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Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (XXI)

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Matt Domsalla

SAASS 601/9

Perception and Misperception in International Politics Precis

In Perception and Misperception in International Politics, UCLA political scientists Robert Jervis seeks to demonstrate that decision-makers’ perceptions of the world and of other actors diverge from reality in detectable patterns that may be understood. Jervis analyzes the methods by which decision-makers process information and form, maintain, and change their beliefs about international relations and other actors. Additionally, Jervis examines several common misperceptions of decision-makers. The central argument of deterrence theory is that great dangers arise if an aggressor believes that the status quo powers are weak in capability or resolve, so therefore states must often go to extremes because moderation or conciliation will be seen as weakness. The spiral model expresses the security dilemma, which asserts that since a state cannot determine whether another state’s actions are aggressive, it must assume the worst and purchase as many weapons as it can afford. While state A may perceive the purchase of arms by state B to indicate the aggressiveness of state B, state A does not apply this same reasoning to its own purchase of arms. For Jarvis, “because the effect of initiatives and threats depends to a large extent on the other’s intentions and its perceptions of the first state, people who are debating policy should not only realize what they are arguing about but should also ask themselves what possible behavior on the part of the adversary would they take as evidence against the interpretation that they hold.” (Jarvis, 112) Rational consistency occurs if the cognitive consistency can be explained by the actor’s well-grounded beliefs about the consistency existing in the environment he is perceiving (think two friends will like each other). Jarvis asserts that what one learns from key events in international history is an important factor in determining images that shape the interpretation of incoming information. Jarvis further argues that a common misperception is to see the actions of others and more centralized, planned, and coordinated than it really is. Additionally, actors exaggerate the degree to which they play a central role in others’ policies. Desires and fears have the most impact when the perception matters least – the actor has no incentives to perceive accurately because the actor cannot act on what he believes will happen. Two elements are in dissonance if, considering these two elements alone, the obverse of one element would follow from the other. (Ford is better than Chevy, yet I bought a Chevy.) Dissonance theory postulates that people seek strong justification for their behavior. In attempting to reduce dissonance, people will alter their beliefs and evaluations, which changes the premises of subsequent deliberations. Jervis concludes that decision-makers should be aware of the ways in which the processes of perception lead to common errors.

Deterrence and the Spiral Model

· “People perceive what they expect to be present.” (68)

· “The state does not apply this reasoning to its own behavior [appearance of aggressiveness].” (68)

· “US statesmen in the postwar era have displayed a similar inability to see that their country’s huge power, even if used for others’ good, represents a standing threat to much of the rest of the world. Instead the US, like most other nations, has believed that others will see that the desire for security underlies its actions.” (71)

· “Because most problems are too complex to be amenable to total or synoptic rationality, decision-makers must start from the existing policy and take small, remedial steps to cope with problems as they arise.” (77)

· “The deterrers worry that aggressors will underestimate the resolve of the defenders, while the spiral theorists believe that each side will overestimate the hostility of the other.” (84)

· “A major determinant of the effect of threats is the intention of the other side.” (101)

· “Because the effect of initiatives and threats depends to a large extent on the other’s intentions and its perceptions of the first state, people who are debating policy should not only realize what they are arguing about but should also ask themselves what possible behavior on the part of the adversary would they take as evidence against the interpretation that they hold.” (112)

· “It is not enough to calculate how the other will respond to your action if your image of him is correct. You must also try to estimate how the other will respond if he has intentions and perceptions that are different from those that you think he probably has.” (113)

Cognitive Consistency and the Interaction between Theory and Data

· “We tend to believe that countries we like do things we like, support goals we favor, and oppose countries that we oppose. We tend to think that countries that our enemies make proposals that would harm us, work against the interests of our friends, and aid our opponents.” (118)

· “Consistency between attitudes toward the source of a message and attitudes toward the truth value of the message is also, under many circumstances, rational.” (122)

· “A message that seems to make sense will be accepted regardless of to whom it is attributed, but one with a questionable content is apt to be accepted only if it comes from a respected source.” (123)

· “People rarely differ about the value of an objective without also disagreeing about the probability that it can be attained and the costs this would entail.” (130)

· “The government argued that those calling for greater defense spending were overestimating the threat, but that, if the threat did materialize, their proposals would cope with it.”(133)

· “Both realists and idealists refused to recognize any conflict between ‘ideals and self-interests in America’s foreign relations.’ While one group favored employing a high degree of military power and the other group did not, both claimed that their policies served the values of both national interest and international well-being and morality.” (136)

