Emotions, Decision Making and Brinksmanship

An approach to decision-making that concentrates on interests and raw calculation will come up short.


States (not to mention pundits) spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what other states thinks.  Discerning the intentions of a foreign government is no easy task; even understanding the basic structure of government can be a challenge, and states have a strong incentive to deceive others as to their intentions, beliefs, and capabilities. Even if the United States privately decided not to defend Taiwan from PRC attack, it would behoove American leaders to make Beijing believe the U.S. would rush to Taipei’s defense, in the hopes that the threat of intervention would deter an attack.  At the same time, state leaders regularly speak to different audiences; the President of the United States surely wishes to convey a different message of credibility and deterrence to Taiwan than to the PRC, as a “blank check” might encourage the former to become overly adventurous.

Accordingly, it’s hard to know what another state is thinking, even when that state sends costly signals of intent. But what if even the leaders of states don’t know how they’ll react to certain events? A recent International Organization article by Jonathan Mercer investigated the role of emotion in decision-making. Although the theory is somewhat complicated, the argument boils down to the idea that we use our own emotional reactions to events as evidence of our interests and preferences. A classic experiment along these lines involves a coin flip, with heads deciding one course of action and tails the other. By flipping a coin, you determine whether you’re happy or sad about the outcome; accordingly, you know which path you really prefer.

Mercer argues that the leadership of the United States sent costly signals of disinterest in the fate of South Korea, withdrawing all forces and de-emphasizing the possibility of intervention in case of a North Korean attack in 1950. When the attack came, however, U.S. leaders had an unexpected emotional reaction of alarm, which led to concern about how the rest of the world would interpret inaction.  As Mercer points out, U.S. policymakers used their own sense of shock and alarm as evidence that the world would see the United States as weak.  Consequently, the United States intervened in contravention of its own expectations. Later in the war, an emotional attachment to the idea of “reputation” prevented American policymakers from understanding the consequences of advancing beyond the 38th parallel.

The bottom line is that an approach to decision-making that concentrates on interests and raw calculation will come up short.  As Mercer suggests, “Strategy depends on imagining not only how another feels, but how another will feel as a result of one’s policy.” This adds another layer of calculation to how, for example, China and Japan try to predict each others’ responses to moves in the Senkaku/Diayou islands. It is deeply difficult for policymakers to empathize with (or put themselves in the position of) the leaders of another state, and perhaps even more difficult to try to understand the emotional complexity associated with the intrigue and infighting associated with the internal deliberations of the other government. Similarly, there are stark limits on the practice of “Kreminology”, or the effort to discern intent from the governmental infighting, when emotional reactions may yield unpredictable behavior. Brinksmanship, whether over islands or high altitude deserts, may be even more dangerous than the players appreciate.