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Article

Rational choice theory may seem like a separate theoretical approach with its own forbidding mathematics. However, the central assumptions of rational choice theory are very similar to those in mainstream political behavior and even interpretive sociology. Indeed, many of the statistical methods used in empirical political behavior assume axiomatic models of voter choice. When we consider individual voting behavior, the contribution of rational choice has been to formalize what empirical political scientists do anyway, and provide some new tools. However, it is when we consider collective voting choice—what elections mean and what kind of policy outcomes result—that rational choice leads to new, counterintuitive insights. Rational choice also has a normative dimension. Without voter rationality the traditional understanding of democracy as popular choice makes little sense.

Article

Stephen Benedict Dyson and Thomas Briggs

Political Science accounts of international politics downplay the role of political leaders, and a survey of major journals reveals that fewer than 3% of all articles focus on leaders. This is in stark contrast to public discourse about politics, where leadership influence over events is regarded as a given. This article suggests that, at a minimum, leaders occupy a space in fully specified chains of causality as the aggregators of material and ideational forces, and the transmitters of those forces into authoritative political action. Further, on occasion a more important role is played by the leader: as a crucial causal variable aggregating material and ideational energies in an idiosyncratic fashion and thereby shaping decisions and outcomes. The majority of the article is devoted to surveying the comparatively small literature on political leaders within International Relations scholarship. The article concludes by inviting our colleagues to be receptive to the idiosyncrasies, as well as the regularities, of statespersonship.

Article

Roger D. Congleton

Research on the origin, evolution, and effects of parliaments on public policies is presented. Progress has been made, but unresolved questions remain. Both historical and contemporary rational choice–based research are discussed, although more attention is given to the latter than to the former.

Article

Foreign policy decision making has been and remains at the core of foreign policy analysis and its enduring contribution to international relations. The adoption of rationalist approaches to foreign policy decision making, predicated on an actor-specific analysis, paved the way for scholarship that sought to unpack the sources of foreign policy through a graduated assessment of differing levels of analysis. The diversity of inputs into the foreign policy process and, as depicted through a rationalist decision-making lens, the centrality of a search for utility and the impulse toward compensation in “trade-offs” between predisposed preferences, plays a critical role in enriching our understanding of how that process operates. FPA scholars have devoted much of their work to pointing out the many flaws in rationalist depictions of the decision-making process, built on a set of unsustainable assumptions and with limited recognition of distortions underlined in studies drawn from literature on psychology, cognition, and the study of organizations. At the same time, proponents of rational choice have sought to recalibrate the rational approach to decision making to account for these critiques and, in so doing, build a more robust explanatory model of foreign policy.

Article

Stephen L. Quackenbush and Thomas R. Guarrieri

Foreign policy analysis has been used effectively to explain the use of force. Several leading approaches and paradigms help explain the use of force as a tool of foreign policy. These approaches are based on the important preliminary step of opening up the black box of state, which highlights the importance of decision making for explaining international politics. The two primary approaches to explaining foreign policy analysis are rational choice theory and psychological theories. Foreign policy analysis opens the door to a variety of novel and interesting topics. Many topics of domestic politics relate to international conflict, including democratic peace theory, selectorate theory, public opinion, domestic institutions, and leaders. Each of these topics is important for explaining the use of force in foreign policy. Future research on the use of force and international conflict should account for the importance of domestic politics. Studies of leaders, selectorate theory, and the bargaining model of war provide especially promising avenues for future research.

Article

Lee Epstein and Nicholas W. Waterbury

Once the sole province of U.S. scholars—and mostly political scientists at that—researchers throughout the world, drawing on history, economics, law, and psychology, are analyzing judicial behavior: why judges make the choices they do and what effect those choices have on society. How the field moved from a modest, niche project of political scientists working in the mid-20th century to the powerhouse it has become makes for an interesting story, marked by several key developments along the way. One is certainly the influx of scholars and theories from other disciplines that have supplemented and challenged existing knowledge. Other developments include the growing interest in judging from a comparative perspective; the massive improvements in data acquisition through technological advancements; and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer number of topics that now fall under the rubric of “judicial behavior.” Although the field has advanced markedly, much work remains. Many of the canonical theories of judicial behavior rest on the assumption that judges are rational, goal-oriented, actors. But decades’ worth of studies in social psychology, including experiments on judges, raise serious questions about the plausibility of this assumption. Should observational results converge with the experimental evidence, scholars must grapple with how to integrate insights from social psychology into the analysis of judicial behavior. On the empirical side, however notable the improvements in data infrastructure, most products ignore obvious objects of interest: the actual opinions produced by judges. Developing tools carefully calibrated to account for the unique ways judges develop and frame their work products presents yet another challenge. But it is one worth pursuing if only because of its potential to bring scholars closer to the goal of developing a fuller, more realistic conception of judicial behavior.

