US Policy Changes Vol.59 (Foreign Policy Vol.9 – psychology and decision-making)

Here is an academic paper: Psychology and Foreign Policy Decision-Making (PDF; Sep 2014) | Jack S. Levy @RutgersPoliSci @SurreyPolitics. Excerpt is on our own.

Political psychology occupies an uncertain space in the study of international relations and foreign policy. …
At the same time, however, explanations of many consequential historical events give considerable causal weight to the role of individual political leaders. …
These different perspectives reflect a tension between the goals of constructing parsimonious and generalizable theoretical explanations of international behavior and of providing nuanced and descriptively accurate explanations of individual historical episodes. …
…the impact of psychology on judgment and decision-making on foreign policy issues by political leaders. …

1. Conceptual Issues
… First, individual-level psychological variables cannot by themselves provide a logically complete explanation of foreign policy, which is a state-level dependent variable. …
…individual level psychological variables…cannot by themselves provide a logically complete explanation for war or for other international patterns. …
… The psychological theories from which foreign policy analysts draw are based on carefully controlled experimental studies with extensive replication. …
One problem is that individuals selected into political leadership roles differ from the college students that typically serve as subjects in many experiments. …
Another limitation on the generalizability of typical experiments in social psychology to foreign policy behavior is that most of these experiments ignore the political and strategic context of decisions. …
International relations scholars have attempted to get around the limitations of experiments through the use of historical case studies. …

2. The Evolution of the Study of Psychology and Foreign Policy
… Prior to the 1960s, foreign policy analysis…was more descriptive and prescriptive than theoretical. …
… Scholars were more interested in describing the foreign policies of states, and providing general interpretations based on different conceptions of policy goals and strategies for advancing those goals, than in looking inside the “black box” of decision-making and analyzing the processes through which foreign policy is actually made. …
Many scholars implicitly adopted a rationalist framework in which states have certain “national interests” that political leaders attempt to maximize through a careful weighing of costs and benefits. …
It was social psychologists and personality theorists, rather than political scientists, who demonstrated the greatest initial interest in the psychological dimensions of international relations. …
…scholars continued to show an interest in more general (and more easily testable) models of personality and foreign policy…
Meanwhile, by the 1950s and 1960s social psychologists had begun to move away from a reductionist perspective that traced causality in international affairs exclusively to individual needs, motivations, and tendencies, and toward a view that recognized the political and international context of foreign policy behavior. …
… Scholars incorporated political leaders’ world views but generally treated them as exogenous and made little attempt to explain the social, intellectual, and psychological processes that generated them. …
… Overturning the conventional wisdom that the primary source of intelligence failure was the lack of adequate information, Wohlstetter argued that the real problem in 1941 was not the lack of information but the excess of information and the inability to distinguish signals from noise. …
… One influential research program was the Stanford project on International Conflict and Integration. This “1914 project” was novel both in its application of mediated stimulus-response models to international politics and in its use of formal content analyses of diplomatic documents to examine decision-makers’ perceptions and the discrepancy between perceptions and reality…
…Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Jervis provided a comprehensive survey of theory and experimental evidence from many diverse areas of cognitive and social psychology bearing on questions of perception and misperception in international relations, illustrated by a wide range of historical examples. …
Jervis also provided a framework for thinking about the role of psychological variables in a way that avoided the “over-psychologizing” of earlier social-psychological approaches. …
…“cognitive paradigm”… The basic premises of the cognitive approach are that the world is extraordinarily complex, incoherent, and changing, but that people are limited in their capacities to process information and fully satisfy standards of ideal rationality in their attempts to maximize their interests. …
…perception is more theory-driven than data driven…
…lead to “motivated biases,”… driven by people’s emotional needs, by their need to maintain self-esteem, and by their interests – diplomatic, political, organizational, or personal. The result is “wishful thinking”…
Motivated biases are most likely to manifest themselves in decisions involving high stakes and consequential actions that might affect important values or tradeoffs among important values. …
…focus on a number of specific research areas: learning, including both the updating of beliefs and learning from historical analogies; the application of the Rubicon model of action phases to overconfidence in judgments about war; prospect theory; poliheuristic theory; and time horizons, including applications of discounting models and of construal-level theory.

3. Some Specific Research Programs
3.1 Learning and Foreign Policy
… The leading interpretation of that failure emphasizes that Israeli political and military leaders and the intelligence community shared the belief that (1) Egypt would not go to war unless it was able to mount air strikes deep into Israel in order to neutralize Israel’s air force, and that (2) Syria would not go to war without Egypt. …
… Beliefs can change if information deviating from prior beliefs is strong and salient, if it arrives all at once, if there are relatively objective indicators to provide a baseline for the evaluation of the accuracy of beliefs, if decision-makers operate in “multiple advocacy” decision-making units, and if they are self-critical in their styles of thinking…
…“lessons of the past”… …“Munich analogy,”… …“Vietnam analogy,”…
… As Jervis (1976, p.228) argued, “People pay more attention to what has happened than to why it has happened. Thus learning is superficial, overgeneralized…. Lessons learned will be applied to a wide variety of situations without a careful effort to determine whether the cases are similar on crucial dimensions.”
…instead of learning from history, political leaders may use history to gain political support for their preexisting policy preferences, reversing the causal arrows. … In the strategic use of history, leaders deliberately select certain historical analogies and interpret them in a way to influence others to support the leader’s preferred policy. Alternatively, motivated biases may subconsciously lead an individual to search for historical analogies that reinforce his/her preexisting policy preferences. …

