Tag: political psychology

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (III)

From https://www.zazzle.com/

This is the last in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found here, the second here. You may also download a complete PDF.

None of this is intended to deny the importance of structural insights offered by constructivist analysis. The argument, rather, is that “psychology provides the microfoundations for the motives behind normative behavior and identity change” examined by constructivist analysis (Shannon 2012, p. 14). Rhetorical coercion is an important mechanism, one I suspect underlay the inability of liberals and thoughtful moderates to articulate a resonant alternative to Bush’s “war on terror” narrative. But it is not the only mechanism of importance. As Kowert (2012) argues, norms are socially constructed, but they require that norm-holders both believe that something is right or wrong, and that they care about the outcome at stake. Understanding norms therefore requires understanding the “ideational triangle” of cognition, norms and social construction. I would be inclined to make it a “quadrangle” to include the pivotal influence of emotions.

Furthermore, for many of the issues in which discursive norm-production is important, there is yet another mechanism whose impact cannot be overlooked: the role of social networks. Neither constructivist discourse analysis nor individual or group psychology is very useful for explaining who becomes active in social movements and who does not. To explain who is likely to join a protest movement or a rebellion, we must look to social network theory as articulated most prominently by Tilly (2005, e.g.). The people who join social movements or rebellions are not consistently the people who feel most strongly about the issue at stake a priori; it is the people with the closest personal ties to those already involved. Explaining the rise of social movements, therefore, requires following Tilly’s insistence on looking to the “social appropriation” of existing institutions for social mobilization; to the brokers who create links between diverse social networks; and other similar mechanisms.

The result of taking seriously the importance of all of these different literatures would be a set of interlocking theories in which each piece of the puzzle fit into its neighboring pieces, each mutually supporting the other. Individual-level psychology would provide foundations for assumptions about human motivation and action tendencies—or, more precisely, which motivations are important when—but would then fade into the background as the focus of analysis shifted to social (including rhetorical, social psychological and sociological) mechanisms involved in political life. The role of the theorist is creatively to link the findings of these disparate fields into more or less coherent explanations of specific phenomena, instead of starting from ad-hoc assumptions considered risible in other disciplines. This approach is not too different from what constructivists typically do now, bracketing issues of agency to focus on discursive structure. I am only calling on constructivists to be more psychologically aware in the assumptions they make.

The centerpiece of this approach, then, is to identify when different modes of analysis are appropriate. For example, from a psychological perspective, the hypotheses of bureaucratic politics theory (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) is easily explicable in terms of the well-known mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment. Bureaucrats advocate their organizations’ interests, that is, because it is their job to do so (role assignment), because once having done so, they feel committed to those values (commitment), and because they come over time to be socialized into those values by their senior colleagues.

Furthermore, attention to these psychological mechanisms helps to explain not only when bureaucratic effects are most important, but also when they are less so. For example, Rhodes’s (1994) finding of the insignificance of intra-service rivalry within the U.S. Navy (between airmen, submariners and surface warriors) should come as no surprise, because naval officers’ primary socialization (and training) is into the navy, not any particular “union” within it. Furthermore, Rhodes is analyzing the behavior of Chiefs of Naval Operations, whose role assignment is to advocate the interests of the entire Navy, not their “union”. On the other hand, these same mechanisms suggest that, especially before the 1986 reorganization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have fought like cats and dogs along bureaucratic lines, because the mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment all pointed in that direction, yielding in turn cognitive biases and motivated biases all pushing the Chiefs each to defend his own service’s interests and values, as bureaucratic politics theory would suggest.

The same holds true of rational choice theory. While the assumption that people are rational utility-maximizers is almost always false and is often unproductive, there are circumstances in which social psychology would predict such behavior. Institutional behavior is again the clearest example. The mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment yield the expectation not only that bureaucrats will pursue their institutional interests, but that lobbyists will lobby for their employers; and, indeed, individual self-interest is likely to point in the same direction. When individual self-interest does not align with institutional interest, rationalists rightly point out, greed or ambition may trump socialization, leading to shirking or corruption. Rationalists don’t talk about greed and ambition, but as long as those motives accord with assumptions of individual self-interest, the difference does not matter.  Assuming bureaucrats will behave like bureaucrats is not psychologically dubious.

Outside institutional bounds, in contrast, people usually do not act to maximize their material interests in politics because their judgment is at different times driven primarily by fear (explained terror management theory), group identity (explained by social identity theory), bias or prejudice (explained by cognitive bias or prejudice theory), motivated bias (explained by motivational theory), personal connections (social network theory), the desire for self-expression, or a host of other motives.

