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Article

To understand how policy is made, one must understand not only the individuals who make the decisions, but also the role of bureaucratic politics and the goals of the institutions themselves. Graham Allison’s classic Essence of Decision created the bureaucratic politics model and was the catalyst for a rich research agenda on decision-making. Using Allison as a starting point, researchers have expanded the understanding of the role of bureaucracies in deliberation and decision-making, particularly during times of crisis. Typically, institutions fill the day-to-day “politics as usual” role of decision-making, but their actions during crisis, by definition an abnormal event, allow bureaucracies to pursue their own objectives by way of a new opportunity to exert influence and to reshape the power structure of the political landscape. The research agenda on individuals and decision-making has also made great strides since the 1970s and helps to illuminate when the bureaucratic politics model has great explanatory power and when it is less useful. The level of influence bureaucracies have is dependent upon where they sit within the system and how they are utilized by the executive branch of government. Leaders, such as the President of the United States, hold a significant amount of power, and the ways in which they hold onto power, or allocate it to other actors, which is a function of their leadership style, can either empower or disempower bureaucracies. In other words, the importance of bureaucracies connected to the executive branch of government fluctuates with an individual’s personality characteristics and leadership style. Specifically, a leader’s personal need for power, their expertise, and their personal interest in policymaking, as well as their cognitive complexity, the amount of differing information they want and are capable of cognitively processing, influence the way in which the leader will delegate decision-making. Leaders like Lyndon B. Johnson relied heavily upon expert advisers and allocated decision-making to lower-level agencies. Alternatively, some leaders (e.g., Richard Nixon) have experience, particularly in foreign policy, and believe they are their own expert adviser; thus, they are involved in nuanced decision-making and rely upon only a very small number of advisers (in Nixon’s case, just Henry Kissinger). A common normative criticism of bureaucratic politics, and group decision-making in general, is the collective cognitive conformity, commonly known as groupthink. The general assumption is that individuals within a group will seek conformity and avoid the conflict caused by raising alternatives during policy deliberation. However, bureaucratic politics mitigates groupthink by bringing in a greater number of actors with differing goals and perspectives, making deliberation more open. Again, this is significantly influenced by how the leader utilizes advisers and their respective bureaucracies. Where Kennedy was very open-minded and actively sought various perspectives during the Cuban missile crisis, George W. Bush created an insulated decision-making environment after 9/11 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq. As society continues to change, particularly with regard to reliance upon technological adaptations, such as nuclear energy, new crises will occur. These crises will require the cooperation of more bureaucracies and occasionally new bureaucracies. Through these crises, bureaucracies will compete for political influence, and the power structure of the political landscape will inevitably change and affect policy decision-making.

Article

Despite the frequency with which the term is used in the English language, there is relatively little agreement as to what constitutes a “crisis” in the study of foreign policy and international relations. If there is no broad agreement on this, however, there is at least more consensus on what usually happens during one. Crises typically involve the centralization of power, are associated with a “narrowing” of options and the increased use of analytical shortcuts, and typically feature increased vertical communications and argumentation among advisers as well as increased pressure to attain comprehensive rationality. There is some doubt as to whether the effort to attain rationality will be successful in practice, of course, given the many cognitive psychological limitations that make it difficult for human beings to reach fully reasoned decisions. Crises may—somewhat ironically, perhaps—be good for leaders, because in the short-term they offer the chance to increase power capabilities. While it is difficult to predict crises in advance—indeed, one of the central features of crises is their very unpredictability—various techniques may help the decision making process once a foreign policy crisis has begun.

Article

Process tracing is an in-depth case study method that can be used to study how causal processes play out within cases. Given its focus on processes and temporality, process tracing is a useful method for analyzing crisis and crisis decision making in the fields of foreign policy analysis and public policy. As can be seen from its name, process tracing involves theorizing a causal process that is then traced by investigating the observable manifestations of the operation of the process as a whole in the more minimalist variant, or for each of its parts in the more maximalist variant. Minimalist process tracing is typically used early in a research program as a form of plausibility probe to understand what types of processes might be linking a crisis event with particular outcomes like policy change. Maximalist process tracing can then be used once there is preliminary knowledge about processes, and where the goals become gaining a better theoretical understanding of how they operate, and making stronger causal inferences using more direct evidence of their operation.

Article

Patrick S. Roberts, Shalini Misra, and Joanne Tang

Digital technologies have fundamentally altered emergency and crisis management work through increased potential for role ambiguity, role conflict, distraction, and overload. Multilevel approaches to improve congruence between crisis managers and their environments have the potential to reduce cognitive and organizational barriers and improve decision making. The future of crisis management lies in reducing the misalignment between personal, proximal, and distal environmental conditions.