· “For if a decision-maker believes that a policy is better than the alternatives on all relevant dimensions, he will react very slowly to evidence that it is failing to reach some of his goals because he will believe that it is still best on other dimensions. By contrast, an appreciation of the costs of the policy will make the decision-maker more sensitive to new evidence that other policies would be more effective than the one he has adopted.” (140)

· “It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary.” (143)

· “Different people use the same event to support different policies.” (164)

· “Since intelligent decision-making involves not only the weighing of considerations that are brought to one’s attention but also the active seeking of information, the failure to look for evidence that is clearly available and significant constitutes an irrational way of processing information.” (173)

· “[Review committees] will be in a better position to ask basic questions and make wide-ranging criticisms.” (202)

How Decision-Makers Learn from History

· “By making accessible insights derived from previous events, analogies provide a useful shortcut to rationality. But they also obscure aspects of the present case that are different from the past one.” (220)

· “Commitment to an independent air force and to a mission that could justify its being a separate arm at least co-equal with the others made it predictable that the air force would learn little from World War II about the limitations of strategic bombing.” (222)

· “With a successful outcome, relatively little attention is paid to the costs of the policy, the possibility that others might have worked even better, or the possibility that others might have worked even better, or the possibility that success was largely attributable to luck and that the policy might just as easily have failed.” (232)

· “Just as decision-makers learn from a small number of cases, so they have only a few occasions on which to verify the appropriateness of the lessons. By contrast, our perceptual predispositions concerning our physical environment serve us very well because of the frequent and unambiguous opportunities for verifying the relationships between incoming information and the stimulus that produce it.” (236)

· “The four variables that influence the degree to which an event affects later perceptual predispositions are whether or not the person experienced the event firsthand, whether it occurred early in his adult life or career, whether it had important consequences for him or his nation, and whether he is familiar with a range of international events that facilitate alternative perceptions.” (239)

· “When a policy has brought notable success, actors are likely to apply it to a range of later situations.” (278)

· “There is often little reason why those events that provide analogies should in fact be the best guides to the future…because outcomes are learned without careful attention to details of causation, lessons are superficial and overgeneralized…decision-makers do not examine a variety of analogies before selecting the one that they believe sheds the most light on their situation.” (281 – 282)

Perceptions of Centralization

· “A common misperception is to see the behavior of others as more centralized, planned, and coordinated than it is. This is a manifestation of the drive to squeeze complex and unrelated events into a coherent pattern.” (320)

· “Most people are slow to perceive accidents, unintended consequences, coincidences, and small causes leading to large effects. Instead coordinated actions, plans, and conspiracies are seen.” (320)

· “Accidents, chance, and lack of coordination are rarely given their due by contemporary observers. Instead, they suspect that well-laid plans give events a coherence that they would otherwise lack.” (321)

· “Like confusion, stupidity is rarely given its due.” (323)

· “Decision-makers generally overestimate the degree to which their opposite numbers have the information and power to impose their desires on all parts of their own government.” (324)

· “Although decision-makers know that their own state is not monolithic, that policy is often the result of bargaining, and that different parts of the government often follow different policies, they overestimate the degree of centralization in their own state’s implementation of policy. Unless they have evidence to the contrary, decision-makers assume that their agents act as instructed.” (330)

· “Taking the other side’s behavior as the product of a centralized actor with integrated values, inferring the plan that generated this behavior, and projecting this pattern into the future will be misleading if the behavior was the result of shifting internal bargaining, ad hoc decisions, and uncoordinated actions.” (338)

Overestimating One’s Importance as Influence or Target

· “Actors exaggerate the degree to which they play a central role in others politics. Content of the resulting perception, however, varies with the effect of the other’s behavior on the actor.” (343)

· “The exaggeration of one’s own importance also leads actors to overestimate their potential influence when the other is poised between taking actions which can greatly help or greatly harm the actor.” (348)

· “When others’ actions hurt or threaten the perceiver, he is apt to overestimate the degree to which the behavior was a produce of internal forces and was aimed at harming him.” (349)

· “Actor A usually overestimates the degree to which B’s undesired behavior is a product of B’s autonomous desires and underestimates the degree to which it is a response to an action of A’s – usually an action that A and B interpret differently. Thus A sees himself as the object of B’s unprovoked an inner-directed hostility.” (351)

· “More common than an actor’s failure to realize that the other’s undesired acts may flow from the actor’s unintended invitation is the failure to appreciate that the other side’s hostility may be a product of his fear of the actor.” (352)

· “In politics and everyday life, reward and punishments are often such that it is in the actor’s interest to have biased perceptions.” (358)