It seems plain, then, that interlocking theory provides the only way to move forward in international relations and political science, based on using the findings of allied disciplines. In international relations, the answer to the paradigm debate lies in determining under what conditions key actors behave like realists, or liberal institutionalists, or domestic politics liberals. What are the conditioning hypotheses for each theory? Again, a number of different factors play a role, each explaining a different piece of the puzzle. From this point of view, constructivism in international relations functions as a partial metatheory, pointing out that sometimes international actors behave like realists (“Hobbesean” systems), sometimes like international liberals (“Lockean” systems), and sometimes more like liberals in a domestic setting (Kantian systems). The trouble is that constructivist analysis is terribly thin in identifying when each sort of behavior should occur.

Again, social psychology provides a host of suggestions for how to sort these questions out. Realists note that for their theory, fear is the driving force, and indeed, terror management theory essentially explains why people behave like realists when they feel under threat. But when do they feel under threat? Personality has something to do with it, with trust playing a huge role: only relatively trusting people are inclined to behave the way liberal institutionalism would predict (Rathbun 2011). On the other hand, those who are less trusting tend to see the world as a competitive place—a syndrome identified as “social dominance orientation” (Sidanius)—and to respond aggressively to challenge. Ergo, the hypothesis: states led by people with social dominance orientation are likely to behave in realist fashion; those led by more trusting individuals are more likely to act as liberal institutionalists predict. Prejudice also has something to do with it: people are more likely to perceive threat when they hold negative stereotypes of the source of potential threat, and when they have negative emotional feelings about that outgroup. This approach also helps to explain why past behavior matters in some cases but not others: prejudiced leaders will tend to discount evidence of moderation on the part of the target of their prejudice (e.g., Cold War anti-Communists), and therefore act competitively.

To break down a more specific example, asking why the U.S. behaved like a neoconservative sort of realist toward Iraq in 2003 is actually asking a set of distinct questions, each of which has answers in a different area of theory. From an institutional perspective, there were at least three veto players regarding a war with Iraq: the President, his party, and Congress, with Congress’s position in turn partly dependent on public opinion. Therefore, to explain the war, we must explain the positions of all three veto players. First, George W. Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq for a variety of reasons explained by personality theory (such as his ethnocentrism) and small-group dynamics (e.g., groupthink). Second, his party enthusiastically supported this course due to a combination of prejudice, institutional incentives in the party, and calculations of electoral advantage. The calculations of electoral advantage, in turn, depended largely on intuitive understanding of prejudice and terror management theory—how threat perceptions and anti-Saddam bias after 9/11 drove public opinion to the right on the issue of the war. Finally, as discussed earlier, a combination of constructivist and psychological factors explain why Democrats in Congress felt they had to go along with the Bush “War on Terror” narrative and vote in favor of the war—and why that course was popular with voters.

The final element of truly progressive theorizing, as suggested by these examples, is attention to the balance of counteracting forces. In the astrophysics of stellar stability, all of the interest is in the balance between the gravitational forces holding the star together and the countervailing forces pushing its mass outward. Similarly, almost any problem in contemporary international relations is likely to be driven by some factors emphasized by realism, some emphasized by liberal institutionalism, some by domestic politics liberalism, and some by constructivism. In the battle for public opinion over the Iraq war, for example, international institutional constraints—notably the position of the UN Security Council—were manifestly significant in constraining the march to war, yet were ultimately swamped by other factors pushing the other way. Meaningful theory means thinking about how to measure these counteracting effects, not simply assuming some of them away.

Parsimonious theories of politics are possible, of course, but not parsimonious theories that work. If we want to achieve anything like scientific progress, we need to put aside debates about which paradigm is best, and begin focusing on when each paradigm best applies, to what degree and in which circumstances.

Works Cited
Benford, R. D., and D.A. Snow. (2000).  Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.  Annual Review of Sociology 26, 611-639.
Cohen, Florette, Daniel M. Ogilvie, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (2005), “American Roulette: The Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, no. 1, pp. 177-87.
Cuillier, David, Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman (2010), “The Mortality Muzzle: The Effect of Death Thoughts on Attitudes toward National Security and a Watchdog Press,” Journalism 11(2): 185-202.
Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Abram Rosenblatt, Mitchell Veeder, Shari Kirkland, and Deborah Lyon (1990).  “Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, 308–318.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012)  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon).
Kaufman, Stuart J., Richard Little, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. (2007), The Balance of Power in World History (Palgrave Macmillan).
Kowert, Paul A. (2011) “Completing the Ideational Triangle: Identity, Choice and Obligation in Interntional Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 30-56.
Ronald R. Krebs and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2007), “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric,” European Journal of International Relations 2007; 13; 35
Ronald R. Krebs & Jennifer K. Lobasz (2007): “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies, 16:3, 409-451.
Larson, Deborah Welch (1985)  Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Rathbun, Brian C. (2011) Trust In International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics, and American Multilateralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Rhodes, Edward (1994) “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?  Some Disconfirming Findings from the United States Navy,” World Politics vol. 47, no. 1 (October), pp. 1-41.
Shannon, Vaughn P. (2011), “Introduction: Ideational Allies: Psychology, Constructivism and International Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 1-29.
Tilly, Charles (2005) Identities, Boundaries and Social Ties (Boulder : Paradigm).
Westen, Drew (2007) The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs).