Article

Damien Bol and Tom Verthé

People do not always vote for the party that they like the most. Sometimes, they choose to vote for another one because they want to maximize their influence on the outcome of the election. This behavior driven by strategic considerations is often labeled as “strategic voting.” It is opposed to “sincere voting,” which refers to the act of voting for one’s favorite party. Strategic voting can take different forms. It can consist in deserting a small party for a bigger one that has more chances of forming the government, or to the contrary, deserting a big party for a smaller one in order to send a signal to the political class. More importantly the strategies employed by voters differ across electoral systems. The presence of frequent government coalitions in proportional representation systems gives different opportunities, or ways, for people to influence the electoral outcome with their vote. In total, the literature identifies four main forms of strategic voting. Some of them are specific to some electoral systems; others apply to all.

Article

Gerald Schneider and Anastasia Ershova

Rational choice institutionalism (RCI) conceives of European integration as the outcome of three interplaying forces—interests, information, and institutions. Cooperation in the European Union (EU) is thus based on collective choices among a diverse set of actors ranging from voters to member states that disagree over the potential outcome of the decision-making process, are uncertain about the motives and resources of other players, and are exposed to decision-making rules with varying distributional consequences. RCI distinguishes between two fundamental choices the supranational organization can make. EU actors can in this perspective either decide how the EU should be governed (“decision-making about rules”) or how a policy should be changed with the help of a given rule (“decision-making within rules”). The first perspective deals largely with the intergovernmental conferences during which the European Union has changed the rules that structure the interactions among the member states. The latter viewpoint addresses how the relevant decision makers of the European Union have amended or prevented policy changes alone or in collaboration with other actors. Both perspectives draw on the standard assumptions of the rational choice research program that actors engage into means-ends calculations in a consistent way, process new information efficiently, and are aware of the preferences and rationality of other relevant actors. This implies, in the context of EU decision-making, that the adoption of new rules and polices is the consequence of the strategic behavior of those players who possess the power to influence the collective choice. The application of the RCI approach to EU integration has resulted in a multitude of studies seeking to explain its capacity for institutional reform, policy change, or absorption of new members. While the European Parliament, like any other legislature, concludes its deliberations through voting, other EU decision-making bodies mainly decide either through bargaining or through delegating certain tasks to a subordinate actor. RCI has adopted different workhorse models borrowed from game theory to reflect the variety of decision-making modes: the spatial theory of voting, non-cooperative bargaining theory, and principal-agent models have become the standard approaches to study European integration. RCI research has faced several challenges since becoming a mainstream approach in the study of EU decision-making. The first set of criticism focuses on the axiomatic basis of the RCI research program in general and questions its usefulness for understanding the evolution of an organization as complex and large as the EU. Other objections that are frequently raised refer to the empirical tests of the hypotheses derived from the game-theoretic models. Finally, critics of the approach question the ability of the RCI program to deal with the role of informal institutions.

Article

Expected utility theory is widely used to formally model decisions in situations where outcomes are uncertain. As uncertainty is arguably commonplace in political decisions, being able to take that uncertainty into account is of great importance when building useful models and interpreting empirical results. Expected utility theory has provided possible explanations for a host of phenomena, from the failure of the median voter theorem to the making of vague campaign promises and the delegation of policymaking. A good expected utility model may provide alternative explanations for empirical phenomena and can structure reasoning about the effect of political actors’ goals, circumstances, and beliefs on their behavior. For example, expected utility theory shows that whether the median voter theorem can be expected to hold or not depends on candidates’ goals (office, policy, or vote seeking), and the nature of their uncertainty about voters. In this way expected utility theory can help empirical researchers derive hypotheses and guide them towards the data required to exclude alternative explanations. Expected utility has been especially successful in spatial voting models, but the range of topics to which it can be applied is far broader. Applications to pivotal voting or politicians’ redistribution decisions show this wider value. However, there is also a range of promising topics that have received ample attention from empirical researchers, but that have so far been largely ignored by theorists applying expected utility theory. Although expected utility theory has its limitations, more modern theories that build on the expected utility framework, such as prospect theory, can help overcome these limitations. Notably these extensions rely on the same modeling techniques as expected utility theory and can similarly elucidate the mechanisms that may explain empirical phenomena. This structured way of thinking about behavior under uncertainty is the main benefit provided by both expected utility theory and its extensions.