3.2 The Rubicon Model of War
… In fact, many scholars have pointed to the overconfidence of political and military leaders on the eve of war, their exaggerated confidence not only in victory but in a relatively quick victory with tolerable costs… …a puzzle, especially if we have reason to believe that information about relative capabilities is relatively constant. …
… In the pre-decision phase, people tend to adopt a “deliberative” mind-set, where alternative options and their possible consequences are carefully compared. In the post-decisional or implementation phase of decision-making people shift from making a decision to thinking about how to implement it. In this latter phase they are more vulnerable to psychological biases, including diminished receptivity to incoming information, and increased vulnerability to selective attention, tunnel vision, cognitive dissonance, self-serving illusions, and illusion of control. …
The Rubicon model…
… A number of IR scholars have emphasized that a sense of the loss of control as war approaches is common and consequential because it can lead decision-makers to abandonment attempts to manage the crisis to avoid war and instead to prepare for war, which generates a momentum of its own. …

3.3 Prospect Theory
… In political science, prospect theory has been particularly influential in international relations, in part because the choices of individual leaders have a greater impact than in domestic policy. …
… People “frame” choice problems around a reference point (“reference dependence”), give more weight to losses from that reference point than to comparable gains (“loss aversion”), and make risk-averse choices when possible outcomes are positive and risk-acceptant choices where possible outcomes are negative (the “domain of losses”). Their strong aversion to losses, particularly to “dead” losses that are perceived as certain (as opposed to those that are perceived as probabilistic), lead them to take significant risks… …“endowment effect”…
Because value is defined in terms of gains and losses relative to a reference point, how people identify their reference points is critical. A change in reference point can lead to a change in preference (“preference reversal”) even if the values and probabilities associated with possible outcomes remain unchanged. …
…people “renormalize” their reference points after making gains faster than they do after incurring losses. …
… (1) Because decision-makers usually take the status quo as their reference point, and because the costs of moving away from it are treated as losses and overweighted relative to the benefits (gains) of doing so, states have a greater-than-expected tendency to remain at the status quo (the “status quo bias”). …
… (6) if one state makes gains at another’s expense, the winner generally renormalizes its reference point and takes excessive risks to defend the new status quo against subsequent losses. … (8) Reaching a negotiated settlement is more difficult than expected utility theory predicts because people overweight what they concede in bargaining relative to what they get in return. …
… The key variables of interest in international relations – relative power, reputation, and the external security of states and the internal security of political elites, among others – are extraordinarily difficult to measure on an interval scale. …

3.4 Poliheuristic Theory
… If decision-makers value one dimension so highly that they refuse to consider any strategy that falls below an acceptable level on that dimension, regardless of the benefits along another dimension, they have “lexicographic” preferences and follow a non-compensatory decision rule…
Poliheuristic theory posits a two-stage decision making process. In the first stage the actor eliminates all strategies that are expected to lead to unacceptable outcomes on a particular dimension. In the second stage s/he selects the strategy with the highest expected utility. …
… The two-stage character of the model…is intriguing. It captures a basic intuition about the unwillingness of political leaders to do anything that might significantly threaten their domestic political positions. …

3.5 Time Horizons
… Just like individuals in their personal lives, political leaders must make choices involving tradeoffs between current benefits and future costs (or current sacrifices for future benefits), both for the country and for their own political fortunes. …
… One important exception is Axelrod’s (1984) influential model of cooperation in iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma games. …
… Scholars have spent a fair amount of effort trying to explain the systematic underestimation of long-term costs and the absence of planning – by the United States in Iraq, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and numerous other cases. …
…those actors with long time horizons think about the future in abstract terms and tend to emphasize the desirability of future goals while neglecting their feasibility and the details of implementation, just as construal level theory predicts. …
… Actors are more focused on the desirability of distant outcomes than on their feasibility, which generates greater optimism about the future, less concern about the future enforcement of current bargains, and a greater willingness to reach a negotiated settlement.

4. Conclusions
… A leader’s willingness to take risks has undeniable importance in decisions for war, but IR scholars have given relatively little attention to this critical variable. Formal decision and game-theoretic models recognize that risk propensities are important but treat them exogenously, and often assume either risk neutrality or risk aversion. Prospect theory provides…
In addition, whereas prospect theory, like expected utility theory, assumes that probabilities are known, decision-makers make choices in a world in which probabilities are unknown, which introduces an additional level of complication. …
… People are more risk averse in response to “unknown unknowns” than they are to “known unknowns.” …
… Most discussions of threat perception focus primarily how one state perceives adversary intentions and/or capabilities while ignoring how the adversary attempts to influence the way it is perceived by others by strategically manipulating the images it projects. …“signaling”… It ignores the psychology of threat perception and the substantial evidence that the way signals are perceived and interpreted are significantly shaped and distorted by the receiver’s prior belief system, emotional needs, political interests…
… If ideas change in response to changing international structures, those ideas do not have an autonomous causal impact on policy outcomes. …
… The emphasis on the social construction of meanings, identities, and worldviews gives priority to the social and cultural sources of identity formation while minimizing the role of psychology. …
…foreign economic policy and international political economy. This field has been dominated by structural approaches that basically ignore individual-level sources of behavior and indeed the decision-making process itself. …
… Psychological models alone do not provide complete explanations for international relations because they fail to explain how international and domestic conditions shape preferences and beliefs, or how the policy process aggregates individual preferences and beliefs into policy outputs for the state. …