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (II)

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found hereAfter the final post, we will make the entire piece available as a PDF — consider it our first true “working paper” publication.

Since each theory begins with a metatheoretical judgment about human nature, I think the place to start looking for insights is in psychology, which focuses on the empirical questions of how people actually think and feel under what circumstances, and what they tend to be inclined to do. For an example of how psychology can inform constructivism, let us return to Krebs and Jackson’s “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms,” which suggests a constructivism based on the notion that rhetoric operates as a sort of coercion. In this very creative piece, they lay out a model in which much of the action of politics comes in the form of rhetorical competitions in which competing forces try to frame issues in terms of societal values that favor their argument. One side wins if the other runs out of plausible responses to refute the implications of its opponent’s frame.

One gap in this argument is that the plausibility of arguments depends fundamentally on pre-existing “rhetorical commonplaces” familiar to the public audience, but in their empirical illustration Krebs and Jackson do nothing to show what the relevant rhetorical commonplaces were before the debate they analyze. In principle, constructivists can do this by sampling the discourse prior to any particular debate to get a sense of what those commonplaces are.

What constructivists cannot do, however, is measure how widely believed and strongly influential those commonplaces are with the relevance audience. This audience is always multiple—divided into subgroups by myriad cleavages. How is the constructivist to know which rhetorical commonplaces are the ones that most powerfully influence the relevant audiences, and therefore demonstrate the power of rhetorical jiujitsu? Krebs and Jackson do so by assumption, picking out one particular rhetorical commonplace in Israel—the notion that those who serve in the military have thereby earned equal rights—to explain why Druze Arabs, who do serve in the Israeli military, have been granted rights other Israeli Arabs have not.

The trouble with this argument is that, even if one retains a constructivist methodology, Krebs and Jackson fail to consider other discourses that may better explain the outcome. For example, perhaps the key point in Israeli discourse is not that the Druze have earned citizenship, but that they have proven their loyalty—their military service proves that they are not a security threat. Much Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens is justified on security grounds. How do we know that the more important reason for the outcome was not that the notion of earned citizenship was unanswerable, but that the notion of Druze as a threat was a non-starter?

The deeper problem is that even if Krebs and Jackson had considered both discursive effects, constructivism offers no way to assess which one was more important, if both were present and prominent. The only way to assess these competing hypotheses is to think more systematically about the interaction between discourse at the social level and attitudes and beliefs at the individual level. In other words, one must resort to the methods of sociological framing theory (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000) that Krebs and Jackson reject—examining the pre-existing beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of the audiences (including their perceptions of the credibility and other qualities of the leaders proposing alternative narratives) to explain why some rhetorical moves resonate with different audiences while others do not.

The study of pre-existing beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and perceptions, in turn, leads us back to the realm of political psychology. It is political psychologists who have studied these issues most carefully, and have come to some important conclusions about the power of different discourses with different audiences. One of the most important of these findings is the importance of emotional or symbolic predispositions in influencing attitudes. Some stark examples are in the work of Drew Westen (2007, pp. 107-8). For example, when a group of respondents were asked their views about whether President Clinton deserved to be impeached, 85% of the variance in their answers was predicted by their emotional feelings about the political parties, Clinton, infidelity and feminism as measured in those same respondents six to nine months earlier. When cognitive constraints were added to the model, they increased the explanatory power only to 88%. Obviously these respondents had been exposed to some combination of pro- and anti- impeachment discourses, but their responses varied with their symbolic predispositions.

The basis for my hypothesis about the role of security fears in Krebs and Jackson’s Israeli case comes from another strand of political psychology, the unfortunately named “terror management theory” (see., e.g., Greenberg et al. 1990; Cuillier et al. 2010). In a series of experiments, these scholars have shown that subconscious concerns about death systematically drive political opinions to the right, making respondents more respectful of their own national and religious values and symbols, more favorable to those who praise such values and symbols, more unfavorable toward those with different values of any sort, more punitive toward moral transgressors, more physically aggressive toward those who differ politically, and less concerned with incidental harm to innocents. In a particularly striking study, Cohen et al. (2005) found that respondents who were asked to think about death preferred George Bush over John Kerry by 45% to 20%, while respondents in the control condition preferred Kerry to Bush by 57% to 13%. If this pattern holds up in Israel, then it seems plausible that security arguments against Arab rights are more important than failure-to-serve arguments regarding Muslim and Christian Arabs. Therefore the lack of credibility of such arguments regarding Druze Arabs should similarly be more important than rights-for-service arguments.