Article

Stephen L. Quackenbush

Deterrence is an important subject, and its study has spanned more than seven decades. Much research on deterrence has focused on a theoretical understanding of the subject. Particularly important is the distinction between classical deterrence theory and perfect deterrence theory. Other studies have employed empirical analyses. The empirical literature on deterrence developed at different times and took different approaches. The early empirical deterrence literature was highly limited for varying reasons. Much of the early case study literature did not seek to test deterrence theory. Early quantitative studies did seek to do so, but they were hampered by rudimentary methods, poor research design, and/or a disconnect between quantitative studies and formal theories of deterrence. Modern empirical research on deterrence has made great strides toward bridging the formal-quantitative divide in the study of deterrence and conducting theoretically driven case studies. Further, researchers have explored the effect of specific variables on deterrence, such as alliances, reputations and credibility, and nuclear weapons. Future empirical studies of deterrence should build on these modern developments. In addition, they should build on perfect deterrence theory, given its logical consistency and empirical support.

Article

Elisabeth Gidengil

Why voters turn out on Election Day has eluded a straightforward explanation. Rational choice theorists have proposed a parsimonious model, but its logical implication is that hardly anyone would vote since their one vote is unlikely to determine the election outcome. Attempts to save the rational choice model incorporate factors like the expressive benefits of voting, yet these modifications seem to be at odds with core assumptions of rational choice theory. Still, some people do weigh the expected costs and benefits of voting and take account of the closeness of the election when deciding whether or not to vote. Many more, though, vote out of a sense of civic duty. In contrast to the calculus of voting model, the civic voluntarism model focuses on the role of resources, political engagement, and to a lesser extent, recruitment in encouraging people to vote. It pays particular attention to the sources of these factors and traces complex paths among them. There are many other theories of why people vote in elections. Intergenerational transmission and education play central roles in the civic voluntarism models. Studies that link official voting records with census data provide persuasive evidence of the influence of parental turnout. Education is one of the best individual-level predictors of voter turnout, but critics charge that it is simply a proxy for pre-adult experiences within the home. Studies using equally sophisticated designs that mimic the logic of controlled experiments have reached contradictory conclusions about the association between education and turnout. Some of the most innovative work on voter turnout is exploring the role of genetic influences and personality traits, both of which have an element of heritability. This work is in its infancy, but it is likely that many genes shape the predisposition to vote and that they interact in complex ways with environmental influences. Few clear patterns have emerged in the association between personality and turnout. Finally, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of exploring the connection between health and turnout.

Article

Matthias Basedau

Political party systems are an important element of political systems in Africa and elsewhere. They form the central intermediate institution between the general population and the government. Party systems represent and aggregate diverse political views and group interests, and they form coalitions that then form governments with potentially important consequences of democracy and political stability. Unlike the case in the period directly after independence, African party systems have been overwhelmingly multiparty since the 1990s. As a result, the literature has grown significantly, although most works focus on political parties rather than party systems. Many efforts have been devoted to classification, referring to the legal context as well as, more specifically, the number of relevant parties, the levels of institutionalization, and, less often, the degree of ideological or other polarization. While levels of institutionalization and ideological differences are generally not pronounced, more than half of African party systems have been one-party dominant, of which most are authoritarian. In contrast, two-party and pluralist-party systems, which make up approximately one half of all multiparty systems, are generally more democratic. Besides determining classifications, most analytical work focuses on the determinants of African party systems using quantitative and qualitative as well as macro- and micro-level methodologies. Three determinants are debated: first, ethnicity, which has been cited as the main social cleavage behind African party systems; however, while ethnicity matters, its effects vary and are limited; second, political institutions, especially electoral systems for legislative elections, which only partly explain fragmentation or other features; third, the performance of political parties and rationalist approaches. Scholars largely agree that all of these elements need to be taken into account. While certain functions of party systems may facilitate democratization and political stability or other outcomes, little empirical work exists on the consequences of party systems. Some evidence suggests that highly institutionalized, moderately fragmented, and polarized systems promote democracy. Future research faces many challenges, in particular the development of integrated theory and more fine-grained data, as well as an increased focus on the consequences of party systems.

Article

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.

Article

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.

Article

A decision strategy is a set of mental and physical operations that a decision maker uses to reach a choice among two or more alternatives. Once the alternatives have been identified, a decision strategy involves gathering information about at least some of the different alternatives under considerations and making judgments about them. A decision strategy will include a mechanism for selecting the best alternative—for example, select the alternative with the highest probability of success. Decision strategies differ along two primary dimensions: how much information is gathered, and how comparable that information is across alternatives. Four major types of decision strategies include classic rational choice (relatively deep search, equally distributed across alternatives), confirmatory motivated reasoning (relatively deep search, unequally distributed across alternatives), fast and frugal (relatively shallow search, equally distributed across alternatives), and heuristic-based intuitive (shallow search, unequally distributed across alternatives). Although standard rating scales have been developed to help ascertain which strategies a decision maker prefers, the best method for determining which strategy is being employed is to directly observe information gathering while the decision is being made. An important task for future research is to more clearly explicate the situations when different decision strategies perform particularly well or particularly poorly.