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So far in this book, the emphasis has been on the role of psychological constraints on individual decision makers. In many areas of political science, however, theories deal with interactions between states or within a government bureaucracy, not the multitudes who live within a nation’s borders. The literature, in other words, treats states as unitary actors. In nearly every case of national level decision making, however, we see very interesting dynamics when we look a little closer. We review the challenge presented by principal-agent problems that are common in large and complex organizations such as national governments. BPS helps us understand a host of these influences on state level decision-making, including domestic public opinion, bureaucratic norms and practices, organizational constraints, advisory group structures, and the dynamics of group decision-making, including groupthink and polythink.
Theories of democracy all insist on some basic conditions in order for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable. One of the first ones to mention is an openness to new information about the world that might influence beliefs about a politician’s performance, character, intelligence and the like. In recent decades, BPS has discovered that this basic assumption is regularly violated. Citizens and elites often resist new and credible information in favor of their existing beliefs and viewpoints even when they would greatly benefit from updating those stands. In this chapter, we review a related set of theories captured under the umbrella of motivated reasoning that attempts to understand why, exploring the role of cognitive dissonance, self-esteem, and group identity in shaping individuals’ goals when processing information. While the field has no concrete answers yet, we at least have begun to estimate the often dire consequences of arguing from our existing attitudes to our perceptions of the world – top-down processing – instead of the other way around.
This chapter delves into the reasons for attending to the cognitive constraints of the political decision maker, whether average citizen or member of the ruling elite. The main focus of our discussion is the concept of bounded rationality and other cognitive strategies that humans have evolved in order to make good enough political decisions, if not optimal ones. The discussion includes a review of many instances where cognitive short cuts, or heuristics, influence decisions by reducing the burden associated with making choices in highly complex information environments. The downside, of course, is that these shortcuts can also lead citizens and leaders astray, fomenting biases, even as they help simplify a decision. Understanding how cognitive limitations affect the ability of citizens and elites to make good decisions is the key to solving a large number of puzzles in our politics. The chapter also addresses how, if at all, one could overcome these biases.
This chapter discusses prospect theory at length, as a prime example of the ways fairly trivial changes in the presentation of a set of facts can dramatically alter public opinion. The chapter begins with an ancient idea, at least as old as Aristotle’s philosophy, that in a public debate over an issue, features quite peripheral to the facts of a case could be invoked, challenged, or described in order to maximize an argument’s persuasive power. The central idea behind the art of political rhetoric is what we call framing. The conviction that framing is a powerful persuasive tool for political elites in both democratic and non-democratic regimes is widely held and, in many ways, contradicts rational choice models of decision-making. Because frames do not change the underlying dimensions of a choice – the facts of the case – they should not affect our decisions, at least not according to a rational choice framework. Still, they often do.
The first several chapters of the book focused on a set of related constraints on human cognitive abilities that systematically influence the ability of decision makers make choices consistent with their underlying preferences. In this chapter, we turn squarely to where preferences come from that those decision makers are trying to maximize in the first place. The discussion starts with a challenge to a common assumption: that people are mostly concerned with their personal, material self-interest when they make decisions about politics. BPS approaches have discovered a wide variety of motivations for political choices that reach far beyond simple economic self-interest. Symbolic values springing from personality traits, social norms, group identities, and morals can lead to decisions quite far removed from what would be in many individual’s narrow material self-interest. By bringing such alternative motivations into our models, we can understand politics much more deeply and delve into the “black box” of preference formation.
The ancients believed that emotions were an obstacle to rational thought and good governance. Plato argued for government run by an enlightened king who could resist the influence of personal desires and emotions and employ only reason in pursuit of the common good. Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and an interesting set of ideas about the role of emotion has emerged from the fields of cognitive and neuropsychology. The most exciting, and perhaps surprising, discovery is that Plato, and many other since, might have been all wrong about emotion. Emotions are not biases to be repressed in order to make good decisions. Instead, they are often essential for making rational decisions. The chapter reviews a variety of perspectives on this interesting new idea, including affective intelligence theory, hot cognition, valence theory, cognitive appraisal theory, and the role of biology and evolution in emotion.
We introduce BPS, a research paradigm which takes seriously the cognitive limitations and varied motivations of citizens and elites as they make politics happen around the world. The most important claim in this book is that a set of ideas from psychology, economics, political science and communication studies can be combined in a simple way to greatly enhance our understanding of politics. These approaches can help explain the many deviations we see in political attitudes, political decision making, and political behavior that are often predicted from the dominant, alternative approach to understanding politics: RCT. The BPS paradigm encapsulates a broad set of research programs that challenge traditional assumptions about the processes and motivations structuring political decision-making, including: (1) the role, use and influence of heuristics and cognitive biases on decision-making, 2() the effects of message framing on political attitudes, (3) institutional factors and the psychology of group-decision making in state policy formation, (4) the role of emotions in political behavior, (5) individual differences in preferences stemming from personality, values and norms, and (6) the importance of motivation and identity in information processing.
Here, we dive into the details of RCT in order to contrast it with the ideas encapsulated by BPS. What is rational political behavior? We discuss the basic assumptions of the RCT model, especially regarding the cognitive abilities and motivations that people use when making complex decisions about abstract topics such as public policy preferences and voting. BPS diverges from RCT in two critical ways: it is process-oriented, and incorporates known limits on the cognitive abilities of both citizens and elites into models of political behavior, and 2) it explains motivations behind preferences, especially those distinct from material or economic self-interest. We interrogate whether standard RCT assumptions are plausible, such as whether voters can adequately collect and weigh all the information relevant to a political choice in their heads simultaneously, why citizens turn out to vote when their potential to impact the outcome of an election is infinitesimal, or the public’s willingness to support costly anti-terror policies even if the likelihood of a serious attack is vanishingly small.