The reason that systematic attention to audiences’ actual beliefs and values (as measured in survey research) is so important is that failure to do so makes it too easy for the analyst implicitly to impute his or her own values to the audience. For example, in a generally persuasive and well-executed study, Lobasz and Krebs (2007) show how Democrats were “rhetorically coerced” by the “war on terror” discourse into acquiescing in the Iraq invasion that many of them were uncomfortable with and later opposed. While this positive argument is persuasive as far as it goes, the counterfactual argument is not: the suggestion that the most promising alternative discourse would have been a “jeremiad” arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to American behavior, and that the U.S. should reform itself rather than launching a crusade in the Middle East.

Lobasz and Krebs, not inattentive to findings in political psychology, note that there are some psychological obstacles to acceptance of the “jeremiad” discursive mode, mentioning in particular the fundamental attribution error. However, they vastly underestimate those obstacles, in particular by overlooking the values widely embraced by conservatives and moderates but not liberals or leftists (Haidt 2012). Most important of these is the value of loyalty. The trouble with the jeremiad narrative is that it leaves the would-be Jeremiah vulnerable to the question: “Whose side are you on, ours or the terrorists’?”

The power of the “war on terror” narrative is further boosted by other psychological effects Lobasz and Krebs overlook. First, any “us against them” narrative draws its power from the ingroup-outgroup effect demonstrated by decades of experiments in the social identity theory tradition. Just making the ingroup-outgroup distinction salient leads to increased stereotyping of the outgroup and increased pressure for ingroup cohesion (adding to the power of the “whose side are you on” question). Second, the credibility of the “war on terror” justification for the Iraq war was enhanced by prejudice—both cognitive stereotypes of Arabs and emotional dislike for them—that was prominent among an important subset of the American population. Third, the terror management effect from the lingering fear of terrorism was simultaneously driving attitudes toward the right on issues of nationalism.

Finally, the jeremiad narrative lacked credibility on the issue of 9/11 itself: even if I believe that most Arabs dislike the U.S. for what it does, not what it is, that does not invalidate the logic of a war on terror. If I make that distinction, I must also make another: most Arabs were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, either. Those that were—the militants of al-Qaeda—were violent extremists who did need to be fought. The only plausible alternative to Bush’s War on Terror, then, was Obama’s later war on al-Qaeda. Many plausible discursive traditions were available to purse this argument against the Iraq war, most importantly the security discourse itself, perhaps stated frontier-style: “You’ve got the wrong man (Saddam) there, Sheriff. We can’t let the real culprit (bin Laden) get away with this”.

My argument, then, is that responsible theory-building requires that we build not only on the findings of those within our narrow academic niche, but much more widely beyond it. For the relationship between psychology and constructivism, there is a whole host of psychological mechanisms—in social identity theory, terror management theory, prejudice and ethnocentrism theory, cognitive dissonance theory, cognitive network theory, etc.—that provide important insights into which rhetorics are most likely to resonate with which audiences and in which conditions. Sociological framing theory additional insights regarding the importance of the credibility of the leader offering a particular frame or narrative, among other factors. All of these considerations widen the scope for agency in constructivist analysis, not only by identifying the psychological tools available for leaders to manipulate, but also by identifying the psychological resources available to audience members in deciding how to respond.


Anders Breivik: Isolated Mad Man or Tip of the Far-Right Racist Iceburg?

Co-authored with Alison Howell, author of Madness in International Relations: Psychology, Security and the Global Governance of Mental Health

The recent events in Norway have revealed the pitfalls of speculation within a 24-hour new cycle/instant social media environment. Almost immediately after information about the bombings and the shootings emerged, facebook, twitter, and media outlets were saturated with possible theories on the source of the violence- with most of the speculation focused on radical Islam and Al-Qaeda (The Atlantic immediately re-posted a great article on Al Qaeda in Norway).

In the ensuing days, a new kind of speculation has become common in reporting on these events: that is, speculation about the psychology of the man who admits to committing these acts (if not his guilt).

Much of this started with Breivik’s own attorney vowing that his client must be insane and that he would only continue to represent him on the condition that he submits to psychological testing. But a number of news outlets, and indeed psychiatrists and psychologists interviewed in the media, have decided not to wait for these kinds of assessments, preferring instead to speculate about Breivik’s psyche based on the very limited information that we now have.

One particularly troubling example of this kind of psychiatric speculation includes a July 25 BBC Europe article, which asserts that “a deep level of mental disturbance” underlies Breivik’s motivations. The article quotes a professor of forensic psychiatry stating: “The bottom line is that we don’t at this moment know enough about his motives to diagnose his mental state. However, while there are all sorts of cross-cutting with right-wing ideology, I believe he is likely to be suffering from a mental disorder.” The article then goes on, to compare Breivik to David Copeland (the 1999 London ‘Nail Bomber’), citing the same professor as saying that “The Norway attack is on the same lines – where extreme right-wing beliefs merge with paranoid psychosis, or delusional disorder….”
The article also quotes a forensic clinical psychologist, who, based on Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ is willing to authoritatively avow that Breivik must have been a ‘shut away,’ ‘insane’ and ‘deluded.’ These kinds of highly speculative pseudo-diagnosis are not confined solely to the BBC report: the Telegraph described Breivik as a “blond psychopath;” another source wonders if Breivik is insane or just evil; and Time magazine has recently published a piece in Breivik entitled “An Interview with a Madman.

