Foreign Policy Decision Making – the role of psychology, cognition and personality

During my M.A. in International Relations, we had an great course on Foreign Policy Analysis. However, while the course was taught excellently, the time we had to digest all the material was not insufficient. Thus, as part of my endeavour to both learn new things and prepare for a PhD proposal, I decided to purchase a book on the topic of Foreign Policy Analysis (abbreviated FPA).  The book is called Foreign Policy Analysis – New Approaches.

Decision making processs cartoon


Foreign Policy Analysis in a way is formed as an challenge to the assumptions of rationality in International Relations. The basis assumption of rationalism is that the international system is anarchic and the survival of the state, a unitary actor, through the exercise of power, is the first priority on which all depends.

According to the authors, Chris Alden and Amnon Aran, foreign policy decision making has

focused on the centrality of the mind of the decision maker, its powerful effect on the framing of particular foreign policy issues and the consequent impact on the formulation and selection of policy options.

In this post I only want to have a look at FPA’s rationale of looking at the role of psychology, cognition and personality when foreign policy decision makers make their decisions. As critics of the rational approach to FP decision making, FPA scholars argue that human agency is at the core of international politics. Leaders do not act completely rational, rather, at best,

foreign policy decision makers could be said to operate within the framework of the information available to them and make decisions on that limited basis.

The role of Perception

Crucial has been the contribution of Harold and Margaret Sprout on human behaviour, derived from cognitive psychology, that humans prefer simplicity to complexity, prefer consistency to the converse, are poor at predicting probabilities, and tend to be loss averse.

Building on that, Robert Jervis’ argument goes that decision makers tend to argue on their own take of historical events, and interpret and devise their decisions accordingly. Boulding adds that these personalised interpretations are based on biases and stereotypes which interfere with rational decision making.

The role of Cognition

Cognition, “the process by which humans select and process information from the world around them”, poses further ‘problems’ for decision makers.

Cognitive consistency: disruptive effects are filtered out or interpreted in such a way that they fit the decision maker’s rationale. However, Rosati’s work on ‘schema theory’ posits that “beliefs, which [can] be understood better as isolated repositories of knowledge, [allow] for the inconsistency that characterizes their application.”

FPA scholars would be interested to better predict the decision making process of the decision makers. Robert Axelrod consequently sought to explain the interrelationship between individual leaders and their environments, through cognition maps: “that combines perception, prejudice and an understanding of ‘historical lessons’ and applies these to the task of decision making.”

Axelrod discovered that leaders make decisions which have the fewest trade-offs, and are not necessarily optimal.

The role of personality

The role of personality can be an important influencer of decision making among leaders. I wrote an article on the personalities of two of Turkey’s very important leaders: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul.

Irving Janis and Leon Mann propose a ‘motivational’ model of FPDM — leaders are emotional beings who seek to resolve internal decisional conflict.

The role of emotions is most pronounced in a crisis and at this point stress intervenes, causing a lack of ability to abstract and tolerate ambiguity and an increased tendency towards aggressive behaviour. Tunnel vision, fixation on single solutions to the exclusion of all others, may also ensue under these trying circumstances as leaders struggle to manage the complexity of decisions.

According to Orbovich and Molnar, leaders fall under one of four leadership styles:

  • systemic: cost-benefit analysis
  • speculative: context-oriented
  • judicial: task-oriented
  • intuitive: relies on non-rational approach

The role of group

Decision makers can be prone to group think — instead of a more balanced that might be encouraged through the discussion with others, the decisions makers reinforce their previously-held beliefs by consent with others.

Final remarks

While there is much more to talk about, I wish not to extend the scope of this post. My general approach is to make bite-size posts. I have some posts which were longer, but people, including myself, tend to lose interest/patience when reading a blog, even when the topic might be interesting.



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