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Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International politics

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Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, (1976)


Author background: International relations prof at Columbia, Harvard, and UCLA.


Thesis: Decision makers see the world through lenses colored by their own perceptions: perceptions influenced by their own personal histories, generational histories, and abilities to apply surface and deep lessons learned from history. But their perceptions of the world and of other actors diverge from reality in patterns that we can detect and for reasons that we can understand. Hence, we can comprehend specific decisions, account for patterns of interaction, improve our understanding of international relations and compensate for misperception.


Argument: Jervis defines and analyzes models and conditions which explain how misperceptions are created and outline the causes that make us filter cognitive data in a way that is preferable to us (cognitive consistency). By building awareness of these ideas, he posits we can free our mind from the relentless tyranny of misperception.


1. Cognitive consistency - assimilate incoming data to fit/fill existing paradigm (we see what we expect to see)

1.1. innovation depends on escaping existing paradigms

1.2. “Once a person develops an image of another—especially a hostile image of the other—ambiguous and even discrepant information will be assimilated to that image.”


2. Cognitive balance – deciders surround themselves with like-minded others


3. Learning – tendency to pay more attention to what happened rather than why (surface vs. deep)

3.1. over-generalization of "lessons" conceals or falsely attributes causality

3.2. people tend to see others as more calculating and centralized than they are

3.3. over-estimation of personal/"my group" influence or importance


4. Cognitive dissonance – I have an internal contradiction, so I rationalize, and rationalization becomes my new reality

4.1. I'm less likely to admit error if my decision lead to the dissonance


5. To minimize misperceptions p. 410:

5.1. Make assumptions and predictions explicit

5.2. Encourage the formulation and application of alternative images

5.3. Don't allow tasks, future prospects, and identities to be tied to specific theories and images of other actors

5.4. Be aware of the most common misperceptions (see "Learning" above)


Implications for Strategy

- Strategists must interpret the world to apply our craft—by being aware of misperceptions, we can interpret context more accurately.

- The nature and background of the leader matters—his/her misperceptions will guide planning and define his role at the nexus of strategy and tactics.

- Consideration for alternative points of view (other possible solutions) can greatly diminish poor strategy based on faulty images of the adversary.

- Security Dilemma – situation in which steps to increase you own security are interpreted as aggressive by others

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