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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

Konstantinos V. Katsikopoulos

Polymath, and also political scientist, Herbert Simon dared to point out that the amounts of time, information, computation, and other resources required for maximizing utility far exceed what is possible when real people have to make real decisions in the real world. In psychology, there are two main approaches to studying actual human judgment and decision making—the heuristics-and-bias and the fast-and-frugal-heuristics research programs. A distinctive characteristic of the fast-and-frugal-heuristics program is that it specifies formal models of heuristics and attempts to determine when people use them and what performance they achieve. These models rely on a few pieces of information that are processed in computationally simple ways. The information and computation are within human reach, which means that people rely on information they have relatively easy access to and employ simple operations such as summing or comparing numbers. Research in the laboratory and in the wild has found that most people use fast and frugal heuristics most of the time if a decision must be made quickly, information is expensive financially or cognitively to gather, or a single/few attributes of the problem strongly point towards an option. The ways in which people switch between heuristics is studied in the framework of the adaptive toolbox. Work employing computer simulations and mathematical analyses has uncovered conditions under which fast and frugal heuristics achieve higher performance than benchmarks from statistics and machine learning, and vice versa. These conditions constitute the theory of ecological rationality. This theory suggests that fast and frugal heuristics perform better than complex optimization models if the available information is of low quality or scarce, or if there exist dominant options or attributes. The bias-variance decomposition of statistical prediction error, which is explained in layperson’s terms, underpins these claims. Research on fast and frugal heuristics suggests a governance approach not based on nudging, but on boosting citizen competence.

Article

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

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

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

Politics is increasingly reliant on numerical descriptions of the world. Numbers are relied upon for their ability to communicate some unambiguous facts of life. Equivalence frames are equivalent descriptions of the same quantity and they help us understand how different ways of presenting the objectively same piece of numerical information affect political behavior. Equivalence framing effects denote that these different presentation of the fundamentally same fact have very profound effects on preferences. However, most research in political behavior have relied on other forms of framing and largely regarded equivalence framing as a well-defined concept without much relevance to real-world politics. The standard form of equivalence framing changes the valence of a label which describes the same numerical fact. This form of negative and positive framing of the same metric will often elicit very different responses for the recipient of the information. A less studied type of equivalence framing in political behavior manipulates the same numerical fact but with a different metric or scale. These have often not been explicitly recognized as equivalence frames but are clearly an important example in a world of numbers. As for valence manipulation, changing the metric can also have profound effects. Moving forward studies of equivalence framing must both gain a better descriptive understanding of the actual use and abuse of equivalence frames in observational setting and at the same time aim to understand the causal properties of equivalence frames in the field—outside the controlled environment of the survey or lab where they most often are studied.

Article

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.

Article

Özgür Şimşek

The lexicographic decision rule is one of the simplest methods of choosing among decision alternatives. It is based on a simple priority ranking of the attributes available. According to the lexicographic decision rule, a decision alternative is better than another alternative if and only if it is better than the other alternative in the most important attribute on which the two alternatives differ. In other words, the lexicographic decision rule does not allow trade-offs among the various attributes. For example, if quality is considered to be more important than cost, no difference in price can compensate for a difference in quality: The lexicographic decision rule chooses the item with the best quality regardless of the cost. Over the years, the lexicographic decision rule has been compared to various statistical learning methods, including multiple linear regression, support vector machines, decision trees, and random forests. The results show that the lexicographic decision rule can sometimes compete remarkably well with more complex statistical methods, and even outperform them, despite its naively simple structure. These results have stimulated a rich scientific literature on why, and under what conditions, lexicographic decision rules yield accurate decisions. Due to the simplicity of its decision process, its fast execution time, and the robustness of its performance in various decision environments, the lexicographic decision rule is considered to be a plausible model of human decision making. In particular, the lexicographic decision rule is put forward as a model of how the human mind implements bounded rationality to make accurate decisions when information is scarce, time is short, and computational capacity is limited.

Article

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, terrorism has gained increased prominence in both scholarship and the media. While international terrorist acts are quite visible and highly publicized, such attacks represent only one type of terrorism within the international system. In fact, a very large number of acts of terrorism take place within the context of civil wars. Given the great disparity in power in most civil wars, it is not surprising that terrorism might be seen as a tactic that is often used by insurgent groups, who may have few resources at their disposal to fight a much stronger opponent. There is a clear linkage between the concepts of terrorism and civil war, yet until recently scholars have largely approached civil war and terrorism separately. Recent literature has attempted to specifically map the intersection of terrorism and civil war, recognizing the extent to which the two overlap. As expected, the findings suggest that civil war and terrorism are highly linked. Other scholars have endeavoured to explain why rebel groups in some civil wars use terrorism, while others do not. Further research focuses on how governments respond to terrorism during civil war or on how the decisions of external actors to intervene in civil wars are affected by the use of terrorism by insurgent groups. These studies show that there is too little theorizing on the relationship between civil war and terrorism; while scholars are finally considering these concepts collectively, the full nature of their relationship remains unexplored. Additional research is needed to better understand the various ways that terrorism and civil war overlap, interact, and mutually affect other important international and domestic political processes.

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

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.

Article

Akan Malici

Syria is in tatters. A brutal dictator, vicious terrorist groups, and a raging civil war have led to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime has been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless.” In August 2012, however, President Obama issued a strong warning when he famously said the “red line” for the United States in terms of stepping up a military offensive would be if “we started seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Beginning in 2013, the Damascus regime did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people, perhaps most shockingly in August in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily, and his decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Robert Gates judged the president’s decision a “serious mistake.” It allowed the tragedy to continue and American credibility to be hurt. The president himself, however, disagreed. About the decision not to act militarily he said later: “I’m very proud of this moment.” He was convinced that the United States could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire. It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors concerning the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regard to a threat or to an opportunity. Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges with respect to questions of international security are “ill-defined,” the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo. In the case of Syria, President Obama followed a strategy of disjointed incrementalism. He could not rely on much certain or reliable information regarding the situation and correctly understood that a military engagement could have potentially very adverse consequences in terms of casualties and a general escalation of the situation. Contrary to often repeated judgments that his decision not to engage militarily was a mistake, it is the case that he indeed avoided a mistake.

