Psychological factors in Decision-Making
By Anna Song
Is Rational Choice Theory the correct assumption
So far, Rational Choice Theory has dominated the
topic of political decision-making. And why not? RCT is clean,
almost too simple. RCT is what the psychology
field refers to as the "stimulus-response" model. An
actor sends a threat (stimulus). The challenger receives the threat
as intended. The challenger acts to maximize expected utility
(response). This "response" can almost be thought of
as a reflex
to maximize expected utility is automatic. And,
to be all-inclusive, Prospect Theory (the explanation as to why
some actors act "irrationally" when they do not maximize
expected utility) is used as a safety net. PT does not conflict
with RCT, it just saves it when it fails to fit human behavior.
The question posed is this: how can actors act rationally,
maximizing expected utility, when everyone perceives threats (stimuli)
differently? First, in the political arena, a stimulus is not
as clear as a tap on the knee cap and the response is not a obvious
as a jerk of the leg. Threats are implied and hidden. And even
if threats are intended to be obvious, different circuits within
the human brain (meant to simplify complex information) masks
and warps messages until they are construed away from its intentions.
The point here is that RCT, like psychology's "stimulus-response"
model, works on a elementary level. But human behavior is too
complex to be watered down into a "stimulus-response"
Second, Rational Choice Theory actually is based
upon a psychological bias! RCT usually takes on the perspective
of the defender. Threats are perceived as intended and any information
about the challenger as a person is "black boxed." The
tendency to only take into consideration what one experiences
(while virtually disregarding other actors' experiences) is called
the actor-observer bias. RCT takes on the point of view
of the defender because those who normally use RCT are from defender-type
nations, mainly Western countries.
Combining both points, the main argument is that
cognitive and personality processes taint all information actors
receive. Therefore, actors can never be fully rational. Proponents
of RCT argue that actors never "intend to fall into psychological
biases/constraints." Others extend this line of reasoning
to justify the assumption of rationality. Even though actors do
not consciously fall prey to psychological constraint, these limitation
do exist. And since cognitive boundaries alter decision makers'
perceptions of expected utility, RCT's "stimulus-response"
assumption seems to be in danger.
Why can't humans be rational decision-makers?
Biases, heuristics, and other judgment altering factors.
The rational actor assumption is so hard to give
up, and many vehemently argue this idea to death. But does the
evidence favor rationality? Let us consider that fact that to
take in information is to perceive it first. In other words, to
understand or contemplate information, we have to notice it. Just
in this first step alone, humans err. "You may feel that
you are looking at things in a completely unbiased way, but as
will become clear, it is nearly impossible for people to avoid
biases in perception. Instead, people selectively perceive what
they expect and hope to see" (Scott Plous The Psychology
of Judgment and Decision Making, 1993 p.15).
What Plous is referring to are motivated and unmotivated
biases. At the first interception of information, humans
apply what they want and expect to see. The field of social psychology
has shown, over and over again, that humans ignore what they don't
expect or want to perceive. The placebo effect precisely depicts
a bias in judgment. It doesn't matter that a placebo is merely
the proverbial sugar pill
patients really do feel better,
worse, or whatever they believe will happen.
Let us consider North Korea as a case study in motivated
and unmotivated biases. In May of 1997, North Korean Supreme Leader
Kim Jong-Il let US congressman Tony Hall and CNN crews into Pyongyang
to document the starvation his country is going through due to
famine and droughts. This action could be seen as either a desperate
cry for help or a ploy to wean sympathy in order to receive the
necessary supplies to strengthen his army in an attack on neighboring
Seoul. The perception of this action is based upon what one wants/expects
to see. For example, South Korea has something to gain if North
Korea looks like a rogue elephant
the U.S. will sympathize
Seoul, continuing its military/economic aide to the country. This
would be a motivated bias. U.S. "hawks" might also see
the invitation as a ploy, because of North Korea's track record
of devious ploys (philosophy of juche as a means to oppress North
Koreans, the September 1996 submarine incident, etc.). This would
be an unmotivated biases, they see what they expect to see.
Another psychological factor which influences perception is Effort Justification. The more effort and resource an actor has spent on a situation, the more likely that actor will continue to its spending, despite obvious losses or harm. Psychologist have argued that the USG itself was justifying its own previous efforts through continued involvement in the Vietnam War. This idea is more commonly known as the Quagmire Theory (See George & Smoke's Deterrence in American
foreign policy: theory and practice.) The longer
the USG was involved in the Vietnam War and the more resources
it spilled into the effort, the more the USG felt it needed to
continue the efforts. The idea was that "We can't stop now,
or else our efforts would have gone to waste."
Motivated/unmotivated biases and effort justification
influence how we
first perceive information.