Similarly, West Side Republicans– a Republican blog recently sported the headline “NORWAY – Breivik is a politically isolated sociopath. Not A Christian Fundamentalist as the Media & Left would have you believe.” The main conclusion of the post is that “Breivik’s murder spree did not result from classical liberal influences any more than it resulted from Christian influences: It resulted from his own evil and twisted mind.” The blog also takes issue with the way that the New York Times has portrayed Breivik as a Christian extremist, claiming: “The problem is this: There is no “Christian extremist” movement in the way that there is an Islamist or “Islamic extremist” movement. There are bad Christians, to be sure; but they have no modern-day intellectual and political movement that supports and sustains them — modern-day Islamists, or Islamic extremists, do…”

This kind of psychological speculation evident here is highly dangerous, for at least 3 reasons.

1. The idea that he was a solitary monster ignores clear evidence of a wider political community sharing his ideals. We now know that Breivik sent his manifesto out to over 250 individuals just before the bombs in Oslo were detonated, including several far right politicians and the anti-Islamic English Defence League (EDL). It was reported in the Foreigner that “several supporters of the EDL admitted they met Breivik at rallies in Britain and the attacker even confessed he had over 600 EDL members among his Facebook contacts.” Even Breivik’s lawyer has stated that Breivik is part of a wider community of right wing fundamentalists- referencing two additional cells in Norway. Breivik was also a prolific contributor to right wing blogs, and pointed to extreme right wing political parties such as Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party, and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party as sources of inspiration.

It isn’t the thought of Breivik as an isolated monster that is disturbing, rather it is the realization that he has is part of a broad community that share his ideals- if not his tactics. Just Wednesday a member of France’s far-right Front National was suspended for referring to Breivik as an “icon” and a “defender of the West.” Even more disturbing were comments made by a faction of the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group in the European Parliament: “One hundred per cent of Breivik’s ideas are good, in some cases extremely good. The positions of Breivik reflect the views of those movements across Europe which are winning elections.”

2. This kind of psychological speculation perpetuates the pervasive myth that violence is a characteristic of madness, when in fact people diagnosed with mental disorders are no more likely to commit violent crimes than those who are considered sane. It’s no surprise that the two experts called on in the BBC report mentioned above include a forensic psychologist and a forensic psychiatrist: these are highly problematic disciplines dedicated to tying together crime and madness. It is time, once and for all, to dispel this myth (which is particularly attached to people diagnosed with schizophrenia). Like the term ‘queer,’ the term ‘madness’ is increasingly being reclaimed by organizations such as MindFreedom International and activists in the Mad Pride and psychiatric survivor movements, who are working to claim their rights against often coercive systems of mental health governance. Casting violent acts as evidence of insanity makes it more difficult for such activists to get us to see that madness is just another form of difference (like race, gender or sexuality), and that mental health should be understood in terms of social justice.

3. Psychological speculation renders Breivik’s motivations exceptional and irrational, rather than placing them in the broader context of political debates — especially as they concern multiculturalism in Norway, Europe, or more broadly the West. Regardless of Breivik’s mental state, we should listen to what he lists as his motivations and view his actions primarily as a form of violence motivated by racism. If we pay attention to the way that right wing media outlets are spinning this story it becomes apparent that the underlying anti-immigrant racist ideals of Breivik have traction across the globe. The highlights (or low-lights) of Pat Buchanan’s insights into the attacks in Norway Breivik shows a defiant and impassioned defence of the motivations expressed by Breivik:

“Though Breivik is being called insane, that is the wrong word….Breivik is evil – a cold-blooded, calculating killer – though a deluded man of some intelligence, who in his 1,500-page manifesto reveals a knowledge of the history, culture and politics of Europe. … Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and David Cameron of Britain have all declared multiculturalism a failure. From votes in Switzerland to polls across the continent, Europeans want an end to the wearing of burqas and the building of prayer towers in mosques….awful as this atrocity was, native-born and homegrown terrorism is not the macro-threat to the continent. That threat comes from a burgeoning Muslim presence in a Europe that has never known mass immigration, its failure to assimilate, its growing alienation, and its sometime sympathy for Islamic militants and terrorists.”

People are justified in wondering about the mental state of Breivik- or anyone that could commit such atrocities. However, writing Breivik’ off Breivik’s actions as isolated, irrational and crazy closes out space for talking about the potential iceberg of racists anti-immigration attitudes that his actions sit atop of.