Article

Institutional amnesia can be defined in simple terms as an organization’s inability to recall and use historical knowledge for present-day purposes. However, the concept requires to be defined more expansively so that its causes and effects can be fully understood in relation to crises and crisis management. This means conceptualizing institutional amnesia in broader terms as something that influences individual crisis managers, the formal institutional aspects of crisis management agencies, the cultural dimensions of those agencies, and the wider systemic location within which both actors and agencies reside. The analysis of the effects of amnesia in each of these areas reveals the profound effects that it can have on various aspects of crisis management. Institutional amnesia can affect the performance of crisis management policies and the politics of crises more generally. In particular, memory loss can be seen to influence crisis decision-making that relies upon historical analogy, crisis learning which demands that learned lessons are formally institutionalized across time, and meaning-making efforts, which draw upon recollections of the past to justify political projects in the present. The effects that institutional amnesia has on these three important areas illuminate its relevance to crisis analysis. Yet amnesia, and to some extent memory, continue to be concepts that are neglected, or referred to tangentially, by mainstream crisis scholars.

Article

Disproportionate policy response—which is composed of two core concepts, namely policy overreaction and under-reaction—is typically understood to be a lack of “fit” or balance between the costs of a public policy and the benefits deriving from this policy and/or between a policy’s ends and means. The disproportionate policy perspective introduces an intentional component into disproportionate response. It represents a conceptual turn whereby the concepts of policy overreaction and under-reaction are reentering the policy lexicon as types of intentional policy responses that are largely undertaken when political executives are vulnerable to voters. In times of crisis, disproportionate policy responses may be intentionally designed, implemented as planned, and sometimes successful in achieving policy goals and in delivering the political benefits sought by the political executives who design them. The premise underlying this argument is that crises vary in many respects, some of which may incentivize a deliberate crisis response by political executives that is either excessive, or lacking. For example, when crises occur at times of electoral vulnerability, the relevancy of policy instruments’ visibility, theatricality, spectacularity, and popularity may dominate the calculus of crisis management decisions. The same applies in cases where strong negative emotions emerge, and subsequently, political executives may opt to overwhelm hysterical populations cognitively and emotionally, trying to convince them that the policy system is viable.

Article

The psychology of crisis and trauma is concerned with attitudes, reactions, and behaviors related to extreme events and conditions. Facing a crisis poses a number of challenges to the individual in terms of preparation, making sense of the situation, taking decisions, and coping with stress. Thus research on human reactions to crisis spans a broad range of theories and analytical frameworks. Traditionally there has been a strong focus on vulnerabilities and on the negative impacts of crises in terms of stress and traumatic responses. However, in the early 21st century research has increasingly moved toward investigating resilience factors and the ways in which people actually cope under extreme conditions. Although the term crisis is often used as a general concept, the reality of critical events can vary widely, each posing particular challenges to those affected. This can be illustrated by examples from natural disasters, toxic incidents, and socially generated threats of violence and terror, where the psychological contexts of such events differ considerably. While learning from the experiences of crisis events is important, research on human reactions does raise a number of practical and ethical issues of which the researcher needs to take heed.

Article

Poliheuristic theory addresses the “why” and “how” of decision making. It focuses on how decision makers use heuristics en route to choice by addressing both the process and the choice related to the decision task. More specifically, decision makers use a two-stage process wherein a more complicated choice set is reduced to one that is more manageable through the use of these heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts. In the second stage, decision makers are more likely to employ maximizing and analytical strategies in making a choice. Poliheuristic theory also focuses on the political consequences of decision making, arguing that decision makers will refrain from making politically costly decisions. While poliheuristic theory helps us better understand how decision makers process information and make choices, it does not specifically address how choice sets and decision matrices were created in the first place. Applied decision analysis (ADA) rectifies this shortcoming by focusing on how leaders create particular choice sets and matrices and then how they arrive at a choice. It does so by first identifying the decision maker’s choice set or decision matrix; that is, the alternatives or options available to choose from as well as the criteria or dimensions upon which the options will be evaluated. ADA then focuses on uncovering the decision maker’s decision code through the use of multiple decision models. Combining poliheuristic theory with ADA allows researchers to more fully explain decision making in general and crisis decision making in particular. An application of poliheuristic theory and ADA to decision making pertaining to the Fukushima nuclear disaster reveals that even in this high-stress crisis environment decision makers followed the two-stage process as predicted by poliheuristic theory. More specifically, in the first stage, decision makers simplified the decision task by resorting to cognitive heuristics (i.e., decision making shortcuts) to eliminate politically damaging alternatives such as voluntary evacuation. In the second stage, decision makers conducted a more analytical evaluation of the compulsory evacuation options.