There are several more factors which affect how we process
our already tainted information, thus altering the way we frame
situations even further.
We all make short cuts in the way we process information.
We cannot take forever to make simple judgment calls. We use
"rules of thumb" to focus on necessary information to
make decisions. These "rules of thumb" are called heuristics.
For example, we sometimes ignore base rates (the probability
of an occurrence) and fall prey to the Representative heuristic,
where we make a judgment call based upon how much something resembles
a situation. This explanation seems confusing, but look at the
Bob is attending the University of Michigan.
Bob is blond & loves to surf.
Bob is from California.
The assumption that Bob is from CA is based upon
how representative Bob's description is the stereotype of a Californian.
But base rates tell us that it would be more probable that Bob
is from Michigan since he is a student here and the majority of
the student body are in-state.
We also make judgments based upon how easily we can
come up with a similar example. This is known as the Availability
heuristic. For example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, the
first reaction many people made was that Middle Eastern terrorists
were to blame for the tragedy. Why did people make such a rash
judgment? Probably because other instances where Middle Eastern
terrorists were to blame were so easily accessible and recall
(i.e., World Trade Center and Lockerbie). The vividness
of a situation adds to how available the situation is to recall.
Another factor which may hinder actors' ability to
make rational decision is how the decision is made. Bureaucratic
politics is a component into the decision making process. But
what lies below the administrative web bureaucratic politics weave
is the psychological biases called risky shift & group
On the one hand, risky shift is a group's tendency
to be more risk acceptant than an individual. In a group, an
individual enjoys an anonymity which disinhibits any feelings
of blame/responsibility. On the other hand, a group's collective
voice masks and oppresses the ideas of the individual. So even
if some people disagree with the group's consensus, the pressure
to conform to the group is overpowering. This conformity is called
In 1961, 1,400 Cuban rebel fights (who were trained
by the CIA) infiltrated the coasts of Cuba, only to be ambushed
and defeated by Castro's men. The incident, forever remembered
as the "Bay of Pigs disaster" is currently the poster
example of group think and risky shift biases. So many faulty
and dangerous assumptions were made during the planning session
of the invasions. Yet, no one within the group of advisors and
military elites strongly voiced their concerns. Most of them knew
that the geographic make up of the coast (mountains, sand, etc.)
were too constraining, and greatly disabled any escape routes.
Also, the group foolishly assumed that Castro would deploy old
WWII relic weaponry, even though they knew Cuba possessed some
technologically up-to-date weapons. Knowing these, and other faults
in the plan, the invasion still went through.
No one in the group could withstand the enormous
pressure conformity places on an individual. Also, the group was
more risk acceptant than individual would care to be. (for more
info, see http://www.cweb.com/doctor/risky.html).
Rational Choice Model and Bargaining Theory
Whenever battling wits, strength, etc. an opponent, don't we all want to know who we are dealing with? It is more cost effective to thoroughly search for information, than to assume and hope for the best. This is precisely the reason that Search-Persuasion is usually the first way to go followed by Strategy. In search-persuasion, options cannot be manipulated. Therefore, information about challengers/defenders must be gathered in order to persuade and make the opponent PERCEIVE that the desired choice is the best one for the opponent. In Strategy, there "[is a] manipulation of predictability of one's own actions so that an adversary's chooses in one's favor. How can I modify consequences of my own options so that the opponent chooses in my favor? Strategy makes my behavior predictable to leave the other side with a simple choice that comes out in my favor." But again, the assumption that "defender's" perception/intentions will be met out and the "adversary chooses in one's favor."
Rational Choice Model and Cognitive Choice Model
Rational Choice Theory ignores the perspective of
the challenger, for the sake of convenience. By focusing on the
defender's point of view, RCT proponents save time and headaches.
"Why worry about an insignificant challenger and its characteristics?
If things don't turn out to be THREAT-STIMULUS, we'll call on
psychology. But is it always safe to assume the simple and turn
to psychology only when things go wrong? Rational Choice Theory
must be revised to take into consideration the adversary's view.
The human psyche is rich with complexity. To include
every psychological constraint that hinders rationality would
truly be "pragmatically bankrupt." But, on the same
note, why does the CIA spend millions of dollars digging up dirt
on international leaders? To get a better understanding of who
these potential challengers are.
Below is a comparison between the factors RCT and
the Cognitive Choice Model addresses:
RATIONAL CHOICE MODEL
COGNITIVE CHOICE MODEL
past history, motives Heuristics Personality factors
(unmotivated, motivated biases)
intended threat organism perception/process
Though many Rational Choice proponents view the Cognitive Choice model as "pragmatically bankrupt" and tedious, it is essential to take into consideration these different factors, and how they alter/contribute to the decision-making process.