Brooke N. Shannon, Zachary A. McGee, and Bryan D. Jones
Bounded rationality conceives of people engaging in politics as goal oriented but endowed with cognitive and emotional architectures that limit their abilities to pursue those goals rationally. Political institutions provide the critical link between micro- and macro-processes in political decision-making. They act to (a) compensate for those bounds on rationality; (b) make possible cooperative arrangements not possible under the assumptions of full or comprehensive rationality; and (c) fall prey to the same cognitive and emotional limits or canals that individual humans do. The cognitive limitations that hamper individuals are not only replicated at the organizational level but are in fact causal.
An improved understanding of foreign policy learning necessitates a clarification of what foreign policy learning is, who learns, and how such learning occurs. Cognitive and social psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists situated in a variety of subfields have contributed to the understanding of foreign policy learning, a multidisciplinary area of inquiry. Learning theorists seek to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government. This cognitive dimension is important because actors may pursue a new course of action for politically expedient reasons rather than having genuinely “learned”—a distinction referred to as “complex” vs. “simple” learning.
Foreign policy learning can be internal or external. The former type of learning entails what individuals, governments, or organizations learn from their prior experience. Learning theorists who focus on the individual level of analysis borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, the belief structures, and the cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking. Leaders whose cognitive structures are described as relatively open and complex—like Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose learning brought about the dramatic changes that ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union—are more likely to alter their beliefs than their cognitively closed and simple counterparts.
Yet external learning occurs as well. Policy diffusion studies show that learning can result from demonstration effects. Foreign policy learning via diffusion is not instrumental, but instead occurs through osmosis. Privatization in the former communist states, China’s Foreign Direct Investment liberalization, and the diffusion of environmental norms in the European Union are examples of learning that is contagious, not chosen. A more conscious mode of learning than diffusion is policy transfer, which entails policymakers’ transferring ideas from one country and implementing them in another. Technological innovations, unlike lessons that involve political ideology, are generally easier lessons to transfer—for example, Japan’s success in applying lessons from the West to modernize its army in the second half of the 19th century.
The constraints to foreign policy learning are formidable. Decision makers are not always open to reconsidering views that challenge their beliefs. Leaders tend to resort to, and misuse, analogies that prevent learning. Even a change in a decision maker’s beliefs may not lead to foreign policy change, given the myriad political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles, and economic realities that often get in the way of implementing new ideas. Indeed, foreign policy learning and foreign policy change are not synonymous.
Scholars face significant obstacles in studying foreign policy learning. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Despite attempts to make sense of the confusion, scholars face the daunting challenge of improving understanding of how learning is shaped and funneled through the interaction of agents and the structures in which they are situated, as well as the relationship between learning and foreign policy change.
Marcus M. Weymiller and Christopher W. Larimer
“Decision outcomes” refers to mass political behavior as well as decisions by elites in the policy arena. Such outcomes are naturally the product of the decision-making process, a process that has been informed considerably by research in areas outside of political science. Political and policy processes are less defined by rational responses to incoming information than by pre-existing cognitive biases favoring narratives, stories, and symbols. Thus, to accurately understand decision outcomes requires an interdisciplinary approach, and, indeed, the discipline of political science has increasingly incorporated insights from psychology, social psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and other social and natural sciences. Decision outcomes may reflect the true preferences of decision-makers, but behavior and outcomes have also been shown to change dramatically depending on who knows (or will know) the decision.
Considering decision outcomes as the dependent variable, several factors have been identified that consistently and significantly shape outcomes in the political and policy worlds. Political outcomes, such as voting (by citizens and elites), are often explained by focusing on party ID or partisanship, and for good reason, but there are also instances in which decision outcomes are better encapsulated by more localized factors or influences. Policy outcomes, on the other hand, are less easily defined or predicted. Emotional testimonies and random fluctuations affect whether an issue is acted upon by a legislative body. Attention to social context and a concern for fairness is a primary driver of decision outcomes in social situations. In particular, leader–follower dynamics and group outcomes are significantly affected by the process in which decisions are made.
Steven R. Brown
Q methodology was introduced in 1935 and has evolved to become the most elaborate philosophical, conceptual, and technical means for the systematic study of subjectivity across an increasing array of human activities, most recently including decision making. Subjectivity is an inescapable dimension of all decision making since we all have thoughts, perspectives, and preferences concerning the wide range of matters that come to our attention and that enter into consideration when choices have to be made among options, and Q methodology provides procedures and a rationale for clarifying and examining the various viewpoints at issue. The application of Q methodology commonly begins by accumulating the various comments in circulation concerning a topic and then reducing them to a smaller set for administration to select participants, who then typically rank the statements in the Q sample from agree to disagree in the form of a Q sort. Q sorts are then correlated and factor analyzed, giving rise to a typology of persons who have ordered the statements in similar ways. As an illustration, Q methodology was administered to a diverse set of stakeholders concerned with the problems associated with the conservation and control of large carnivores in the Northern Rockies. Participants nominated a variety of possible solutions that each person then Q sorted from those solutions judged most effective to those judged most ineffective, the factor analysis of which revealed four separate perspectives that are compared and contrasted. A second study demonstrates how Q methodology can be applied to the examination of single cases by focusing on two members of a group contemplating how they might alter the governing structures and culture of their organization. The results are used to illustrate the quantum character of subjective behavior as well as the laws of subjectivity. Discussion focuses on the broader role of decisions in the social order.