Social Psychology and World Politics

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Social Psychology and World Politics

Philip E. Tetlock

The Ohio State University

Chapter to appear in D. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske & G. Lindsay (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th edition). New York: McGraw-Hill. Comments should be sent to the author at the Department of Psychology, 1885 Neil Ave., 142 Townsend Hall, The Ohio State University, Columbus OH, 43210. Portions of this chapter were completed while the author was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Preparation of this chapter was assisted by research grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the National Science Foundation as well as by a training grant from NSF to the Mershon Center at The Ohio State University. I thank Peter Suedfeld, Susan Fiske, Dan Gilbert, Ole Holsti, Bob Jervis, Peter Katzenstein, Ned Lebow, Yaacov Vertzberger, Herb Kelman, Bruce Russett, Paul t’Hart, Robyn Dawes, Randall Schweller, Rick Herrmann, Don Sylvan, Alan Fiske, and Bill Boettcher for helpful comments on earlier versions of this chapter.

Social Psychology and World Politics Does social psychology add to our understanding of war and peace among nations? For many social psychologists, the answer is an unequivocal "yes." What could be more obvious? Social psychology explores the causes of the thoughts, feelings and actions of human beings. International relations is ultimately the product of the thoughts, feelings and actions of human beings who decide to arm or disarm nations, to engage in ethnic cleansing or to build pluralistic polities, and to treat international trade as a zero-sum or positive-sum game. It seems to follow that, insofar as social psychology achieves its explanatory goals, it cannot help but shed light on the central problems of world politics.

This reductionist syllogism, however, proves too much. By the same "logic," we could just as easily absorb psychology into neurophysiology or biochemistry into quantum mechanics. It is not enough to posit the relevance of the ostensibly more basic discipline: it is necessary to demonstrate its relevance. Moreover, demonstrating relevance is no small task. Skeptics stand ready to challenge the generalizability of laboratory findings (the external-validity controversy), to criticize social psychologists for not trying hard enough to bridge the gap between detailed case studies and abstract theory-testing (the idiographic-nomothetic controversy), to scold social psychologists for failing to respect the unbridgeable gap between descriptive and prescriptive propositions (the “is” - “ought” controversy), and to question the explanatory usefulness of "soft" micro constructs such as beliefs and values in a domain dominated by "hard" macro constraints such as determined domestic interest groups, unforgiving international creditors and lethal new weapons technologies in the hands of potential adversaries (the level-of-analysis controversy). From this standpoint, it is not at all obvious that social psychology plays an essential explanatory role in world politics. The scholarly community is well-advised to turn to other sources of theoretical guidance: for example, rational actor models derived from game theory and micro-economics (Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman, 1992; Waltz, 1979) or normative models derived from institutional economics and theories of international "regimes" (Keohane, 1984) or even Marxist analyses of center-periphery relations in the international system (Wallerstein, 1984).

There are thus two polar-opposite starting points for this chapter. One takes the relevance of social psychology as self-evident; the other takes the irrelevance of social psychology as equally self-evident. On reflection, most scholars would probably reject both starting points for staking out far too simplistic positions on the complex problem of how to weave together explanations that span the micro-macro continuum: from the individual decision-maker to small group dynamics to accountability constraints of organizations to domestic political competition to the international balance of power. Although theories grounded in these different levels of analysis do occasionally make contradictory predictions, the prevailing tendency today is to think "systemically" about the interconnections across levels of analysis and to stress the complementarity rather than the exclusivity of levels of analysis (Jervis, 1976).

In this spirit, the current chapter explores efforts over the last 27 years (the time of the last Handbook review on this topic--Etzioni, 1969) to assess the relevance of social psychology to world politics. The first section addresses the problem of setting standards of evidence and proof for causal claims in a domain where: (a) key events occur only once; (b) there are typically many plausible causal candidates; (c) experimental control is impossible and statistical control is often problematic; (d) investigators must therefore rely on speculative thought experiments concerning how events would have unfolded under alternative circumstances. Our task is further complicated by the emotionally and ideologically charged conclusions that investigators sometimes draw. When the null hypothesis is "nuclear deterrence played no role in preventing a Soviet-American war,” the routine scientific act of trading off Type I versus Type II errors becomes a defining political statement in itself. This combination of causal ambiguity, political controversy, and moral engagement makes doing "normal science" on world politics potentially hazardous to one's scientific reputation. No matter what one does, one runs the risk of standing accused of either political naiveté or of surreptitiously advancing an activist agenda or of clinging to an outmoded positivist philosophy of science that upholds the reactionary ideal of value-neutrality. The resolution to the trilemma proposed here emphasizes multi-method research programs in which investigators: (a) rigorously ground psychological propositions in political contexts; (b) self-critically practice "turnabout" thought experiments in which they ask each other whether they apply the same standards of evidence to politically opposing claims.