Narrative Horror and the Downfall of Leaders #1: Rupert Murdoch

You have devoted your life to creating a great empire, one that stretches around the world and wields influence over politics and culture in a number of countries. Decades of criticism and conspiracy about the pernicious effects of your empire only testify to your importance. You have groomed your successors and shaped the climate they will work within. Biographers will not be able to knock the magnitude of your achievements. Your story is written. You are legendary, a mythical figure in your lifetime, hated, loved, known. So imagine the agony of losing this reputation in a single act and finding that all you built can be swept swiftly away. Instead of being remembered as a great empire builder you’ll be remembered for a single, tawdry episode. The horror!

International relations is full of leaders and legends who achieved much but will be remembered for a totally different and humiliating reason. The Spanish novelist Javier Marias calls this narrative horror:

Its what we call “vergüenza torera”, literally, “a bullfighter’s sense of shame” … Because bullfighters, of course, have loads of witnesses, a whole arena full, plus sometimes a TV audience of millions, so it’s perfectly understandable that they should think: “I’d rather leave here with a ruptured femoral artery or dead than be thought a coward in the presence of all these people who will go on to talk about it endlessly and for ever.” Bullfighters fear narrative horror like the plague, that final defining wrong move, they really care about how their lives end.

And ‘it’s the same with … almost any other public figure’ – the retired pop star whose paedophilia is suddenly and definitively public, the movie star whose career is eclipsed by a racist outburst or car chase, the president whose eight years in office will be remembered for a misplaced cigar, the international office holder for whom a graphic accusation of rape is never exorcised from the public mind.

It is these single tawdry episodes that Marias writes of, but I wonder if narrative horror is looming for Rupert Murdoch. There are many hoping that we are at the beginning of a chain reaction episode that will bring the downfall of his News International business and potentially his wider News Corps empire in the US, Australia and Asia. It seems the editors and journalists of his UK newspapers operated an institutionalized practice of bribing police and hacking into the voicemails of anyone newsworthy, including murdered schoolchildren and dead soldiers, not to say the sitting Prime Minister’s bank account and the medical records of his ill children. The ingenious practices that have made his UK newspapers so successful became – inside a week – the disgusting practices that force him to start shutting those newspapers down. His bid to take over the pay-TV operator BSkyB is now opposed by all parties. Such a twist in the larger tale of his empire-building can only be a blow to Murdoch’s pride.

If this has happened in other countries, a new mythology will quickly form, especially as these practices have long been suspected. The troubling links in the UK between News International and the current Prime Minister’s choice of press officers raises questions about a new iron triangle of press, police and political leaders that exerts control of public information that could be replicated anywhere institutional arrangements allow. Murdoch failed to contain the crisis in the UK, now he must fear contagion. The sense of narrative horror must be setting in.

Under this pressure, will Murdoch say or do something that will obliterate his life story so far? We might think this unlikely – he’s too smooth an operator, too experienced, and his reporters know where everyone’s bodies are buried. But Marias’ point is that you cannot know your own face tomorrow – what you are capable of, and how you will look to others. We have a parallel, private or theoretical self who could break through any moment and ruin all our hard work and public reputation. How far will this go and how will he react? Parliament has called for him to give evidence next week. It is a chance for the final defining wrong move.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of International Relations is that the decisions leaders make aren’t fully explained by their rational reading of structural forces or immediate conditions. Life intervenes: character and psychology, personal glory and horror, boldness and panic. So I’ll call this Narrative Horror #1 and invite contributions about other leaders who lost it all – or who found a way out.


Stuff political scientists like #4, political psychology edition — calling you stupid, but not to your face

Lest I be accused of shielding myself from satire…..

Political psychologists are a kind of political scientist. Or maybe they are a kind of psychologist. In truth, no one really gets to know them very well. That is because political psychologists think everyone is stupid.

Political psychologists think you have never made a good decision in your life. For instance, if 600 people are going to die of a terrible disease and you are given a choice between a health program that will 1) surely kill 400 and save the rest or 2) will have a one third probability of saving 600 people but 2/3 of killing everyone, you will prefer the first. You don’t think very hard, do you? Those are the same. But if you have a third option of surely killing 400 people you will choose both #1 or #2 over #3. It’s the same, too, moron. Political psychologists explain that people are risk-averse in the domain of gains. They have never been to Vegas.

It is not your fault though, political psychologists will tell you. Your brain is simply too small to handle the complex calculations that occur in even day-to-day life. Instead you rely on “cognitive shortcuts,” which is another way of saying that you don’t try very hard. You are lazy as well as being stupid.

Political psychologists have a name for these shortcuts – “heuristics.” This is just a way for political psychologists to make fun of you in front of your face because they know you have no idea what that word means. This enables them to laugh at you in your very presence. Political psychologists are like the mean, popular girls in high school who invite the ugly girl over for a slumber party in order to make fun of her all night. So it goes without saying – do not attend a political psychology slumber party.
Don’t worry, though. You are in good company. Political psychologists will tell you that even great statesmen make terrible mistakes all the time. It is very unfortunate that we have never elected a political psychologist to lead our countries. We could have avoided the Bay of Pigs and World War I.

