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«The role of reason in international relations has been contested since the eighteenth century. The construction of a sphere of calculated state ...»

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Waltz drew analogies between his enterprise and microeconomics, but his emphasis on structure seems to place neorealism in a different methodological camp. Elster notes that pure structuralist accounts deny the importance of rational choice in favor of structural constraints. A modi ed version of structuralism—which may approach Waltz’s position—assumes uniformity in preferences and motivations and attributes differences in behavior to differences in the opportunity set, which could be de ned by tighter or looser structural constraints.15 This second variant can be accommoWaltz 1979, 1986.

14. Keohane 1986b, 165.

15. Elster 1984, 113–14.

Rationality in International Relations dated within a rational choice framework, but whether structural realism relies on choice under structural constraints or two other adaptive mechanisms—selection along Darwinian lines and socialization—is uncertain. Waltz’s own position seems to vary on this question. In Theory of International Politics, Waltz argues that structure affects behavior through socialization and competition.16 In his treatment of both classical and structural realism, Keohane argues that the rationality assumption is one of three key assumptions that de ne the ‘‘hard core’’ of a realist research program; he includes Waltz within the rationalist camp as well.17 In his response to Keohane, Waltz argues that selection carries most of the explanatory weight in structural realism, awarding it a position of ‘‘central importance’’; he stipulates that political leaders cannot make ‘‘the nicely calculated decisions that the word ‘rationality’ suggests.’’18 The realm of reason within neorealism remains ambiguous. Under tight structural constraints of international competition and selection, the rationality of agents seems super uous. Waltz fails to demonstrate that structures have such consistent and predictable effects, however.

Psychology and Rationality: Individual Reasonand Its Limitations

The inability of neorealism to demonstrate consistent behavioral or systemic outcomes from the structural constraints that it emphasizes—distribution of power or capabilities—may render the issue of its decision-making assumptions moot. To the degree that structural constraints are awarded less explanatory weight, however, other issues of rationality loom larger. The congruence between a rationalist model and the psychological and information-processing limitations of individual decision makers has preoccupied scholars. Given the apparent irrationality and destructiveness that pervades the international politics of this century—wars that appear to have served no state’s interests, military technology whose use would destroy its user—the hypothesis that these outcomes resulted from the obstruction of human reasoning has often seemed powerful.

Psychoanalysis, another European import that was grounded in the irrational substructure of the human psyche, has been employed to examine decision-making behavior that appeared to violate the canons of rationality. In a classic study at the origins of psychobiography, Alexander and Juliette George plumbed the puzzling and recurrent leadership style of Woodrow Wilson, a style that gave evidence of a man ‘‘beset by great inner con ict which somehow led to self-defeat.’’19 George and George confronted one criticism of psychological approaches—the weight attached to personality variables in explaining signi cant outcomes. In building their narrative to culminate in Wilson’s central role in the unnecessary defeat of the Treaty of

16. Waltz 1979, 74.

17. Keohane 1986b, 164–65, 173.

18. Waltz 1986, 330–31.

19. George and George 1964, xix.

926 International Organization Versailles, George and George demonstrate that Wilson’s behavior was critical to an important historical outcome. In demonstrating that his behavior in a complicated strategic setting was the result of nonrational in uences of which he was unaware, however, two signi cant assertions must be con rmed: a counterfactual proposition that a more ‘‘reasonable’’ course would have resulted in a different outcome and the more difficult contention that his behavior was nonrational, if not when measured by short-term political ends, then by longer-term goals that he had set. These are difficult tests for those who argue that nonrational in uences on behavior are strong.

Responding to such claims, Sidney Verba framed a telling response in defense of rational decision-making models.20 Verba pointed to two important shortcomings in many psychological accounts that were critical of rationalist models. He noted unresolved issues of data: whether ndings from experimental and clinical settings could be transferred to the far different environment of foreign policy and domestic politics. He also pointed to the problem of aggregation for any individualist model of choice: both rational and psychological models slipped too easily from individual attributions to those of organizations and bureaucracies.

Verba also clari ed the methodological tests that should be applied to nonrational psychological explanations. He advanced a cost-bene t criterion for the inclusion of psychological variables: add psychological complexity only when it yielded greater explanatory power. Even more important, psychological explanations needed to move from important generalizations that were too broad in scope to contingent statements that would clarify when ‘‘nonlogical’’ in uences on decision making would be signi cant. Finally, Verba pointed out that many psychological explanations or critiques incorporated, implicitly or explicitly, a rational benchmark. This benchmark was essential, whatever its limitations in particular cases, in order to permit ‘‘systematic consideration of deviations from rationality.’’21 Each of the issues raised by Verba more than three decades ago remains signi cant in evaluating the psychological research agenda.





Cognitive psychology rapidly overtook psychoanalytic theory as the principal challenger to rational models of behavior. The proliferation of studies of foreign policy in uenced by cognitive psychology also blurred the alternative research program.

Philip Tetlock and Charles McGuire, Jr. discerned two key assumptions in this diverse literature: international politics imposes heavy information-processing demands on policymakers; in the face of those demands, policymakers—‘‘limited capacity information processors’’—employ ‘‘simplifying strategies’’ to comprehend their environment.22 Those strategies may violate de nitions of rational behavior and call into question the use of rational choice as a norm for individual decision making.

