Prospect theory—a psychologically founded account of decision making under risk and uncertainty—revolutionized how economists and, later, political scientists thought about decision making under uncertainty. Conceptually, prospect theory is based on two central notions: reference dependence, which is the notion that the utility of outcomes is defined over changes in outcomes from a reference point instead of over absolute outcome levels; and likelihood dependence, which is the notion that people distort probabilities non-linearly when making a decision. Likelihood dependence gives rise to the possibility and certainty effects—changes in probabilities are given much more weight if they fall toward the probability endpoints than if they fall into intermediate probability ranges. Reference dependence gives rise to the reflection effect, predicting mirrored risk attitudes for gains and for losses; and to loss aversion, predicting that people display a disproportionate dislike for losses. Prospect theory has been extensively applied in the literature on political decision making. Two observations stand out. One, some aspects, such as the reflection effect, have received considerably more attention than others, such as loss aversion or likelihood dependence. Two, there is a twin challenge arising from the combination of this selective modelling and ex post rationalization. A step-wise procedure may help making modelling approaches more principled and systematic. This could furthermore help predicting future decision making behaviour—an aspect that has been neglected in favour of fitting past data.
Ferdinand M. Vieider and Barbara Vis
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.
Alex Mintz and Amnon Sofrin
Key theories of foreign policymaking include: the rational actor model, prospect theory, poliheuristic theory, cybernetic theory, bureaucratic politics, and organizational politics; and, at the group level, groupthink, polythink, and con-div. These theories are based on unique decision rules, including maximizing, satisficing, elimination by aspect, lexicographic, etc. A new, two-group model of foreign policy decision-making includes a decision design group and a decision approval group.
Behavioral decision theory is a descriptive psychological theory of human judgment, decision making, and behavior that can be applied to political science. Behavioral decision theory is closely related to behavioral economics and behavioral finance. Behavioral economics is an attempt to understand actual human economic behavior, and behavioral finance studies human behavior in financial markets. Research on people’s decision making represents an important part of these fields, in which various aspects overlap with the scope of behavioral decision theory. Behavioral decision theory focuses on the decision-making phenomena that are broadly divisible into those under certainty, those under risk, and others under uncertainty that includes ambiguity and ignorance. What are the theoretical frameworks that could be used to explain the decision-making phenomenon? Although numerous theories related to decision making have been developed, they are, in essence, often broadly divided into two types: normative theory and descriptive theory. The former is intended to support rational decision making. The latter describes how people actually make decisions. Both normative and descriptive theories reflect the nature of actual human decision making to a degree. Even descriptive theory seeks a certain level of rationality in actual human decision making. Consequently, the two are mutually indistinguishable. Nonetheless, a major example of normative theory is regarded as the system of utility theory that is widely used in economics. A salient example of descriptive theory is behavioral decision theory. Utility theory has numerous variations, such as linear and nonlinear utility theories. Most theories have established axioms and mathematically developed principles. In contrast, behavioral decision theory covers a considerably wide range of variations of theoretical expressions, including theories that have been developed mathematically (such as prospect theory) and those expressed only with natural language (such as multiattribute decision-making process models). Behavioral decision theory has integrated the implications of the normative theory, descriptive theory, and prescriptive theory that help people to make better decisions.
Janice Gross Stein
Analysis of the use of prospect theory since the mid-1980s identifies significant impact on research on important puzzles in international security and international political economy. Research since the mid-1990s has identified the scope conditions of framing effects, loss aversion, and patterns of probability estimation on international behavior. New research using multiple methods has strengthened the validity of findings on the impact of framing effects and loss aversion under different conditions. Future research opportunities for psychological explanations of international behavior are identified.
Charles A. Miller
The “sunk costs fallacy” is a popular import into political science from organizational psychology and behavioral economics. The fallacy is classically defined as a situation in which decision-makers escalate commitment to an apparently failing project in order to “recoup” the costs they have already sunk into it. The phenomenon is often framed as a good example of how real decision-making departs from the assumption of forward-looking rationality which underpins traditional approaches to understanding politics. Researchers have proposed a number of different psychological drivers for the fallacy, such as cognitive dissonance reduction, and there is experimental and observational evidence that it accurately characterizes decision-making in certain contexts. However, there is significant skepticism about the fallacy in many social sciences, with critics arguing that there are better forward-looking rational explanations for decisions apparently driven by a desire to recoup sunk costs – among them reputational concerns, option values and agency problems. Critics have also noted that in practical situations sunk costs are informative both about decision makers’ intrinsic valuation for the issue and the prospects for success, making it hard to discern a separate role for sunk costs empirically. To address these concerns, empirical researchers have employed a number of strategies, especially leveraging natural experiments in certain non-political decision making contexts such as sports or business, in order to isolate the effects of sunk costs per se from other considerations. In doing so, they have found mixed support for the fallacy. Research has also shown that the prevalence of the sunk costs fallacy may be moderated by a number of factors, including the locus of decision-making, framing, and national context. These provide the basis for suggestions for future research.
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.
Francesco Passarelli and Alessandro Del Ponte
Prospect theory introduces several anomalies in the behavior of rational agents, including loss aversion, the reflection effect, probability weighting, and the certainty effect. Loss aversion occurs relative to the current state of the world, called reference point. Being loss averse causes people to prefer the current state of affairs above and beyond the expected utility that comes from a risky political change, engendering a status quo bias. Yet, bias is asymmetric due to the reflection effect: people are too tepid toward advantageous platforms or candidates, whereas they are not critical enough of detrimental policies or bad politicians. Both rich and poor citizens take similar stances on nonpartisan issues (such as national defense): this happens because they evaluate uncertain policy changes relative to a reference point. Citizens welcome radical political platforms with greater enthusiasm than incremental proposals. Generally, under prospect theory societal conflict is smoother than under expected utility theory. Older societies are more prone to preserving the status quo than younger ones. These properties also affect the choice of voting rules. Loss aversion induces people to prefer more prudent voting rules and preserve the status quo. Hence, agents favor higher majority thresholds or even unanimity over simple majority in constitutional choice. The status quo bias supports the persistence of policy cycles, with prolonged drifts in one direction before a trend reversal. In sum, loss aversion and other anomalies pinpointed by prospect theory offer insightful predictions with which to study political phenomena.