George M. Bob-Milliar
Since the early 1990s, African states have been democratizing. Political parties now dominate the public spaces in many African democracies. The past 26 years have witnessed the growth and consolidation of “party democracy” in Africa. This is the longest period of uninterrupted growth of electoral politics in many countries on the continent. Recent Afrobarometer surveys show that almost two-thirds (63%) of Africans support pluralistic politics. Party identification in sub-Saharan Africa has also been on the rise. Across 16 states Afrobarometer surveyed, a majority of Africans (65%) claim they “feel close to” a political party in their country. The mass public who identified with a particular political party increased by 7 percentage points between 2002 and 2015.
Political parties are the vehicles for citizens to engage in party activism. The women and men who join a political party become the party activists. Party activists are the lifeblood of the party organization. And political party activism in sub-Saharan Africa is geared toward the election of the party and its candidates into office. Consequently, party activism is a continuum of high-intensity and low-intensity political activities. Party activists vary in their levels of involvement. Thus, it is a mixture of fanfare and aggressive participation. Political party activism is a multifaceted process where party members undertake any of the following political activities: display a poster, donate money, help with fund-raising, deliver election leaflets, help at a party function, attend party meetings, undertake door-to-door campaigning, and run for party office. The involvement of party members usually varies from active engagement to passive attachment to the party. There were several motives for party activists getting involved in “high-intensity participation.” Because of the crucial role party activists play in the intra- and inter-party competition, the parties provide some incentives to get members commitment. At the organizational level, party activists present themselves for election into party offices at the grassroots, regionally or nationally. They devote their time and financial resources in furtherance of the party agenda. In return, party activists expect the party to reward them with selective incentives when power is won. That said, more research is required at the country level to enable us to construct the profile of the African party activists.
Affective intelligence theory offers a novel and systematic treatment on the impact of affective reactions on citizens’ information processes and political decisions based on neuroscience. Individuals have two distinct emotional systems that lead to two separate decision-making strategies. On the one hand, the disposition system, governed by enthusiasm and aversion, leads people to rely on habit or their sets of previously learned behaviors. On the other, the surveillance system is activated in novel or threating circumstances and is governed by anxiety. Once activated, anxiety leads individuals to seek for political information, break away from habitual political identifications, and consequently renders them more open to persuasion.
Markus Wagner and Davide Morisi
Research has shown emotions affect decision-making in ways that do not simply undermine rationality. Instead, in recent decades researchers have recognized that emotions also motivate and focus individuals and moderate how they make decisions. Initial research into emotions divided these simply into positive and negative, but this perspective has largely been displaced in political psychology by an emphasis on the impact of distinct emotions; among these, anxiety has received the most scholarly attention, rivaled only by anger. The causes of anxiety, also termed fear and unease, are diverse, but research highlights certain attributes of situational evaluation such as low self-control, low certainty, and low external agency.
Once present, anxiety has important consequences for decision-making. First, anxiety increases how much information individuals seek out, a pattern of behavior meant to reduce uncertainty. Second, anxiety decreases heuristic processing and weakens the reliance of underlying convictions in determining decisions. Instead, anxious individuals are more likely to think systematically about choices they face. Importantly, anxiety can affect choices and decisions even if they are not directly related to what caused anxiety to emerge, that is, if anxiety is incidental rather than integral.
In addition to influencing how people make decisions, anxiety may also directly influence the decisions individuals make. Thus, anxiety increases risk aversion, leading individuals to choose safer paths of action. Anxiety also makes individuals less likely to take action at all, with the most common response being withdrawal and passivity. Applied to political decision-making, anxiety may have the important consequence of decreasing political participation.
Research into the role of anxiety in decision-making is fast moving and vibrant, but to become fully established it needs to ensure rigor in measurement and research design; this will require considerable methodological research. Substantively, future research should focus on the effects of elite messages on anxiety as well as on how anxiety influences citizen attitudes and evaluations.