Article

Analogical reasoning is a mode of thinking in which a current situation, person, or event is compared with something encountered in the past that appears “similar” to the analogizer. The 2020 Coronavirus crisis was often compared with the 1918 flu epidemic, for instance. In addition to reasoning across time, we can also reason across space, comparing a current case with something that has been encountered within a different geographical space. Sticking with the Coronavirus example, the management of the disease in one country was often compared with that in another, with favorable or unfavorable lessons being drawn. Analogical reasoning plays a major role in crisis decision-making, in large part because decisions made under such circumstances have to be taken in rapid (and, indeed, almost immediate) fashion. When this is the case, it is often tempting to conclude that “this time will resemble last time” or “this problem will resemble a situation confronted elsewhere.” But these analogies are drawn, and decisions are made, by individuals who must confront their own very human cognitive psychological limitations. Since analogies are essentially heuristic devices that cut short the process of informational search, they are usually seen as good enough but do not ensure optimal decision-making. Analogies are at a premium during crisis-like events, but their “bounded” nature means that their use will sometimes lead to errors in processing information. In particular, the drawing of an analogy often leads to an underestimation of ways in which the current crisis is “different” from the baseline event.

Article

Thomas Preston

Advisory groups and their dynamics play a critical role in crisis management. If they function well and complement the leadership styles of political leaders, advisory groups can provide broad information search, diverse advice and perspectives, and reinforce a leader’s own strengths. They can surround an inexperienced leader with advisors possessing policy expertise or experience in an issue area. On the other hand, advisory groups can also easily fall into more dysfunctional patterns where they do not compensate for a leader’s weaknesses, fail to provide varied perspectives or alternative views, and engage in limited information gathering. Advisory groups can help seal an administration into an “alternative reality bubble” during crises, resulting in policy decisions being made based upon faulty perceptions instead of realities. How should we seek to understand advisory groups and crises? The first cut should involve the consumer of the advisory group’s inputs themselves, the leader. Advisory groups almost always serve at the pleasure of the leader, not themselves, and therefore the leaders will play a major role in determining their influence, how the groups will function, and their importance during crisis decision making. Important variables such as leadership style, sensitivity to context and need for information on the part of leaders, how much control they require over the policy process, and how their prior experience or expertise leads them to rely more or less upon advisors must be examined. The second focus should be upon the advisory groups themselves, their internal dynamics and reactions to stress, how decision rules and policy formulation occurs, and how group pathologies can undermine their crisis performance. Variables such as group malfunctions resulting from stress and the needs for cohesion during crisis (like groupthink) or the splintering of group consensus to warring factions that undercut cohesion (like polythink) must be considered. The stage of development an advisory group is in (i.e., newgroup versus established), the stage of the policymaking process involved (i.e., deliberative versus implemental), how sequential decision-making processes function, the composition of the group members (i.e., experts versus novices), the type of crisis the group faces, and the bureau-political dynamics involved all impact crisis management.

Article

Prospect theory is a behavioral theory that holds that human attitudes toward risk are not fixed but can shift dramatically based on how a decision is framed. Instead of assessing different options in the abstract, individuals form a point of reference and weigh decisions based on how the outcomes may impact that point. When a proposition is framed as a potential gain, individuals exhibit risk-averse behavior and prefer certain gains over potentially more lucrative gambles. Conversely, when an identical question is posited as a loss, people become risk acceptant and are willing to gamble on potentially significant losses rather than accept even modest setbacks. Since first gaining prominence through the works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, prospect theory has provided a valuable analytical tool for analyzing political decision making. Within international relations, the theory has been leveraged to gauge individual leaders’ attitudes toward risk when making decisions under uncertain conditions. This approach has yielded keen insights into a diverse range of episodes and issues including economic reforms, crisis management, and casualty sensitivity. Prospect theory also holds significant potential within the field of civil-military affairs. Although political leaders and military commanders ostensibly serve national interests, each possesses distinct interests and responsibilities. This means that even when facing a similar situation, civilian and military leaders may assess the situation from contrasting frames of reference and consequently possess conflicting attitudes toward risk. Such situations will lead to competing policy prescriptions and engender civil-military conflict. Incorporating prospect theory into our analysis of civil-military affairs provides a valuable tool for identifying policy preferences within individual actors and explaining how different frames of reference and risk propensities can shape civil-military disputes.