ESSSAY QUESTION: Is rationality or psychology a better framework for explaining decision-making?
Decision-making lies in the very heart of politics, and this is why it is the object of high scrutiny among a wide range of intellectuals. Decisions are made daily and they are routine most of the time, but occasionally, they prove to be decisive for the national survival of the state, especially in the field of foreign policy. These are the types of decisions that rational and psychological analyses focus on in order to explain decision-making. At first glance, decision-making seems to be best explained by rationality since its very process implies a mental activity appealing to our rational thoughts in order to choose among an array of alternatives and outcomes. In other words, the decision-maker has to make the choice of the best means to achieve some goals. However, the more concealed but ubiquitous psychology also plays an important role in the making of decisions. So in order to examine whether rationality or psychology is a better framework for explaining decision-making, it is necessary to assess a number of issues, such as what levels are studied or who is called the decision-maker, and whether foreign policy is best determined by its content or by its context. It is to be remembered finally that given the complexity of the environment in which decisions are made, it is impossible to assess every single influence fomenting choices, so generalization remains the major tool, independently of the rational or psychological frameworks. The various declinations of rationality provide a clear framework for explaining decision-making but they fail in exploring the prime motives for such or such a choice. That is what psychology does by focusing on more internal constraints or influences. So the best understanding that we can acquire on the process and outcomes of decision-making is the combination of both frameworks.
Explaining decision-making through the concept of rationality is naturally sensible since making a decision implies rational reasoning. Therefore, the individual, as a reasonable creature, must be the actor under scrutiny. But in foreign policy decision-making, the rational analysis assumes that the decision-maker's interests coincide with the state's interests. It then focuses on the state as a unitary actor, mirroring the decision-maker's choices and regardless of its components. Rationality refers to the consistency and coherence among goals, among means and among the relations between means and ends. Indeed, according to Herbert Simon, rationality “denotes behaviour that is appropriate to specified goals in the context of a given situation”. Accordingly, the actor is assumed to have rational reasoning in the economic sense, that is, to be able to weigh the costs and opportunities of any action taken in order to make an optimal choice among various alternatives, and to implement them in a clearly defined framework. In other words, the actor pursues his goals through the choice he makes among a variety of alternatives for actions and their outcomes. The objectives consist in “the interests and values of the agent [which] are translated into “payoffs” or “utility” or “preference” function, which represents the desirability or utility of alternative sets of consequences.” This rationality is what Christopher Hill calls “procedural rationality”, namely, the rationality that focuses on the process of decision-making where “the focus here is on identifying the best means by which any given value may be optimized” . One of the most representative models which baseline is rationality is Graham Allison's Rational Actor Model (RAM), in which “rationality refers to consistent, value-maximizing choices within specified constraints” . It explains decision-making by studying the behaviour of the nation-state as the reflect of its purpose and by assessing its chosen reasonable action. The rationalist analysis of the American response to the Cuban Missile Crisis illustrates how rationality explains decision-making: when confronted to the stunning discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba in October 1962, the Kennedy administration had to make a decision while avoiding the escalation to war, which was to be the blockade. In order to explain this response, the rationalist analysts assess the strategic situation of the United States (their problem, their interests, their commitments, and their capabilities), which results in “placing the blockade in a pattern of purposive response to the strategic problem.” Thus, we can see the extent to which procedural rationality assesses the goal-maximising choice within an evaluated framework, in decision-making. By contrast, substantive rationality is another tool for the explanation of decision-making which “tells us what is the “correct” outcome, given specified goals” , rather than focusing on the best means to achieve a state's goal.
However, sheer rationality, whether it be procedural or substantive, is difficultly applicable empirically in the field of foreign policy decision-making, mainly because of the overloading and complexity of information and the difficulty in verifying its reliability, as well as because of the natural limits to human brain which impede it to successfully scan everything like a computer. Consequently, the idea of bounded rationality has proved attractive; it “refers essentially to the futility of trying to “maximise” one's values. Instead, it is preferable to “satisfice”, or accept the first outcome which approximates to one's preferences.” This model thus, is less demanding on decision-makers because of the admitted loopholes previously described. As such, they are not expected to generate the probability of outcomes or processes that would maximise their utility, but rather to choose and implement the best policy within a feasible set of means and goals. What is more, because of the ever-evolving characteristic of international relations, “disjointed incrementalism” , another form of bounded rationality, has been recommended. It explains the division of decision-making into small steps which allows for the implementation of some degree of an impossible goal in its totality, that would have been a bone of contention, had it been wholly launched. As an example, the development of the European Community has been extremely gradual, though triggering tremendous, even beyond-expectations changes in the long run. Ultimately, rationality explains decision-making in the cases of “non-decision” . It can be chosen rationally for some reason not to act despite pressures, or to exclude some possibility from choices, or finally to fail in acting because of an ailing decision-making process, or because of inadequate times. Even though these models give us new approaches to rationality as the explanation of decision-making that seems more consistent with the reality of politics than adamant rationality can be, major flaws comprised in the concept of rationality as a whole still can be raised. First of all, the rationalist assumption according to which the state is a unitary actor bears a limit since it first dismisses the values and beliefs of the decision-maker (though to a lesser extent in bounded rationality) and second, it eludes the various levels of analysis forming networks of interactions within the state, as well as on the regional, international, and trans-national scales, making of foreign policy no longer an elite activity. Furthermore, the concept of rationality bears a particular viewpoint of the world, and gives therefore an outline of how one should act rather than why one acts in a certain way. In other words, “the coherence view of rationality rests on well-established norms about how one should make decisions where a good decision is one that rests on logic and adheres to the principle of statistical inferences.” Finally, rationalists wrongly eliminate the mind from their analyses since what motivates decision-making is highly related to desires and beliefs, so this very part of explanations of decision-making lacks, as reveals the psychology approach.
