially true to say that the individual is paramount within perspectives that stress the role of psychology in foreign policy decision-making, since the “groupthink” perspective inaugurated by the social psychologist Irving Janis stresses the role of group pressure in producing conformity within a group. Since the 1970s, some analysts have stressed the impact of such pressures in subsuming the individual. Others, on the other hand, have warned of the dangers inherent in the opposite extreme, which has been labeled “polythink” (Mintz & Wayne, 2016). Both perspectives, though, suggest that leaders can take steps to avoid group dysfunction, and that individuals can therefore overcome group processes.

The first—and thus far most influential—of these has been the groupthink theory (Janis, 1982). That term denotes a collective rush to judgment, in which members come to prize concurrence-seeking over the full or comprehensive consideration of all available courses of action. Influenced by his mentor, Solomon Asch, Janis was a social psychologist who was interested in the array of foreign policy fiascoes that he had observed in postwar American foreign policy: U.S. military personnel famously failed to heed warnings that the Japanese were about to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance. Why?

From Janis’s perspective, the answer had to do with group behavior. Individuals do not usually take decisions on their own but do so in groups, and people often behave differently in a group context than they would when acting alone. Group pressures in turn may induce an actor to behave in nonrational ways, contrary to his or her own beliefs and values, and policy alternatives may be underexplored if they violate the group consensus. Decision-makers may fail to even voice their private concerns about the group’s chosen course of action. Some members of a decision-making group may also take it upon themselves to police the existing consensus by knocking down any dissent from the favored course of action. Such individuals have been termed self-appointed “mindguards” (Janis, 1982).

To stick with the 1941 example, the U.S. naval fleet was destroyed by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Policymakers in Washington had repeatedly warned the on-site commander, Admiral Joseph Kimmel, that the Japanese were preparing to attack. However, Kimmel and his colleagues seem to have been laboring under the misapprehension that the fleet was immune from attack, or at least that such an attack was very unlikely. What Janis (1982) calls an “illusion of invulnerability” appears to have been present within the group, and he notes that this illusion is almost always a cause for concern. Groups that are highly cohesive may come to believe that they are not only invulnerable, but morally superior to their adversaries, refusing to countenance outside views or warnings that disaster is imminent. The group that discounted the advice emanating from Washington seems to have exhibited just these characteristics. Similar dynamics are said to have underlaid the 1961 US decision to invade at the Bay of Pigs and the 1965 decision to escalate involvement in Vietnam.

An exclusive focus on groupthink, of course, is probably not entirely productive, in the sense that the opposite tendency—wholesale division and dissention—may be just as prevalent as excessive conformity. Groupthink as a term is now so accepted by practitioners and scholars alike that it is routinely used by prime ministers and presidents, among others. David Cameron’s made a House of Commons speech in the immediate aftermath of the July 2016 Chilcote Report on British involvement in Iraq that referenced the tendency, and the much-earlier U.S. 9/11 Commission Report is replete with references to groupthink. But what Mintz and Wayne (2016) term “polythink” is essentially the polar opposite of this. Rather than denoting mass agreement, it refers to the fragmentation and paralysis that can beset any divided decision-making group. While groupthink verges on total agreement among an inner circle of advisers, polythink focuses upon the fault lines within an administration that also can bedevil its decision-making. The Bill Clinton administration, for instance, was often paralyzed by too much information and complexity, by the tendency of its leader to see all sides (and perhaps too many) sides of an issue, and too little decisiveness of the part of its leadership.

The Polythink syndrome argues that groups can fall prey to either tendency and that each represents the opposing extreme along a single continuum. But it also acknowledges a very conscious debt to the work of Janis, arguing (as he often did) that group dysfunction is not inevitable. The book reminds us that group dysfunction can be minimized through the use of various leadership techniques (Mintz and Wayne, 2016, pp. 32–34). In that sense, both works operate at the individual level as well as the group one, and both acknowledge the forceful impact that individual leadership can have.

The Triumph of the Psychological Perspective?

The years ahead will not be without challenges. It is unclear how one measures emotion, for instance, and this remains one difficulty with the notion of personality (which, as we have seen, was emphasized very early on in the study of the psychology of foreign policy). Another problem—or at least “issue,” since this may be a fact of life rather than a problem as such—is that the psychological approach to foreign policy analysis is rarely seen as a perspective in its own right, receiving honorable mentions in various textbooks on international relations and foreign policy but rarely being regarded as a separate entity. It is often added to realist or liberal accounts. But it is important, at least for pedagogical reasons, that the psychological view be seen as “sitting somewhere,” although it is a gross mistake to see psychology as irrelevant (Houghton, 2007). At least three theoretical developments have thrust the psychological approach back into the forefront in recent years, however: the rise of constructivism with its concerted focus on subjectivism, the rise of neoclassical realism with its move to “lower” levels of analysis, and finally the rise of “behavioral economics” with its forceful emphasis on how individuals really make decisions and evident dissatisfaction with the RAM.

First, the rise of constructivism has elevated subjectivism to new and more visible levels, and the “high priest of constructivism,” Alexander Wendt, has acknowledged an explicit debt to early psychological work within the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) in his Social Theory of International Politics. He notes there that “constructivist assumptions underlie the phenomenological tradition in the study of foreign policy, starting with the work of Snyder, Bruck, and Sapin, and continuing on with Robert Jervis and Ned Lebow” (Wendt, 1999, p. 3; see also Kubalkova, 2001, p. 27). This work exerted a formative influence on the development of constructivism, even though Wendt takes all the psychology in an oddly structural direction in his own version (something that in many ways goes against the spirit of what these early scholars were trying to achieve). Although many constructivists perhaps treat subjectivism as if it were an original idea, it clearly long predates the emergence of that approach within international relations. Nevertheless, constructivism and the psychological approach are “ideological bedfellows” in this respect, as Shannon and Kowert so aptly put it (Shannon & Kowert, 2012; see also Kaarbo, 2015, pp. 199–203).

