Psychological factors in Decision-Making By Anna Song

Is Rational Choice Theory the correct assumption to make?

So far, Rational Choice Theory has dominated the topic of political decision-making. And why not? RCT is clean, and simple … 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" relationship.

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 example…

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 think.

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 group think.

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

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:


threat response


Social Environment

past history, motives Heuristics Personality factors

(unmotivated, motivated biases)

intended threat organism perception/process response

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.