In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychology and Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Summary of Major Theories
  • Methodology
  • New Directions in Research in Psychology and Foreign Policy

International Relations Psychology and Foreign Policy
Janice Stein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0252


The use of psychological concepts to explain the behavior of individuals and groups that shape foreign policy is centuries old. Thucydides in his great History of the Peloponnesian War explored the impact of the fear of decline on leaders’ decisions to go to war. Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August demonstrated how misperception and miscalculation by leaders in the summer of 1914 led to an accidental war that no leader wanted or expected. During and after World War II, political scientists began to draw systematically on psychological concepts to explain foreign policy behavior. Scholarship advanced when the International Society of Political Psychology was founded in 1978 along with a specialized journal, Political Psychology. Early scholarship focused on leaders’ personalities and their impact on the foreign policy choices they made, with special attention devoted to decisions to go to war or make peace. A second wave of scholarship drew on the work of cognitive psychologists who had identified heuristics and biases to explore the impact of the way leaders thought on the foreign policy decisions that they made and examined pairs of interacting leaders to explain spirals of escalation. Scholars mined cognitive psychology to explore decisions to cooperate or compete, the success and failure of deterrence and compellence, and bargaining and signaling behavior by leaders. A third wave of scholarship drew on psychological research on emotion and examined how the emotional states of leaders influenced foreign policy choices. Scholars moved beyond leaders to study elite and group attributes to explain foreign policy behavior. In doing so, they confronted the central problem of aggregation; cognition and emotion are embedded in the individual. When they move to explain group behavior, scholars deepened psychological concepts by adding a broader social dimension to the analysis. Research in the last decade situates feeling and thinking in a larger social and cultural context in a more contextualized explanation of foreign policy behavior. Research is increasingly multidisciplinary, drawing on neuroscience, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to explain foreign policy behavior.

General Overviews

As the use of psychological concepts to explain foreign policy has expanded, no single textbook or collection of readings covers the field. Scholars who draw on psychological concepts of judgment, heuristics, and biases have drawn heavily on the work of Kahneman and Tversky 2000 and Kahneman, et al. 1982. For more general reviews of psychology and international relations, see Goldgeier and Tetlock 2001. Simon 1985 develops the concept of “bounded rationality,” De Rivera 1968 provides an early review of the impact of psychological factors on foreign policy and McDermott 2004 assesses the relevance of social and cognitive psychology. A more recent and comprehensive collection is Huddy, et al. 2013. Levy 2013, an article in that collection, is especially useful.

  • De Rivera, Joseph. The Psychological Dimension of Foreign Policy. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1968.

    An early examination by a psychologist of a broad range of psychological factors, including cognition, emotion, small group dynamics, and interpersonal dynamics on foreign policy decision-making. He was one of the early proponents of embedding a “red team” to counteract biased information processing and group dynamics.

  • Goldgeier, James, and Philip E. Tetlock. “Psychology and International Relations Theory.” Annual Review of Political Science 4 (2001): 67–92.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.4.1.67

    A review of the literature that examines the fit of research in cognitive and social psychology with the major scholarly traditions within international relations.

  • Huddy, Leonie, Jack S. Levy, and David O. Sears, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    A very useful collection of essays that review recent research in political psychology generally, with a strong section on international behavior that includes psychology and foreign policy, perceptions and image theory, threat perception, crisis management, and conflict analysis and resolution.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, eds. Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511809477

    A collection of results from experiments on psychological models of decision-making that emphasize the heuristics (mental shortcuts) individuals use to structure their choices and the biases that shape choices.

  • Kahneman, Daniel, and Amos Tversky, eds. Choices, Values, and Frames. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    A valuable collection of their pioneering work on risk and decision-making, which uses rational models as a default and identifies systematic deviations. Their work on prospect theory has been widely applied in the analysis of foreign policy decisions.

  • Levy, Jack S. “Psychology and Foreign Policy Decision-Making.” In the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology. Edited by Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack S. Levy, 301–333. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    An excellent review essay on the impact of psychological factors on judgment and decision-making by political leaders.

  • McDermott, Rose. Political Psychology in International Relations. Analytical Perspectives on Politics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.10847

    A comprehensive review of the application of social and cognitive psychology to the study of security issues in international relations, informed by a deep knowledge of psychology and political science.

  • Simon, Herbert A. “Human Nature in Politics: The Dialogue of Psychology with Political Science.” American Political Science Review 79.2 (1985): 293–304.

    DOI: 10.2307/1956650

    An early, path-breaking article on “bounded rationality.” Simon concludes that the principle of rationality, if it were not supplemented by extensive empirical research to identify the correct auxiliary assumptions, has little power to make valid predictions about decision-making. This article revolutionized the empirical study of decision-making.

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