Jiawei Liu and Dietram A. Scheufele
There is a dichotomy in framing research that can be traced back to its multidisciplinary origins in psychology and sociology. Definitions of framing rooted in psychology are concerned with the differential presentation of the otherwise identical information and are often referred to as equivalence framing. Definitions rooted in more sociological traditions investigate how a message can be constructed with different sets of information to highlight contrasting perspectives on the same issue. The latter is typically referred to as emphasis framing. Although often subsumed under the same label, equivalence framing and emphasis framing are systematically different, both conceptually and operationally. Therefore, the two traditions need to be carefully distinguished in terms of their origins, conceptualization and operationalization of frames, underlying mechanisms, cognitive outcomes, and their relationships with other media effects theories.
Categorizing existing studies revealed two major pitfalls in framing effects literatures. First, many political communication studies to date have adopted the emphasis framing approach. However, as substantial manipulation of information introduces confounding variables making it difficult for researchers to attribute the effect on the audience to the change of frames, this approach has relatively low internal validity in experiments and can hardly be distinguished from other cognitive media effects models, such as agenda setting and priming. Thus, the bias toward emphasis framing needs to be addressed by conducting research with equivalence frames so that a more concrete causal relationship between message framing and its effects can be established. In addition, little attention has been given to visuals in framing effects research so far. Considering that people consume information in a multimedia environment online, visual frames and verbal-visual interactions need to be further investigated.
Citizens are continuously inundated with political information. How do citizens process that information for use in decision-making? Political psychologists have generally thought of information processing as proceeding through a series of stages: (1) exposure and attention; (2) comprehension; (3) encoding, interpretation, and elaboration; (4) organization and storage in memory; and (5) retrieval. This processing of information relies heavily on two key structures: working memory and long-term memory. Working memory actively processes incoming information whereas long-term memory is the storage structure of the brain. The most widely accepted organizational scheme for long-term memory is the associative network model. In this model, information stored in long-term memory is organized as a series of connected nodes. Each node in the network represents a concept with links connecting the various concepts. The links between nodes represent beliefs about the connection between concepts. These links facilitate retrieval of information through a process known as spreading activation. Spreading activation moves information from long-term memory to working memory. When cued nodes are retrieved from memory, they activate linked nodes thereby weakly activating further nodes and so forth. Repeatedly activated nodes are the most likely to be retrieved from long-term memory for use in political decision-making.
The concept of an associative network model of memory has informed a variety of research avenues, but several areas of inquiry remain underdeveloped. Specifically, many researchers rely on an associative network model of memory without questioning the assumptions and implications of the model. Doing so might further inform our understanding of information processing in the political arena. Further, voters are continuously flooded with political and non-political information; thus, exploring the role that the larger information environment can play in information processing is likely to be a fruitful path for future inquiry. Finally, little attention has been devoted to the various ways a digital information environment alters the way citizens process political information. In particular, the instantaneous and social nature of digital information may short-circuit information processing.
There is a great deal of research, spanning social psychology, sociology, and political science, on politically relevant attitudes toward women and the influence of gender on individual’s political decision making. First, there are several measures of attitudes toward women, including measures of sexism and gender role attitudes, such as the Attitudes Toward Women Scale, the Old-Fashioned Sexism Scale, the Modern Sexism Scale, and the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. There are advantages and disadvantages of these existing measures. Moreover, there are important correlates and consequences of these attitudes. Correlates include education level and the labor force participation of one’s mother or spouse. The consequences of sexist and non-egalitarian gender role attitudes include negative evaluations of female candidates for political office and lower levels of gender equality at the state level. Understanding the sources and effects of attitudes toward women is relevant to public policy and electoral scholars.
Second, gender appears to have a strong effect on shaping men’s and women’s attitudes and political decisions. Gender differences in public opinion consistently arise across several issue areas, and there are consistent gender differences in vote choice and party identification. Various issues produce gender gaps, including the domestic and international use of force, compassion issues such as social welfare spending, equal rights, and government spending more broadly. Women are consistently more liberal on all of these policies. On average, women are more likely than men to vote for a Democratic Party candidate and identify as a Democrat. There is also a great deal of research investigating various origins of these gender differences. Comprehending when and why gender differences in political decision making emerge is important to policymakers, politicians, the political parties, and scholars.
