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The Cognitive Revolution and the Political Psychology of Elite Decision Making

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2013

Emilie M. Hafner-Burton
Laboratory on International Law and Regulation (ILAR) and School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD)
D. Alex Hughes
Laboratory on International Law and Regulation (ILAR) and Department of Political Science at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD)
David G. Victor
Laboratory on International Law and Regulation (ILAR) and School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD)


Experimental evidence in cognitive psychology and behavioral economics is transforming the way political science scholars think about how humans make decisions in areas of high complexity, uncertainty, and risk. Nearly all those studies utilize convenience samples of university students, but in the real world political elites actually make most pivotal political decisions such as threatening war or changing the course of economic policy. Highly experienced elites are more likely to exhibit the attributes of rational decision-making; and over the last fifteen years a wealth of studies suggest that such elites are likely to be more skilled in strategic bargaining than samples with less germane experience. However, elites are also more likely to suffer overconfidence, which degrades decision-making skills. We illustrate implications for political science with a case study of crisis bargaining between the US and North Korea. Variations in the experience of US elite decision-makers between 2002 and 2006 plausibly explain the large shift in US crisis signaling better than other rival hypotheses such as “Iraq fatigue.” Beyond crisis bargaining other major political science theories might benefit from attention to the attributes of individual decision-makers.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013 

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