Within the study of international relations, we have also seen the emergence of realist approaches that challenge structural realist models and leave the door open for human psychology—especially that of leaders—to play a critical role in the formulation of foreign policy (Kaarbo, 2015, pp. 204–205). The neoclassical version of realism represents a very conscious and deliberate reaction to the inadequacies of the older neorealist perspective and (to a lesser extent) the even-older classical realist tradition (Rose, 1998; Taliaferro, Lobell, & Ripsman, 2009; Hadfield-Amkhan, 2010). Neoclassical realists focus on a variety of unit-level or domestic factors that cause foreign policy to reflect structural demands or objective material power only in the broadest sense, attempting to explain behavior at the structural, state, and individual levels of analysis. In a structural sense, it accepts that the nature of the international system, as well as the degree of material power that a state has within it, set the parameters of a government’s foreign policy in a rather broad sense. To take Britain as an example, its ambitions are restricted by its waning material capabilities, and since the decline of the empire, foreign interventions have been difficult to sustain and hence rarely undertaken in a unilateral fashion (Suez and the Falklands were rare exceptions, but in the latter case, we now know that the United States quietly provided the United Kingdom with logistical assistance in 1982).

But this is where foreign policy becomes more complicated. For neoclassical realists, states do not just respond to external demands; while they are constrained by the polarity of the system, they enjoy a certain freedom to maneuver in choosing how to respond. There thus exists only an imperfect correlation between so-called structural imperatives and the manner in which states actually behave (i.e., between the amount of our power and the nature and content of our foreign policy). To use Britain as an example again, the 2016 “Brexit” vote—in which a narrow majority of the U.K. public voted to leave the European Union—shows in stark fashion how domestic political considerations can intrude into this supposedly structural process. By most estimates, Britain had a powerful economic interest in staying in the European Union (EU), but by a small majority, the U.K. referendum of June 2016 resulted in a vote to leave. British prime minister David Cameron had been pressured into holding that referendum in the first place. In other words, interests were not what mattered; perceptions of interests clearly did.

The psychological approach to foreign policy analysis has also most recently acquired strong vindication from the discipline of economics, previously an unchallenged bastion of the rational choice approach (and therefore a rather unexpected source of support). Behavioral economics is a relatively new field within its mother discipline which challenges older assumptions about rationality. In particular, it presents a central challenge to the idea that utility maximization is a feature of economic behavior, arguing that the framing of problems has a huge impact on the manner in which they are addressed—strong echoes here of Snyder et al. (1962)’s idea of the “definition of the situation.” In so doing, behavioral economics draws upon precisely the same intellectual forerunners that have inspired the psychological approach to foreign policy analysis.

Popular works like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness draw their inspiration most directly from the work of Herbert Simon, and then Kahneman and Tversky, on biases and heuristics in decision-making—authors who also clearly influenced the development of the psychological perspective after the 1950s and 1970s, respectively (Ariely, 2008; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Economic behaviors are sometimes seen by political scientists as the most likely to conform to rationalistic models of decision-making. But if even the economic conduct of individuals and corporations fails to live up to the exalted standards of the RAM, where does that leave the rational choice approach? The tragedy, perhaps, is that we have never really seen the emergence of a behavioral politics tradition in political science to rival that now being seen in economics. Equally tragic, one might argue, is the tendency of political science as a field to ape perspectives from other fields that have long become unfashionable, if not outright anachronistic, within them.

There is a tendency to think that psychological models are useful only when we are dealing with extreme or psychologically damaged individuals, a tendency that is perhaps encouraged by the existing literature (which tends to focus on policy fiascoes or disasters, suggesting perhaps that the leader was inevitably responsible for the mess). But as the historian Richard Immerman notes, such a conclusion would be quite erroneous. “The suitability of a psychological approach . . . is not limited to when individuals appear to act irrationally or erratically,” he notes (Immerman, 1990, p. 170). Few would argue that psychology alone determines all decision-making, of course, since situational variables clearly make a difference on occasion. However, the central role of perception in all human affairs—and especially in fields of structural uncertainty, like foreign policy and international affairs in general—places an absolute premium on psychology.


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                                                                                                                                                    (1.) Other theories of foreign policy analysis depart from the Rational Actor assumption, such as approaches that emphasize the impact of domestic politics or bureaucratic infighting, but our focus here is exclusively upon the psychological perspective.

                                                                                                                                                    (2.) In principle, this approach could be applied to nonelites, however, and to the leaders of nonstate entities.

                                                                                                                                                    (3.) It is worth noting here that the use of counterfactual reasoning does not require that individuals be the focus of attention, since one can hold variables at any and every level of analysis constant in the imagination in order to employ the technique. It is a methodological rather than a substantive approach. Nevertheless, holding individuals constant—or the assumption that another individual would or could have acted differently—is the most obvious way of using counterfactual reasoning.

                                                                                                                                                    (4.) The noun recourse is itself revealing, since it suggests that a deeper analysis is somehow unnecessary or surplus to requirements.