The cognitive and emotional mechanics of the human brain have profound effects on when and what people and political leaders learn, and this can have significant effects on their causal beliefs, preferences, and policies. The existence of the availability heuristic and its biasing effects on political judgment is one of the most robust findings from decades of research in cognitive psychology. The core mechanism involves people being more likely to learn from the phenomena that are most easily recalled by memory, which tend to be dramatic and vivid events, rather than other, often more normatively probative sources. Most applications of this insight to foreign policy decision-making also tend to assume that an actor’s personal experiences will impact what tends to be more or less easily recalled and thus better predict who learns which lesson from which event. This heuristic enables leaders to deal with the vast amount of extant information but also can cause systematic biases in causal inference.
Documenting the availability heuristic and its effects on political decision-making requires (usually archival) data on leaders beliefs’ over long periods of time, from their formative political lessons through decisions and nondecisions when in power, in order to reliably clarify which lessons were in fact learned, when and why a leader learned which lesson from what data point, why that data point happened to be cognitively available, and whether these lessons influenced policy. Ideally, studies should also assess these leaders’ associates where possible to determine whether they learned similar lessons from the same events. Studies can also apply statistical analysis to larger populations of leaders who are likely to have found different events cognitively available. This article focusses on decisions in the realm of foreign policy and international security, although availability certainly plays a role in other domains as well. Decades of scholarship have now shown the relevance of the availability heuristic in U.S., Soviet, Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani grand strategy and foreign policy, approaches to nuclear weapons, and extant alliances and threat perceptions. But much work remains to be done in these cases and elsewhere, as well as in other fields like international political economy and comparative politics.
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.
Understanding the complex set of processes collected under the heading of climate change represents a considerable scientific challenge. But it also raises important challenges for our best moral theories. For instance, in assessing the risks that climate change poses, we face profound questions about how to weigh the respective harms it may inflict on current and future generations, as well as on humans and other species. We also face difficult questions about how to act in conditions of uncertainty, in which at least some of the consequences of climate change—and of various human interventions to adapt to or mitigate it—are difficult to predict fully. Even if we agree that mitigating climate change is morally required, there is room for disagreement about the precise extent to which it ought to be mitigated (insofar as there is room for underlying disagreement about the level of temperature rises that are morally permissible). Finally, once we determine which actions to take to reduce or avoid climate change, we face the normative question of who ought to bear the costs of those actions, as well as the costs associated with any climate change that nevertheless comes to pass.
Cognitive theory encompasses mental activities such as the observation of different stimuli in an environment; the memorization and recall of information; pattern recognition and problem representation; and complex activities like social judgments, analytic reasoning, and learning. Cognitive psychology also highlights the constraints that prevent individuals from acting as utility-maximizing, fully rational decision-makers. These constraints lead people to rely on a regularly occurring set of cognitive mechanisms to simplify the decision-making process.
Scholars of foreign policy have drawn from several prominent areas of cognitive psychology to inform their research. One such area looks at the beliefs and belief systems that are the building blocks for most judgments. Researchers have also examined how actors use cognitive biases and heuristics to cope with uncertainty, which is abundant in foreign policy settings. An important set of cognitive mechanisms examined in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) relates to judgments about policy risks and costs. Factors that facilitate and inhibit learning are crucial for understanding the conditions under which such judgments may improve over time. No cognitive process operates in a vacuum; instead these processes are moderated by an individual’s group context and emotions.
There are several challenges in applying cognitive theory to FPA. Such theories are biased toward populations that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. They are usually first tested using controlled experiments that measure group-level differences; whereas FPA scholars are often interested in the cognitive processes of individual leaders operating in chaotic environments. Individual-level psychological mechanisms may augment or offset one another, as well as interact with variables at the governmental, societal, and international levels of analysis in unpredictable ways. In light of these challenges, FPA scholars who employ cognitive psychology may wish to conceive of their enterprise as a historical science rather than a predictive one.
Paul A. Djupe and Brian R. Calfano
In the main, the link between religious variables and political choices is wrapped up in a communicative process of exposure and adoption. Specifically, people become exposed to religious teachings and viewpoints within religious contexts, they then must determine whether and to what extent they will adopt those teachings and viewpoints as their own, and then they must adapt them to political ends. Critical to this approach is the acknowledgment that religious social and institutional contexts are rife with diversity, even within religious traditions. This diversity extends to religious adherents, congregations, and elites and means that people receive a variety of religious and political cues from religious sources across time and space. It is this variation that is critical to measure in order to understand religion’s effects on political behavior. That is, documenting the implications of religious diversity is as much a question of research design as it is a theoretical framework. This framework is flexible enough to accommodate the growing literature examining political input effects on religious output.
