Our syllabi should be full of surprises

14 September 2022, 0900 EDT

Current events almost always intrude into our classes, forcing us to update our syllabuses. When it comes to the “Intro to IR” classes, that usually involves a tweak here or there; sometimes we remove a topic and replace it with one that’s more “of the moment.” But after an historic pandemic and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, it sure feels like revising those syllabuses became a lot more difficult.

Many students enroll in our classes because they want to understand recent headlines. For most of them, “Intro to IR” will be their only exposure to systematic thinking about international politics. For a few students, the class will be a gateway into careers in academic or practical international relations. Either way, we do them no favors if we sidestep the events that brought them to our classes. But we also cannot let those topics take over the class completely; we need to expose them to important aspects of world politics that aren’t featured in current headlines.

So, what should we do? We could use such major events as little more than illustrations of the same theories and topics we always teach. We could present them as “game changers” that upend the study and practice of international relations.

Most of us, I suspect, take a middle course. We point out how current headlines echo past events—and what might set them apart; we discuss how they track with, or deviate from, the expectations of major theories.

This is certainly a sensible approach. But I think that we would do well to emphasize novelty; we should be forthright about how big events defy expectations and call the “conventional wisdom” into question. What, for example, about the pandemic and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine surprised international-relations scholars? What does the answer say about prevailing theories and frameworks? We should ask our students whatsurprised them—and use their answers to draw out their implicit understandings (their “folk theories”) of international relations.

This approach is more challenging than it might at first seem. Scholars of international politics seldom embrace unpredictability; our “big theories” do a poor job of anticipating change. Even when we explicitly study international change, the theories we use tend to emphasize consistency. Take, for examples, studies of crisis escalation. On the surface, they trace how relations between states change over time: how they become riskier and more violent. But, in practice, our theories are predicated on continuity: conflict begets more conflict, relationships settle into varying degrees of hostility and mistrust. The process itself is dynamic, but our theories presume that it unfolds in essentially similar ways across time and space.

But what if international relations are instead volatile? What if they there are few, or no, consistent reasons why relations between states become more cooperative or more conflictual? If that’s the case, then we cannot presume that past patterns predict future events.

I wrote a book about volatility (it’s coming out soon; if you’re interested, you can preorder it here).  In it, I discuss the general lack of attention to volatility in international politics. I argue that international-relations scholars too often interpret volatility as “noise” that gets in the way of identifying underlying causal regularities.

Indeed, for most of the field the whole purpose of explanatory theory is to identify the general causes of recurring patterns of behavior.

Ironically, this bias toward continuity may reflect a general psychological disposition shared by all (or most) human beings. Humans dislike for volatility. We evolved to seek patterns: in the face of change, we look for guidance from the past; we build analogies that make sense of new events by liking them to previous patterns.

Analogies are one of the most basic ways through which we construct patterns. But they make us vulnerable to hindsight bias. When we observe developments—no matter how unexpected and improbable—we find ways to convince ourselves that we could have predicted them—or that we actually did predict them. We like to think that we “knew all along” that things would turn out the way they did.

Pattern-seeking likely provides an evolutionary advantage (noticing that certain behaviors routinely result in a gruesome death, and to pass that information down to the next generation, certainly boosts the chances of reproductive success). But hindsight bias often does us a disservice. By blinding us to the unexpected, it makes it harder to predict surprises. 

Studies of the dopamine system reveal that surprises actually help our brains sharpen their focus. They make it easier to out seek out and consider new perspectives—a major benefit when it comes to decision-making. Embracing surprise prevents us from overfitting our theoretical or empirical models; it helps us to separate noise from signal.  

Take the war in Ukraine. It came as a surprise to many students of international relations (and, to be fair, to a range of officials including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and many Russian diplomats). But, months after the war started, hindsight bias might tempt us to just forget about the reasons why the invasion surprised us. We’ll frame it as an example of a deterrence failure, or a security dilemma, or the enduring role of nationalism, ideas, and ideology in world politics, or whatever.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But we need to keep or eyes on surprise—on the specific aspects of the invasion that caught so many off guard. Could current understandings of the territorial integrity norm or of the statistical properties of war reoccurrences have helped us predict it? What aspects were really congruent with these understandings? Which nuances should we add instead to these approaches after observing the war?

In this sense, when studying or teaching about international relations, it’s a good thing to admit the many times that “I never saw this coming.”. Doing so can help us refine our theories to make them more relevant. It could also lead us to new, unexplored questions.

At the same time, helping our students make sense of the unexpected might strengthen their ability to recognize and cope with the unexpected. Cultivating these dispositions could help them immensely by showing them that admitting to being surprised can bring us to ask productive questions—questions about the scope of our theories, the role of alternative explanations, and the like.

So, this semester, let’s give it a try.