The second section examines the now familiar “rationality” debate as that controversy plays itself out in the study of world politics. Since Thucydides, self-styled realists have argued that world politics obeys a distinctive logic of its own. There is little leeway in the cut-throat arena of international competition for slow learners who allow personal beliefs, needs, or ideals to cloud their vision of looming threats. Accordingly, there is little need for psychological explanations. National leaders either respond in a timely manner to shifting balances of power (whether calibrated in strategic nuclear warheads or gross domestic products) or they are rapidly replaced by more realistic leaders. The choice is between rational updating of expectations in calculating Bayesian fashion and being selected out of the game in ruthless Darwinian fashion. The chapter explores: (a) why these purely systemic explanations are helpful for understanding broad historical patterns but are hardpressed to explain specific foreign policy decisions; (b) how psychological models can complement the explanatory strengths and weaknesses of systemic theories. The chapter also cautions us not to view the knowledge transfer as a one-directional flow from “basic” psychological truths to the applied international context; the macro context can set both normative and empirical boundary conditions on psychological generalizations, reminding us that response tendencies that look dysfunctional in the laboratory may be functional in many international settings as well as that response tendencies that look empirically robust in the laboratory may disappear at institutional and international levels of analysis.

The third section deals with interstate influence. Deterrence theorists--who enjoyed remarkable influence over American foreign policy in the post World War II period--take an extremely parsimonious view of the workings of diplomacy and negotiation. From this perspective, too much subtlety can be a dangerous thing when it communicates weakness and vacillation to potential aggressors. One prevails by possessing the necessary power and by clearly communicating the resolve to use it under specified circumstances. This section examines some psychologically richer conceptions of the influence process that emphasize the need to strike reasonable balances between the goals of deterrence (don't let the other side exploit you) and of reassurance (don't exacerbate the worst-case fears of the other side). It also examines evidence from multiple methods that clarifies when different influence tactics are likely to elicit desired reactions from the other side.

Thus far, the focus has been on fundamental processes--decision making and social influence--that are a safe bet to play key roles in almost every conceivable scenario for the next century. World politics, is, however, in a state of flux. The nation-state, it is frequently claimed, is under siege by both sub-national forces of ethnic fragmentation and supra-national forces of economic integration. An empirically comprehensive analysis can no longer treat the nation-state as the unchallenged decision-making unit. People may direct their loyalties elsewhere. And a theoretically balanced analysis can no longer assume that international relations are inherently anarchic and lawless. Accordingly, the fourth section of this chapter targets theories that address the powerful centrifugal and centripetal forces operating on the international system. The focus shifts to the complexities of applying theories of group identification and of distributive and procedural justice to a rapidly transforming world. Key questions for the attentive public become "Who am I?", "To what groups do I belong?", "What is a fair distribution of burdens and benefits of group membership within and across national boundaries?", and "When should we coordinate the policies of our nation with those of others to provide the international equivalent of public goods in such diverse domains as health, commerce, environmental protection, peace, and human rights?”

I. Standards of Evidence and Proof.

In epistemology, as in life, it is helpful to set one's aspiration level high, but not too high. On the one hand, the early pioneers of the scientific approach to world politics were probably too optimistic (Richardson, 1960). We will never have clock-like Newtonian laws of world politics that predict the waxing and waning of great powers or the trajectories of arms races. On the other hand, post-modernist debunkers of scientific approaches have probably gone too far (Ashley, 1988). Predicting political events is not as hopeless as predicting the shape, color and size of the clouds in the sky next week. That said, however, there are good reasons for supposing that there is limited potential for discovering powerful laws that support accurate long-term forecasts (Almond and Genco, 1978; Jervis, 1992b).

A. Grounds for Scientific Pessimism.

(1) the tape of history runs only once. Psychologists have grown accustomed to the inferential luxury of control groups that allow them to assess whether the hypothesized cause really made a difference. In world politics, the control groups exist--if "exist" is the right word--only in the imaginations of political observers who try to reconstruct how events would have unfolded if the hypothesized cause had taken on a different value in an alternative world. Could we have averted World War II if Churchill rather than Chamberlain had confronted Hitler at Munich in 1938? Could we have triggered World War III if Kennedy had followed his more hawkish advisors and launched air strikes against Soviet missile sites in Cuba in 1962? Would the newly industrializing countries of the 1970's and 1980's have grown even more rapidly if their governments had pursued less interventionist economic policies? Time-machines fantasies to the side, there is no way to rerun history and experimentally manipulate the presence or absence of a "key" personality, event, or policy.