In order to thwart the various criticisms of rationality, of which mainly oversimplification, some more specific models, still consistent with the notion of rationality, have been taken into account in order to seize the different facets of decision-making. These are political models, since foreign policy decision-making fits in the game of politics, a game of constant bargaining between actors of diverse levels. In that sense, rationality remains of prime importance, but in the light of far more complex approaches. The most influential have been Allison's “organizational” and “governmental politics” models. First, the organizational model gives an important hindsight that the rational model omitted: whereas the latter gives a bright explanation of how choices are made, the former focuses on “the conditions under which choices are made.” Indeed, in this framework, the influences on decision-making are numerous: lack of information, communication failures, precedent, perception, scarce resources... In short, “governmental behaviour can therefore be understood [...] less as deliberate choices and more as outputs of large organizations functioning according to standard patterns of behaviour.” Finally, the governmental politics model explains government behaviour “as results of bargaining game” since the players all share different conceptions of national and personal goals and “make government decisions not by a single, rational choice but by pulling and hauling that is politics.” According to David Mitchell, the structure of the decision-making unit, as well as the degree of centralization, gives a hint on the way the president manages its advisors, which results on implications for the outcomes and processes of decision-making. For example, as a result of the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs, and because of the emergency of the situation in the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy privileged a collegial structure rather than a formal one as he “brought together an informal group of individuals he thought could provide best advice.” Therefore, the structure in which decisions are made is a relevant field of study for it triggers notable influences on the process and outcomes of decision-making. Rationality remains a decisive key in these models but it affects differently the actors who have changed their order of priorities, with for instance, the survival of the very structure to which they belong as the prime objective. In other words, these models show “how "rational" foreign policymaking can be upended by the attempt to work with and through large organized governmental groups.” Finally, the clarity of rationality, all together with the more complex understanding of the political models provide a large part of the explanation of decision-making; it fails nonetheless to explore the values and beliefs of the decision-makers both acquired from their environments and projected upon them. The work of psychology fills in these lacks.
The psychological model provides a complementary explanation of decision-making: starting from the rational model, it focuses on the internalized values and beliefs of the decision-maker which will influence his choice, as well as on the impact of his personality; starting from the political model, it refers to the importance of the individual and group psychology as an explanation of decision rather than to the mere dynamics of the system itself. The psychological theory explains decision-making through two main perspectives: the cognitive process and the emotional process. “Cognition is the representation of reality that the person experiences as reality itself.” Cognitive psychology, therefore, explains the differences between the rational model expectations and the apprehension of the world by the human mind with “the need for simple rules of information processing and judgement that are necessary to make sense of uncertain and complex environments.” The psychological analysis has distinguished various characteristic traits of the human mind, as described by Janice Gross Stein, which are to be taken into account for the understanding of decision-making explanation. Indeed, simplicity is the privileged way that humans, and thus decision-makers, use to order the world, the information they get from it, along with the complexities it bears. As such, we tend to reason through analogies. For instance, the calling of Saddam Hussein “another Hitler” by President Bush Senior, gave him an established perspective on how to cope with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The need for consistency is another feature: because our beliefs act like a prism in our perception of the world, we tend to keep certain coherence between them, dismissing any new information that would not fit within them. Indeed, long-term beliefs are difficult to change, which can explain that “in foreign policy, conflict persists because images are so difficult to change.” Moreover, probability thinking that requires the rational model is in fact quite deficiently used, because of heuristics and biases. These show how decision-makers react to an uncertain environment using their own short-cuts and common sense as evaluations of the external and how their evaluations can be wronged by their previous expectations of the other. Another type of bias comes from the internalization of values and beliefs: clearly, culture has an impact on cognition. Since the decision-maker is a “culture bearer [, then] any conceptual scheme for analysing state behaviour must attempt to account for the impact of cultural patterns on decisions.” This very often results on egocentric biases, since we tend to give to our culture a certain universal legitimacy. Finally, because of the feature of loss aversion, “people systematically overvalue losses relative to comparable gains.” Not only does the cognitive process affect the decision-maker in his choice, but so does the affective process. Psychology indeed provides an interesting focus on the role of emotions in decision-making: because of certain pressures, emotions like anxiety understandably give rise to a conflict between rational calculations and emotions and might impair a choice. Finally, the cognitive and affective processes explain the perceptions and misperceptions of the external world, and their subsequent responses in decision-making. The psychological environment, referring to the perception of things, is then distinct from the operational environment, where things happen objectively and independently from a person's perception. “Misperceptions may be regarded as the most common form of psychological pathology affecting decision-making.” They arise from the cognitive and affective process as it has been seen, and can apply to the situation, intentions, capabilities and others. What is more, they are fuelled by the use of analogies, images, stereotypes (like the clinching image of the bad communist enemy attached to the Soviets, which highly conducted the American foreign policy during the Cold War) and the role of History which ideally teaches lesson, but is also misleading as shows the constant justification of the American aggressive foreign policy in Vietnam as the lesson of the failure of the Munich Agreement, where a policy of appeasement failed to prevent World War Two. As such, the wide range of features of the psychological model gives a different and needed hindsight of decision-making so as to understand it.