The norms and patterns of exposure and adoption vary by the combination of the communicator and context: political communication in congregations, religious communication effects on politics in congregations, and religious communication by elites in public space. There are very few instances of political elites in religious spaces, at least in the United States. Presidents and other political elites have used religious rhetoric throughout American history in varying proportions, though how they have used it is changing in the Trump era to be much more particularistic and exclusive rather than the traditional broad and inclusive language of past presidents.
A central variable moderating the impact of communication is credibility, which can be demonstrated in multiple ways, including political agreement as well as religious office, rhetorical choices, and decision-making processes. Religious elites, especially, battle against the weight of history, inattention, and misperception in their attempts to lead prophetically. As a result, religious elite influence, in the sense of changing hearts and minds, is a fraught enterprise.
Naturally, we recommend adopting research designs that are appropriate for incorporating measurement on communication exposure so we can appropriately understand adoption decisions. This demands some creativity on behalf of researchers, which also drives them toward experimental work where exposure questions are built into the design and affords them a great deal of control.
Framing effects are produced by political communications that emphasize certain characteristics or consequences of an issue or policy to the exclusion of other features. By increasing the accessibility of those characteristics in people’s judgments, individuals can be swayed between supporting and opposing a policy depending on the valence of the highlighted feature. The preference inconsistencies that define framing effects were generated initially in environments in which individuals responded to a singular framing of an issue (i.e., a one-sided frame) at the expense of alternative conceptualizations of the problem. An important question is whether framing effects can be diminished by the competition among ideas that is characteristic of democratic politics.
The analysis of competitive framing has focused on the interaction between individual predispositions and processing styles and the combination of messages that individuals receive. The effectiveness of any particular communication strategy will depend on the characteristics of the target audience (specifically its values, knowledge, and processing style), the availability and applicability of the frames employed (i.e., whether they are strong or weak), and the degree to which there is competition and debate over the issues.
Research has been based on increasingly realistic experimental designs that attempt to reproduce how people encounter and process communications about politics in natural environments. The competitive context affects how much information people receive as well as how they process that information. In noncompetitive political environments, individuals, especially those who are unmotivated, tend to apply whatever considerations are made accessible by the one-sided messages they receive. In contrast, competing frames tend to stimulate individuals to deliberate on the merits of alternative interpretations.
The key difference between competitive framing in a single period versus over time is that when people receive competing messages about political issues over the course of a campaign or debate, their attitudes are affected not only by the content of the messages but also the sequence and timing of communications. The same set of messages will have a different impact depending on the order and combinations in which those messages were received. The most significant implication of these dynamics is that democratic competition—even when the opposing frames are balanced and of equal strength—may reduce or eliminate framing effects only when people receive the opposing frames simultaneously.
The magnitude of framing effects at different junctures of a campaign depends on the extent of exposure to frames and the degree to which citizens learn and retain information derived from those frames. Individuals who more efficiently process and store information—the online processors and those with a strong need to evaluate—are less likely to be moved by the latest frame because they are stabilized by the attitudes they have developed in prior phases of the campaign. There are promising hints in over-time studies that longer-term exposure to debate (beyond the short-term campaigns simulated in experiments) could gradually familiarize motivated individuals with both sides of the issue and diminish the subsequent influence of one-sided frames.
Richard Ned Lebow
Counterfactuals seek to alter some feature or event of the pass and by means of a chain of causal logic show how the present might, or would, be different. Counterfactual inquiry—or control of counterfactual situations—is essential to any causal claim. More importantly, counterfactual thought experiments are essential, to the construction of analytical frameworks. Policymakers routinely use then by to identify problems, work their way through problems, and select responses. Good foreign-policy analysis must accordingly engage and employ counterfactuals.
There are two generic types of counterfactuals: minimal-rewrite counterfactuals and miracle counterfactuals. They have relevance when formulating propositions and probing contingency and causation. There is also a set of protocols for using both kinds of counterfactuals toward these ends, and it illustrates the uses and protocols with historical examples. Policymakers invoke counterfactuals frequently, especially with regard to foreign policy, to both choose policies and defend them to key constituencies. They use counterfactuals in a haphazard and unscientific manner, and it is important to learn more about how they think about and employ counterfactuals to understand foreign policy.
