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date: 29 September 2023

Prospect Theory and Foreign Policy Analysislocked

Prospect Theory and Foreign Policy Analysislocked

  • Jeffrey W. TaliaferroJeffrey W. TaliaferroDepartment of Political Science, Tufts University


Prospect theory is one of the most influential behavioral theories in the international relations (IR) field, particularly among scholars of security studies, political psychology, and foreign policy analysis. Developed by Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, prospect theory provides key insights into decision making under conditions of risk and uncertainty. For example, most individuals are risk averse to secure gains, but risk acceptant to avoid losses (loss aversion). In addition, most people value items they already posses more than they value items they want to acquire (endowment effect), and tend to be risk averse if they perceive themselves to be facing gains relative to their reference point (risk propensity). Prospect theory has generated an enormous volume of scholarship in IR, which can be divided into two “generations”. The first generation (1990–1999) sought to establish prospect theory’s plausibility in the “real world” by testing hypotheses derived from it against subjective expected-utility theory or rational choice models of foreign policy decision making. The second generation (2000–present) began to incorporate concepts associated with prospect theory and related experimental literature on group risk taking into existing mid-level theories of IR and foreign policy behavior. Two substantive areas covered by scholars during this period are coercive diplomacy and great power intervention in the periphery as they relate to loss aversion. Both generations of prospect theory literature suffer from conceptual and methodological difficulties, mainly around the issues of reference point selection, framing, and preference reversal outside laboratory settings.


  • Foreign Policy

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