Whereas experimental control is simply impossible, statistical control is possible in principle, but often deeply problematic in practice. For many categories of questions--such as the role of nuclear weapons in preserving the long peace (1945-1991) between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.(Gaddis, 1993)--there are too many confounding variables and too few degrees of freedom to disentangle competing casual claims. Judicious selection of comparison cases and meticulous process tracing of decision-making records can sometimes tip the scales of plausibility in these statistically indeterminate cases (George, 1980; Khong, 1991), but any causal inferences will still ultimately rest on counterfactual assumptions about what would have happened in possible worlds in which the hypothesized independent variables took on alternative values from those in the actual world. The dependence on thought experiments is not, however, adequately appreciated (Fearon, 1991) and is regarded by many as embarrassing, undercutting the validity of all casual claims about world politics. This reaction is understandable but exaggerated. To say that debates over security issues ultimately reduce to competing counterfactual scenarios is not to concede that anything goes. It is possible to articulate standards of evidence and proof even for counterfactual arguments (Tetlock & Belkin, 1996). Among other things, good counterfactual arguments should have clearly specified antecedents, consequents and connecting principles, should not rewrite massive stretches of history, should rely on connecting principles that are consistent with well-established theoretical and empirical generalizations, and should contain the seeds of testable hypotheses in the actual world.

(2) many plausible causal candidates. When scholars perform thought experiments to explore what might have happened under this or that contingency, they often discover a plethora of possibilities. Half a dozen schools of thought may stand ready to advance their preferred causal candidates and to assert confidently that they know how events would have worked out if the hypothesized causes had taken on different values. These causal candidates are drawn from the full spectrum of levels of analysis. It is instructive to observe their interplay in two actual controversies: the debates over blame for World War I and credit for the Asian "tigers."

(I) World War I. For nearly a century, scholars have debated the origins of the ironically labeled "war to end all wars." Some claims invoke "butterfly-effect" counterfactuals that, in the spirit of chaos and complexity theory, stress the role of quasi-random contingencies in shaping events (cf. Gaddis, 1993). A classic example is the precipitating event--such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914--which can be easily "undone" by simply positing that the driver of the royal carriage possessed a map of Sarajevo and did not make a fateful wrong turn that gave the Serbian assassins who had just botched the job a remarkable second chance to do it right. Other claims invoke cause-effect generalizations drawn from traditional disciplines. Some psychobiographers suggest that German foreign policy would have been more prudent if Kaiser Wilhelm had not been so insecure (perhaps because of his withered arm) and determined to assert his manhood (Kohut, 1982). Students of crisis decision-making suggest that time pressure and information load promoted simplification and rigidity of thought (perhaps preventing policy-makers from generating complex compromise agreements that might have averted war--Holsti, 1972). Students of military doctrine and organization assign blame to the widespread "cult of the offensive" that led key planners to believe that the side which mobilized first possessed a decisive strategic advantage (Snyder, 1984). Students of identity-politics trace the conflict to the inherent instability of multi-ethnic empires such as Austro-Hungary and to the resulting power vacuum. Neorealist analysts of international systems point to the inherent instability of multipolar balances of power and the threat to that balance posed by the rapid growth of German industrial and military strength. In this view, World War I was a conflagration waiting to happen. The Sarajevo assassination was but one of countless sparks that could have easily set off the same underlying conflict.

(ii) The emergence of the "Asian tigers”. Almost no social scientists in the 1950's predicted that the astonishing growth rates of East Asian economies in the late 20th century. But almost all social scientists in the 1990's can generate four or five reasons for the inevitability of those same growth rates. Advocates of cultural explanations can point to the "work-ethic" character traits inculcated by Confucianist family values: hard work, in-group loyalty, and willingness to subordinate immediate gratification of individual desires to long-term group goals (Pye, 1985). Advocates of strategic trade can point to government subsidies and nurturance of "infant industries" in high-growth-potential sectors of the economy (Johnson, 1993; Tyson, 1993). Advocates of neoclassical economic theory can point to intense competition within many of these "infant industries" and to tax laws and low-inflation macro-economic policies that encourage high savings rates that, in turn, provide large pools of low-interest investment capital (Friedman, 1992). Defenders of authoritarian government as an essential transitional phase toward prosperity can point to the importance of suppressing unions and maintaining low wage rates in labor-intensive industries as an early source of comparative advantage in international trade.