Political psychologists, in contrast, are very smart. Much smarter than you. They know more about the political beliefs of college sophomores than anyone else in the world. Even more than college sophomores. This is because political psychologists have trick ways of figuring out what you yourself don’t even know about yourself. If you are not sure if you are a racist, ask a political psychologist. They are also able to give precise estimates about how people will make decisions in windowless rooms while playing negotiation games against a computer. This is the key to the unlocking of the secrets of the human mind – no natural light.

Political psychologists also enjoy figuring out why you are such a fascist. What the rest of the world calls being conservative, political psychologists call “right-wing authoritarianism” or “social dominance orientation.” They have devoted years to investigating the root causes of these pathologies. You are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. You have a need for cognitive closure. You don’t trust others. You are greedy. Liberals are free of these symptoms and deserve no study. Never knowing what you think, being hopelessly naïve and giving your kid’s inheritance to the kids selling candy bars door-to-door need no explanation.


Social Science and Bush Policy Towards Iraq

 I have already posted at the Duck and also at my blog on the spat between Tom Ricks and Peter Feaver.  Today, Feaver responded to Ricks.  I don’t want to get into the he said/he said debate.  I just want to raise one point and then develop it a bit:

Feaver is not really doing social science here.  He is seeking to explain why a particular decision happened, but he is missing a huge opportunity to develop a general understanding of Presidential behavior about the deployment of troops.  He is only focused on the surge, and his narrative suggests that Bush was making some good, tough decisions to push the surge even when some (not all) of the senior military leadership opposed it.  The problem here is that Feaver could have asked a slightly different question, which would have been more interesting and more relevant beyond who gets credit for the surge: what explains the variations in Bush behavior from genial, go along, let Rummy mismanage the war to the tough decider?  In the Feaver story, Bush is pretty sharp especially with the implicit comparison to the doofus who got the US into a land war in Asia (at least Obama is getting us into an air war in Africa–no wise aphorisms about that).  So what explains that?

Let me suggest a comparison across cases: Clinton in 1995, Bush in 2006/7, Obama in 2009: all three Presidents faced roughly the same decision: to expend significant political capital to pull out troops (European for Clinton, US for Bush, US and essentially NATO+ for Obama) in a questionable, somewhat failing war effort OR reinvest with additional Americans and effort.  Once Bill Clinton committed to his European pals that he would use US forces to extract them from Bosnia if necessary, the choice of using US troops to enforce a peace became much more palatable.  With Bush facing a huge defeat in Iraq, the choice to invest just a bit further with some new generals (Petraeus and Odierno) and a new SecDef Gates and more troops, the decision was easier.  Obama did not want to send more troops into Afghanistan, but ultimately chose to do so as a last chance to find some success.

What does this scream?  Prospect theory, baby.  Gambling to avoid losses is a basic tendency according to the cognitive psychologists.  We are more risk acceptant when it comes to avoiding losses and more risk averse when it comes to gambling for gains (Jack Levy has several good pieces on this stuff including this one).  I am no expert on psychological approaches to foreign policy and international relations (that’s Brian’s gig), but it seems to me that we have a fairly simple (dare I say parsimonious?) explanation of Presidents making decisions about the deployment of force that is consistent across continents, economic times (good or bad), uni- or multi-lateral efforts, and so on.

The key is to think about the variation within the Bush Administration (a most similar comparison) or perhaps the similarities across Administrations (most different, more or less).  The spat between Ricks and Feaver is on the details of one case, but we can learn far more by comparing.


Why it sucks to study political psychology in international relations

So this is my first foray into this brave new world of blogging, at the invitation of Charli and others at the Duck of Minerva. I think my main credential is having called Dan Drezner something profane at a workshop in Montreal, which is to say, my outspoken personality. What I exactly said to him said escapes me, but I suppose that same limited memory speaks for my potential as a blogger as well. For the record, I do not even own a cell phone that can text and I just learned what an RSS feed is, or at least I think I did. And Charli taught me how to hyperlink, which I am very excited about, so much so that I am going to hyperlink the word hyperlink.

It seems that people blog what they know, and since the audience for the Duck includes a lot of international relations academics, I seized on the topic of why it is so hard to study political psychology in international relations. By hard, I don’t mean that it is difficult to master the important concepts, apply them, etc. Instead I am talking about why people who do it are so marginalized in the discipline, with the few exceptions like Jervis or Tetlock. Below I offer some of my hunches about why this is. I’d like to hear others’ takes as well.

First, it is Kenneth Waltz’s fault, or at least how others who came after have come to interpret Waltz. Psychology tells us much about foreign policy, goes this argument, but foreign policy is not international relations. Structure trumps agency, and since psychology is best suited to explaining foreign policy decision-making, we can safely ignore it. It does not really matter what people think if they have no real choices given systemic constraints.