Gizem Arikan and Pazit Ben-Nun Bloom
In research on religiosity and support for democratic norms, two major debates stand out: The first concerns whether some religious traditions, such as Islam or Orthodox Christianity, are inherently undemocratic, and hence whether supporters of these traditions have antidemocratic orientations. The second debate is about whether religious orientations beyond religious identification foster or hinder support for democratic norms. Both debates may be resolved by conceptualizing both individual religiosity and support for democratic norms as multidimensional orientations. At the individual level, religiosity consists of belief, behavior, and belonging dimensions. Support for democratic norms consist of overt approval of democracy as the ideal system of governing the country and intrinsic support, which refers to an understanding of democracy as being primarily associated with liberal-democratic norms and institutions such as popular sovereignty, political equality, civil rights, and free elections. Religious belief is negatively associated with over support, and religious social behavior is positively associated with overt support. Yet, there is some evidence that the effect of religious social behavior on intrinsic support for democracy may not be positive. Recent scholarship is also interested in identifying the psychological mechanisms through which different religiosity dimensions affect support for democratic norms, as well as establishing the causal effects of religiosity dimensions by experimentally manipulating different facets of religiosity.
Although the multidimensional approach to religiosity provides a general framework that explains the effect of religiosity on support for democratic norms, there is still substantive variation across time and different contexts to be explained. Avenues exist for future research in terms of theorizing and identifying the moderating effects of different factors, most obviously the religious context and the influence of religious elites and social networks.
Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes
The news media have been disrupted. Broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting, editorial control to control by “friends” and personalization algorithms, and a few reputable producers to millions with shallower reputations. Today, not only is there a much broader variety of news, but there is also more of it. The news is also always on. And it is available almost everywhere. The search costs have come crashing down, so much so that much of the world’s information is at our fingertips. Google anything and the chances are that there will be multiple pages of relevant results.
Such a dramatic expansion of choice and access is generally considered a Pareto improvement. But the worry is that we have fashioned defeat from the bounty by choosing badly. The expansion in choice is blamed for both, increasing the “knowledge gap,” the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics, and increasing partisan polarization. We reconsider the evidence for the claims. The claim about media’s role in rising knowledge gaps does not need explaining because knowledge gaps are not increasing. For polarization, the story is nuanced. Whatever evidence exists suggests that the effect is modest, but measuring long-term effects of a rapidly changing media landscape is hard and may explain the results.
As we also find, even describing trends in basic explanatory variables is hard. Current measures are beset with five broad problems. The first is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information. Second, survey measures of news consumption are heavily biased. Third, behavioral survey experimental measures are unreliable and inapt for learning how much information of a particular kind people consume in their real lives. Fourth, measures based on passive observation of behavior only capture a small (likely biased) set of the total information consumed by people. Fifth, content is often coded crudely—broad judgments are made about coarse units, eliding over important variation.
These measurement issues impede our ability to answer the extent to which people choose badly and the attendant consequences of such. Improving measures will do much to advance our ability to answer important questions.
Understanding how individuals make political decisions in a complex and ever-changing world requires recognition of the dynamic nature of the environment, as well as theoretical and methodological strategies to address these complications. As the scholarly understanding of the limits of human cognition expands, researchers can no longer rely on decision-making models that assume unlimited time, resources, and/or abilities of voters. Fortunately, dynamic process tracing models demonstrate the information processing component of decision-making, turning the focus away (slightly) from the decision outcome and toward the ways that people come to these decisions. These models derive from weaker, but more accurate, assumptions about the cognitive abilities of humans and provide critical insight into both the factors that voters consider when making decisions and the ways voters incorporate those factors into their decisions. In addition, thanks to the work of Lau and Redlawsk, these processes are directly observable with their Dynamic Process Tracing Environment (DPTE).
Researchers relying on dynamic process tracing models are now able to assess the influence of political and demographic factors on the pattern, content, and amount of information voters access and rely on when making political decisions. These models offer a more realistic view of voter abilities than rational choice models, as well as providing greater insight into the process of decision-making (rather than the outcome of the process) than much of the work deriving from the Michigan model of public opinion. Additionally, the DPTE offers advantages over earlier static information board studies.