Another main contribution of psychology is the focus on the role of the personality of the decision-maker which proves to be crucial in the explanation of decision-making. Since the personal characteristics of the individuals differ, their perception of the situation and their response to a given situation understandably differ as well, to such an extent that it is assumed that a change in the leader of a country would change its foreign policy. A case in point is the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev at the head of the Soviet Union, which shifted the Russian foreign policy towards the end of the Cold War. The analysis on the personality does not pretend to give the whole reason for such changes, but at least part of it. The way the personality of the decision-maker influences foreign policy depends highly on the position of the decision-maker –whether he is the leader or not-, his concentration of power, the stability of the country and the general context of international relations. Stephen Benedict Dyson shows “how Blair's personality and leadership style did indeed shape both the process and outcome of British foreign policy toward Iraq.” According to him, Blair's main traits of personality as a leader, namely a high belief in his ability to control events, a somehow Manichean vision and a high need for power designed a proactive foreign policy within an established black and white frame while privileging an insulating decision-making process. Even a typology of the main styles of leadership has been depicted: crusaders, strategists, pragmatists, opportunists...Depending on the situation, a leader will pass from one to another. Therefore, the psychological analysis of the personality gives some consistent explanations of decision-making. But what also gives some relevance is the group psychology. Its main contribution has been brought by Irvin Janis' groupthink. It “essentially consists in the tendency of groups to seek rapid internal agreement even at the expense of the merits of a problem, and then to stick to their consensus even when the evidence seems to demand it.” However, whereas Janis pins the suboptimal result in decision-making on the group, Jonathan Mercer stresses the importance of trust, based on emotion, as the solution to the collective action problem: “a strong feeling of identity leads to sharing, cooperation, perceived mutual of interests, and willingness to sacrifice personal interests for group interests.” Thus, as it has been seen, in order to explain foreign policy decision-making, psychology provides a lens both on the individual and the group levels, which rationality omitted.
Finally, in order to gauge the contributions of the rational and the psychological approaches in the explanation of decision-making, it is necessary to assess their relations. The traditional view contends that psychology only is useful for explaining the irrationality of the actors and their mistaken judgements. But it is misleading. Indeed, according to Mercer, rationality depends on psychology. For example, rationalists take for granted that incentives explain the behaviour, but what is missing here is the explanation of the incentives; effectively, the motive for action is driven by beliefs and desires, as show psychologists. Moreover, he shows that psychology does not only explain mistakes; on the contrary, sometimes mistakes emanate from the rational model itself and analysts prefer using the psychology model to prevent such mistakes. Furthermore, he contends that psychology, just like rationality, also explains accurate judgments: truly, emotion is also part of rationality and is indispensable for making choices. Finally, “the key difference between rationality and psychology is not over what they explain, but over how they explain it. Rationalists rely on deduction, statistics and probability theory, whereas psychologists rely on induction and description of how the mind works.” Ultimately, the best way to explain foreign policy decision-making is through the combination of these different approaches since all are more or less accurate depending on the circumstances: “rational actor assumptions may be best in examining decisions of high national security that involve a small elite; political approaches more beneficial in situations where FPM involves multiple organisations and groups and the presentation of numerous options [...]; and psychology approaches of merit in situations of stress and uncertainty.” Since decisions must be made in situations that usually combine such circumstances rather than fragment them, then both rationality and psychology bring their contributions to the explanation of decision-making.
As a conclusion, it would not be fair to exclude any of the two approaches as they provide different but complementary frameworks for explaining decision-making. On the one hand, rationality provides a clear understanding of the situation, presenting an array of coherent alternatives and outcomes that decision-makers should weigh and choose in order to maximize their goals, or at least to approach the best practicable outcome. Psychology, on the other hand, takes largely into account the impact of the values and beliefs of the decision-maker on his choice, as well as the characteristics of the personality of the leadership and the peculiarities of the group dynamics that also influence perceptions and therefore are relevant for decision-making. Since foreign policy decision-making comprises both rationality and psychology as necessary guidelines for choices, then the combination of both is essential for a complete explanation of decision-making.