Article

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.

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

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

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

The representativeness heuristic was defined by Kahneman and Tversky as a decision-making shortcut in which people judge probabilities “by the degree to which A is representative of B, that is, by the degree to which A resembles B.” People who use this cognitive shortcut bypass more detailed processing of the likelihood of the event in question but instead focus on what (stereotypic) category it appears to fit and the associations they have about that category. Simply put: If it looks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The representativeness heuristic usually works well and provides valid inferences about likelihood. This is why political scientists saw it as an important part of a solution to an enduring problem in their field: How can people make political decisions when so many studies show they lack even basic knowledge about politics? According to these scholars, voters do not need to be aware of all actions and opinions of a political candidate running for office. To make up their mind on who to vote for, they can rely on cues that represent the performance and issue position of candidates, such as the party they are affiliated with, their ranking in the polls, and whether (for instance) they act/appear presidential. In other words, they need to answer the question: Does this candidate fit my image of a successful president? The resulting low-information rationality provides voters with much confidence in their voting decision, even though they do not know all the details about the history of each candidate. Using heuristics allows relatively uninformed citizens to act as if they were fully informed. Despite this optimistic view of heuristics at their introduction to the discipline, they originated from research showing how heuristic use is accompanied by systematic error. Tversky and Kahneman argue that using the representativeness heuristic leads to an overreliance on similarity to a category and a neglect of prior probability, sample size, and the reliability and validity of the available cue. Kuklinsky and Quirk first warned about the potential effect of these biases in the context of political decision-making. Current research often examines the effects of specific cues/stereotypes, like party, gender, race, class, or more context-specific heuristics like the deservingness heuristic. Another strand of research has started exploring the effect of the representativeness heuristic on decision-making by political elites, rather than voters. Future studies can integrate these findings to work toward a fuller understanding of the effects of the representativeness heuristic in political decision-making, more closely consider individual differences and the effects of different contexts, and map the consequences that related systematic biases might have.

Article

Behavioral public administration is an interdisciplinary research field that studies public administration topics by connecting insights from public administration with psychology and, more broadly, the behavioral sciences. Behavioral public administration scholars study important public problems such as discrimination, corruption, and burnout. Various public administration scholars—including Herbert Simon—have stressed the importance of connecting psychology and public administration. Yet until the early 2010s, public administration did not work systematically on this connection. This has changed profoundly with the development of various overview articles, dedicated special issues in general public administration journals, and development of new journals. Behavioral public administration has several uses. First, behavioral public administration tests and extends theories and concepts from psychology in political-administrative settings. Examples include tests of prospect theory and the choice overload hypothesis in public-administrative settings. Second, it tests and extends the micro-foundations of public administration theories and concepts, such as concerning co-production and isomorphism. Third, behavioral public administration scholars develop new theories and concepts. This has probably been less widespread than the previous two uses, but is nonetheless already apparent in, for instance, concepts such as public service motivation, policy alienation, and administrative burden. Fourth, behavioral public administration can help in tackling practical public problems. Insights from behavioral public administration have been used to increase diversity within public organizations and reduce burnout. The field of behavioral public administration can develop further. The field could move beyond one-shot single studies and aim to build cumulative knowledge. This can be done via large-scale collaborations and replications. In addition, it is also beneficial if behavioral public administration scholars broaden their methodological toolkit to answer different kinds of research questions. It should not only focus on causal inference questions but also on questions concerning description of societal problems (e.g. via representative surveys) or concerning prediction (e.g. by using machine learning).

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

JoBeth Shafran, Bryan D. Jones, and Connor Dye

Bounded rationality is the notion that while humans want to be fully rational beings and weigh the costs and benefits when making a decision, they cannot do so due to cognitive and emotional limitations. The role of human nature in the study and design of organizations can be examined through three general approaches that are explained using metaphors: organization as machine, organization as hierarchy, and organization as canal. The organization-as-machine approach ignores the principles of bounded rationality by assuming the organizational members perform straightforward cost–benefit responses to the incentives put forward by the operators. Later developments in organizational scholarship incorporate elements of bounded rationality and allowed researchers to link human cognitive capacities to the basic organizational features, giving us two new conceptions of organization: organization as hierarchy and organization as canal. Organization as hierarchy focuses on the organization’s use of subunits to create divisions of labor to expand the capacity to process information and problem-solve. Organization as canal recognizes that the weaknesses of human cognition are still channeled into the organizational structure, making it difficult for organizations to update their preferences and assumptions as they receive new information. These principles of bounded rationality in organizational theory can be applied to policy-making institutions. Hierarchical organizations delegate information processing to the subunits, allowing them to attend to the various policy environments and process incoming information. While the collective organization attends to many issues at once, the rules and procedures that are present within the organization and the cognitive limits of decision makers, prevent proportional information processing. Political institutions are unable to respond efficiently to changes in the environment. Thus, organizational adjustment to the environment is characterized as disjointed and episodic as opposed to smooth and incremental. Punctuated equilibrium theory applies these tenets of bounded rationality to a theory of policy change. Congress has been a vehicle for studying bounded rationality in organizations and theories of policy change, as it is a formal institution with bureaucratic elements and is subject to the constraints faced by any formal organization.