Rather than seeing one’s self in conflict with decades of public opinion research, however, scholars in the dynamic process tracing tradition would be wise to consider their work as complementary. A focus on political variables as outcomes misses a crucial cognitive step: the evaluation of environmental stimuli through the lenses of short- and long-term predispositions. As scholars seek to understand why voters possess certain attitudes, they should ask how those attitudes were formed in the first place. Dynamic process tracing models allow for theorizing about and empirically testing components of the decision-making process previously left uninvestigated.
There are lots of ways that emotions have been studied in psychology and various ways that their use has been examined in the context of foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most useful ways to examine the influence of emotion on foreign policy is through the lens of risk and threat assessment. Some approaches to emotion tend to categorize emotions as valence-based, in terms of broad-based positivity or negativity. Certainly, elements of this kind of approach can be useful, particularly in terms of thinking about the ways in which political conservatives appear to have a negativity bias. However, an investigation of discrete emotions allows a more sophisticated and nuanced exploration of the effect of emotion on risk analysis and threat assessment, in particular the effect of fear, anger, and disgust on decision-making under conditions of risky threat. Genetic, as well as environmental, circumstances can influence individual variance in the experience and expression of such emotions, and any comprehensive approach to understanding the influence of emotion on decision-making should take all these factors into account.
Thomas E. Nelson
Frames are distilled and coherent representations of complex social and political issues. A frame defines what an issue is about. Emphasis frames give special prominence to one aspect or feature of an issue. An example is the “reverse discrimination” frame for the issue of affirmative action, which emphasizes the potential costs of affirmative action to the superordinate group. Emphasis frames have attracted attention from several disciplines, including political science, sociology, psychology, journalism, and communication, with each contributing theoretical insight and empirical demonstration. Emphasis frames manifest themselves in communicated messages and in the minds of individuals. Emphasis frames often originate in political actors such as social movement organizations, interest groups, and leaders. These actors hope to effect political change by disseminating framed messages that represent the actors’ positions on the issue. News organizations transmit emphasis frames, in whole or in part, in the course of covering an issue. Organizational norms and procedures within the mass media can also shape the frames that ultimately appear to the audience.
Research has linked several political outcomes to emphasis frames, not the least of which is the influence that a communication frame has on the frame in the audience’s mind. Frames can influence the interpretations of the issue, judgments about what is most relevant to the issue, and even opinions about the issue. Framing has also been linked to changes in public policy. At the same time, there are a number of individual and contextual factors that can govern how strong a frame’s impact will be. Frames that harmonize with an individual audience member’s values or schemata might be especially effective, while individuals with strong prior opinions might be less affected by frames.
Researchers have proposed different psychological models of how emphasis frames influence audiences. Some have argued that framing overlaps considerably with other communication effects such as agenda-setting or priming. The key argument is that the frame activates specific beliefs, feelings, values, or other components of political judgment and opinion. Other models propose that framing affects the perceived importance, relevance, or applicability of activated considerations. Still other models stress the impact of frames on the attributions audiences make about who or what is responsible the origins of a social problem and its solution. A final category of models includes emotional response as a key mediator of frame effects.
Several significant challenges confront emphasis framing researchers. Scholars should seek to better integrate research at different levels of analysis of framing. They must also demonstrate framing’s relevance in the modern communication landscape, along with its distinctiveness from other familiar communication phenomena.
Colleen M. Carpinella and Kerri L. Johnson
The facial appearance of political candidates provides information to voters that can be vital to the impression-formation process. Traditionally, psychological research in the field of appearance-based politics has concentrated on investigating whether politicians’ physical appearance impacts perceptions of them. Recently, the focus has shifted from examining whether facial cues matter for impression formation to determining (1) which facial cues matter for voters’ perceptions of politicians and (2) how such visual cues are utilized within the political decision-making process. This shift in research focus has ushered in an appreciation of facial competence and physical attractiveness, and it has been marked by a renewed interest in studying how gender stereotypes impact the influence of politician appearance on perceptions of male and female politicians. In addition, this renewed interest in studying underlying mechanisms in appearance-based politics has spurred on research that includes a broader range of downstream consequences such as evaluations of leadership potential, voting behavior, and even basic political party affiliation categorizations.
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.