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date: 20 January 2020

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: availability heuristic, psychology, leaders, foreign policy, decision making, political decision making

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