What do World War I and the economic miracles of East Asia have in common? In each case, we find a long list of distinct but interrelated causal candidates, each of which rests on difficult-to-test assumptions about what would have had to be different to alter the observed outcome. In each case, an event that virtually no one predicted appears, with benefit of theoretical hindsight, hopelessly over-determined (Fischhoff, 1975; Hawkins & Hastie, 1990). Finally, in each case, people often find it very difficult to recapture the sense of uncertainty that prevailed before the historical outcome was known. We exaggerate the degree to which we “knew it all along.” Our capacity to assimilate known outcomes from the past to favorite causal schemata vastly exceeds our ability to predict unknown outcomes in the future (cf. Dawes, 1993).

(3) the interrelatedness of potential causes. In the ideal thought experiment, we manipulate one cause at a time and gauge its impact. Part of what makes "assassination" counterfactuals so popular among chaos and complexity theorists is that it seems so easy to rewrite one or two trivial details of history, to hold all else constant, and to observe big effects. All we need to do is to suppose that Lee Harvey Oswald was not quite so good a marksman and most of us share the intuition that we would have a rather different list of American presidents from 1963 onward. The thought experiment seems to illustrate the "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" of major events (McCloskey, 1991).

Thought experiments are, however, more problematic than this laboratory model suggests. Causes rarely exist in isolation from each other. When we tamper with one potential cause, we almost always alter a host of others, thereby creating confounding variables (Jervis, 1996). For instance, if we counterfactually posit slower German growth rates in pre-1914 Europe, we simultaneously change the entire geopolitical calculus. Perhaps Britain would no longer perceive Germany as the power most likely to achieve European hegemony but rather would see France as the primary threat (as in Napoleonic times) or Russia (as after 1945). A shift in the domestic political or economic condition of one state may have far-reaching ramifications on alliance structures. Game theorists have been most explicit in modeling these sorts of "ripple effects" by mapping out the best responses available to other players in the event that one player (for whatever reason) deviates from the equilibrium path (Bueno de Mesquita, 1996; Weingast, 1996). To reach determinate counterfactual conclusions, however, these game theorists must make heroic assumptions both about the rationality of the players and about the assumptions that the players themselves make about each other's rationality (necessary for identifying equilibrium strategies via backward induction).

If world politics is best represented as systems embedded within systems and if it is generally inappropriate even to imagine manipulating an hypothesized cause in isolation from the causal network within which it is embedded, we confront an extraordinary dilemma. For the more densely interconnected the potential causes, the less possible it becomes to trace the impact of any change even after the fact, less still to predict it before the fact. From this standpoint, the most popular research strategy for disentangling cause and effect in world politics--the comparative case method--is deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed. Searching for several cases that are similar except for one "independent variable" is systematically misleading. Not only is there no random assignment to conditions, there is the problem of path-dependence (Jervis, 1996). Our location in the historical flow of events is consequential. What we do now is shaped by what happened earlier. These earlier branching-point events have taught us particular lessons and values. For example, when we compare the consequences of pursuing deterrence versus reassurance policies (a popular comparison in political psychology), we need to factor into our intuitive causal model the variety of reasons why people found it reasonable to resort to deterrence in certain cases but to reassurance in others. Deterrence may be an effect as well as a cause--a sign in itself of how far the relationship had already deteriorated. Interpretive controversies of this sort surface frequently in security debates.

The strong form of the "system-effects” argument leaves us teetering on the brink of policy nihilism, with no way to tell what might have happened if we had listened to one or the other faction in a policy dispute. Of course, the strong form of the argument may be too strong. In the cosmic matrix of causal interconnections, most entries may be close to zero (cf. Pattee, 1973), in which case the indeterminacy problems are less acute. The only sure fact is that no one knows for sure. Firm opinions must be based on metaphysical guesses.

(4) counterfactuals are often politically controversial. A fourth factor complicates efforts to make sense of world politics. Most debates over counterfactual scenarios engage partisan political motives. For instance, defenders of the Reagan defense build-up of the 1980's argued that, without it, the Soviet political establishment would never have accepted as radically a reformist leader as Gorbachev--a leader whose policies of glasnost and perestroika "led to" the disintegration of the Soviet state (Pipes, 1993). Critics of the Reagan administration argued that the defense build-up was either an irrelevancy or an impediment to Soviet reformers and--in either case--an egregious waste of national treasure (Garthoff, 1994; Lebow & Stein, 1994). For our purposes, the key point is this: one can neither sensibly defend nor compellingly criticize a policy initiative without making assumptions about how things would have worked out differently if the government had done something else.

Short of adopting a stance of radical agnosticism toward all policy initiatives, something few social scientists are willing to do, there is no avoiding the daunting task of setting thresholds of proof for counterfactual thought exercises. One must judge the likelihood of making Type I versus Type II errors (e.g., concluding that deterrence works when it does not versus concluding that it does not work when it does) and the risks associated with each error, all the while under partisan pressure to tip the scales of plausibility in one direction or another.

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