I would respond in two ways. First, this is not what Waltz really said. As Dan Nexon and Stacie Goddard first pointed out in their wonderful EJIR article, a strand I picked up in a later Security Studies piece, his Theory of International Politics does not say that there is no state agency, only that the system punishes those agents when they depart too far from what the system rewards. The point at which that breaking point is reached is not theorized in the slightest. Neoclassical realists have been smart enough not to misinterpret Waltz and demonstrate how when statesmen (or women) fail to objectively recognize their constraints due to ideology or parochial politics, bad things happen. But they typically focus on the most glaring errors – the appeasement of Hitler, the accumulation of adversaries by Wilhelmine Germany. Otherwise it seems there is a lot of room for state choice. And this is what psychology helps explain.

One might respond – yes, but this is still foreign policy, not international relations. True, but the foreign policies of some key state or statesmen can completely reorient the nature of world politics. I have just finished a book on the origins of American multilateralism (some of which is already in print here) which I attribute to the unique outlook of predominantly liberal Democrats after WWI and WWII. Does anyone want to say that the actions of the United States have had no impact on the character of international relations and its structure after WWII? Second, psychology tells us all kinds of things about international relations. See below.

The second reason for the marginalization of political psychology is the rationalist revolution in international relations theorizing. Rationalists do not generally offer objections to the individual level of analysis used in psychological arguments, as realists do. Rather they assume that everyone with the same interests with the same information in the same structural position will do the same thing. This is essentially structuralism without systemicism. In my view, this is demonstrably false. Even with the same goals, people interpret their environment in very different ways. And those differences are often systematic in nature — that is we can develop mid-range theories about them. By doing this, we can avoid the criticism often leveled at psychological theories – that they are too individualistic and idiosyncratic. We don’t have to know whether Theodore Roosevelt wet his bed or whether Harry Truman’s mom spared the rod to say something about their decision-making. My personal preference is to look at the inclinations of political parties. This allows us to say something both contingent and generalizable. Party A tends to do X, Party B does Y. But there are obviously other ways.

In my view, psychological perspectives offer the key challenge to rationalism, which I think is obviously the central approach in North American political science today. Psychologists take strategic interaction between state dyads very seriously, yet offer very different hypotheses. Rationalists and constructivists, in contrast, tend to talk past one another with each claiming to subsume one another. Rationalists claim they can incorporate norms or identity or whatnot in a utility function, constructivists that strategic interaction is itself a socially constructed mode of state interaction. Because of this more direct dialogue, I tend to find rationalists great interlocutors, but at that the end of the day, economists have a hard time agreeing with and learning from psychologists. I still think psychologists are on stronger ground. Experimental labs inhibit external validity, but not as much as a game matrix. I hope that the behavioral revolution, which has been going on for a long time, will start to filter into international relations and make rationalism less formal and stylized.

Third, psychology gets marginalized by constructivists because of its focus on individuals and small groups. I was surprised by this one. When I wrote my first book, on the role of party ideology in foreign policy decision-making, I really expected that constructivists would be my core audience. Psychology and sociology are both sympathetic to phenomenological approaches that problematize perception. But constructivists didn’t seem to bite. I attribute this to two features of constructivist thinking. First, they really believe in social wholes – large collectivities like nations, states, or even international systems. Psychologists (or at least, I) tend to think in terms of individuals or small groups and their different perceptions of how those actors relate to those broader collectivities. That is the social in social psychology. Second, constructivists are much more interested in the longue duree – they have big research questions about how gigantic social constructions, like the system of sovereign states, come to be constituted. The micro-outcomes that psychologists get leverage on are simply too small. Constructivists must think what we do is simply adorable.

My response to those critiques is that social collectivities are made of people, and often a small group can have a lasting impact, through processes of path dependence at critical junctures for instance. Constructivists often anthropomorphize the state. As I see it, states are people in the same way that Soylent Green is people. They are made out of people! They’re people! Although in this case, they are live people. This is the central cleavage between psychology and sociology.

Fourth, people who study psychology in international relations are often their own worst enemy. They marginalize themselves by defining a separate field for themselves of foreign policy analysis, with its own acronym (FPA). They wonder why no one wants to talk to them even as they avoid the big questions in the field, ones that they have a unique perspective on. Why do crises in financial confidence begin? What are the psychological sources of international cooperation?

The combination of all of this means that psychology falls through the cracks. It is too micro-oriented for the constructivists and not economistic enough for the rationalists. So what to do? I can simply spread the gospel of psychology in international relations. I don’t think of myself as a prophet (my graduate students might disagree), but rather as an apostle, or maybe a Jehovah’s witness, going door to door to spread the good word. My aim is for psychology to be as respected as sociological or economistic approaches in the field, a goal that I know that I will not achieve. So join me on my quixotic quest!


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