One widespread bias discovered by psychologists in foreign policy decisions is the reliance on cognitive structures (given a variety of labels—cognitive maps, operational codes, or schemas) deeply in uenced by past experience and often resistant to

20. Verba 1961.

21. Ibid., 116.

22. Tetlock and McGuire, 1986, 149–50.

Rationality in International Relations more recent data that might modify or overturn those structures. Yuen Foong Khong, for example, has carefully charted the persistent use of historical analogies as schemas for organizing incoming data, comparing a psychological interpretation of this widespread behavior to alternative explanations.23 The discovery of ‘‘theory-driven’’ behavior, the term that Tetlock and McGuire use to describe this mimicking by policymakers of scienti c practice, poses difficult judgments for those evaluating its positive and normative effects on policy outcomes. Since reliance on preexisting beliefs is both widespread and necessary for the processing of new information, this research program must assess when such reliance becomes irrational and distorts policy outcomes. As Tetlock and McGuire, Khong, and others who argue for damaging cognitive rigidity are forced to admit, ‘‘reliance on prior beliefs and expectations is not irrational per se (one would expect it from a ‘good Bayesian’); it becomes irrational only when perseverance and denial dominate openness and exibility.’’24 Assessing that point in other than a tautological way (by referring to a positive or negative outcome as evidence) is very difficult. In effect, the rationality of reliance on existing schemas or cognitive maps for interpreting the world is dependent on the desirability of updating beliefs more or less frequently in the face of discrepant information. No uniform answer to that dilemma is given in the psychological literature. Khong suggests a procedural strategy—forcing existing analogies to a rigorous and public ‘‘scienti c’’ test of their validity. That kind of serious testing also imposes costs, however, and once again a sensitive comparison of the bene ts (in terms of decision-making quality) would also be required.

In cases where particular schemas seem to produce outcomes whose costs are uniformly high, avoiding the use of certain kinds of schemas or analogies might be a more efficient rule of thumb.

Other psychological alternatives to rationalist models of explanation emphasize the process by which decisions are made, particularly the use of informationprocessing shortcuts and heuristics; these alternatives are often portrayed as challenging rational choice models more directly. Prospect theory has evoked the most interest among students of foreign policymaking. Based on robust experimental evidence, prospect theory points to deviations from expected utility theory, the conventional means of explaining choice under conditions of risk. In barest outline, individuals systematically and frequently evaluate outcomes with respect to a reference point rather than using net losses or gains; individuals are risk-averse with respect to gains from that reference point and risk-acceptant with regard to losses; and preference ordering varies according to the framing of prospects (a clear violation of the criterion of invariance in rational choice).25 Despite the difficulties in measuring these effects outside an experimental or laboratory setting, researchers using cases drawn from international politics have already begun to examine the explanatory power of prospect theory weighed against predictions based on expected utility.26 To the deKhong 1992.

24. Tetlock and McGuire 1986, 160.

25. See Quattrone and Tversky 1988; Levy 1992; Levy 1997; and Pauly and Stein 1993.

26. See Pauly and Stein 1993; Farnham 1992; and McDermott 1992.

928 International Organization

gree that convincing tests can be made using the data available, results appear mixed:

expected utility theory is hardly without value in explaining many of the outcomes.

The rich psychological literature in international relations has produced many case studies demonstrating widespread cognitive and information processing distortions that deviate from the predictions of rational choice and expected utility theories.

Psychological approaches often supplement rational choice explanations, however, rather than providing an alternative to them. In other cases, such as prospect theory, expected utility theorists are hard at work incorporating anomalous ndings into broader and more inclusive theories of decision making.27 Theory-building strategies among psychological critics of rationalist models confront the same issue of ‘‘thinness’’ as those using rational choice. Critics of rational choice voice dissatisfaction with the emptiness of those models in the absence of a theory of preferences. Psychological process models, such as prospect theory, remain equally empty without a theory of reference points or framing.

Psychological studies of foreign policymaking have produced important evidence that quali es rational choice models, but they do not represent a single psychological alternative to rational choice. Mirroring the claims of rational choice theorists, psychological critics have argued wide scope for their ndings. They have generally avoided a presentation of contingent theories or hypotheses that would stipulate the conditions under which psychological distortions of rational decision making are most likely. Even the most proli c and perceptive scholars who have mined historical and contemporary data nd it difficult to claim more than the presence of systematic and widespread biases toward misperception across a wide range of cases.28 The judgment of Tetlock and McGuire of a decade ago still stands: psychological approaches must work, not toward a single ‘‘cognitive portrait,’’ but rather toward producing a ‘‘contingency theory of information processing,’’ specifying more clearly the conditions under which particular cognitive strategies, rational and nonrational, are pursued.29 Unfortunately, the obstacles to that course are formidable. Critics of the psychological perspective on choice have long alleged that the transfer of experimental laboratory data, no matter how robust, to real-world choice situations is a awed strategy: even the most ingenious experiments cannot capture the subjective perceptions of risk that are present in markets or international bargaining.30 Even if one allows the validity of testing for such effects in historical or contemporary settings, the collection and evaluation of data that is aimed at reconstructing very re ned, subjective estimates of risk and utility is difficult to accomplish. Alternative and equally convincing explanations based on different utility calculations (for example, those including domestic political goals) can often be constructed.

Given these difficulties, Verba’s cost-bene t criterion of research efficiency must be taken seriously. Weighing the potential explanatory contribution of psychological

27. Machina 1987.

28. Jervis 1988.

29. Tetlock and McGuire 1986, 169–70.

30. For only one example, see Riker 1995.



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