· “Subjects overguess the frequency of desired outcomes and underguess the frequency of undesired ones.” (362)

· “History is replete with examples of decision-makers who were too cautions, who underestimated the probability that a decisive stand could lead to a highly desired goal.” (368)

· “A person who accuses another of wishful thinking usually shares the other’s wishes, but not his perception.” (371)

· “A statesman who thought that he was powerless to bring about changes in his state’s policy if he detected a threat would perceive such threats less readily than a person who believed that his views would matter.” (377)

Cognitive Dissonance and International Relations

· “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance. The basis of dissonance theory lies in the postulate that people seek strong justification for their behavior.” (382)

· “Dissonance theory asserts that, after making a decision, the person not only will downgrade or misinterpret discrepant information but will also avoid it and seek consonant information…known as ‘selective exposure.’” (387)

· “The aim and effect of dissonance reduction is to produce post-decision spreading apart of the alternatives.” (388)

· “The degree of dissonance… is proportional to: 1) the attractiveness of the rejected alternative; 2) the qualitative dissimilarity of the choice alternatives; and 3) the importance of the choice.” (392)

· “It is especially disadvantageous to the states…to have hard decisions considered as closed. If the policy chosen was only slightly better than the alternative the chances are relatively good that new information will show that modifications are called for. IF the policy concerns vital interests it is especially important that decision-makers be open to new information since the costs of carrying out inadequate policies in these areas are so high.” (392)

· “A major deduction from dissonance theory is that expending resources increase dissonance and thus increases the pressures to believe that the policy is succeeding. The argument here is the reverse of the obvious one that people will pay a high price for things that they value highly: sacrifices increase the value placed on the goals that are sought and achieved.” (393)

· “When a policy has high costs, decision-makers are likely to believe they have accomplished something worthy of their sacrifice.” (394)

· “Dissonance reduction will also increase the value placed on specific objectives and possessions gained by war.” (396)

· “Making a decision provides additional impetus for carrying it through to success. Spending resources on a policy generates pressures to put in additional effort to make the policy work and thereby justify the earlier behavior…This leads us to expect that sunk costs, ignored by a rational man, will influence behavior.” (398)

· “The central contribution of the theory of cognitive dissonance is the argument that people seek to justify their own behavior – to reassure themselves that they have made the best possible use of all the information they had or should have had, to believe that they have not used their resources foolishly, to see that their actions are commendable and consistent.” (406)

· “Ironically, then, the drive to see one’s self as a better, more rational decision-maker will reduce the person’s rationality by impairing his ability to utilize information and examine his own values.” (406)

Minimizing Misperception

· “Decision-makers will usually benefit from making their beliefs and values more explicitly…Particularly dangerous is the tendency to take the most important questions for granted.” (410)

· “To expose implicit assumptions and give themselves more freedom of choice, decision-makers should encourage the formulation and application of alternative images [devil’s advocates.” (415)

· “It is clearly dangerous to allow those with an interest in the maintenance of a policy to judge its effectiveness.” (418)

· “The final…safeguard is for decision-makers to take account of the ways in which the processes of perception lead to common errors.” (423)


Perception and Misperception in International Politics Robert Jervis (1976)

Jervis’s goal is to understand politics

Specifically he wants to understand how political actors perceive each other and most important how those cognitive processes lead to misperceptions.

Outlines Deterrence (game of Chicken, overwhelming threat of force, negative view of enemy) vs. Spiral Model (Security Dilemma, slow steps up spiral, positive view of enemy)

Cognitive Consistency – tendency to view new information according to believed framework, expectations based

Cognitive Dissonance – acknowledged evidence that does not meet framework, a conflict

o Change behavior or

o Change belief

(Perception of centralization, rational actor model 1)

(Wishful Thinking – desires based, little proof)

Jervis makes arguments primarily from IR relations and psychology (some history, some social science, some poly-sci) Favors a interdisciplinary approach with free but not casual thought. In end different disciplines not commensurate enough to make solid conclusions but sneaks them in with qualifiers. Concludes with an exhortation towards greater self-awareness and empathy, try to move to third party status, step outside yourself to challenge perceptions & get better decisions

“Stupidity is rarely given its due.”

Hughes – Stubbornness vs. Perseverance??; Open-minded vs. Fickle-Minded??

n Not just a results based analysis // Behavior between the two can be exactly the same

- Stubborn – ignores too much cognitive dissonance, irrational inconsistency, doesn’t see it

- Perseverance – perceives the dissonance, decides path still correct

Strategist should have negative view of enemy or positive view of enemy?

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