It’s Time for Behavioral and Emotional International Relations

Two trends are emerging in International Relations (IR). One is the increasing receptiveness of scholars to insights from behavioural economics; the other is their growing interest in the role of emotions. These two trends have one thing in common: they both seek to bust the myth of rationality. Admittedly, many IR theories have already attempted to do so (e.g. constructivism, post-structuralism, feminism, or practice theory). However, these new approaches differ from the old ones in one important respect: they are more empirical because they are grounded in experimental and neuroscientific findings. This creates an opportunity for an interesting new body of IR scholarship. Before I get to that, let me first say a few words about behavioral economics and the scholarly turn towards emotions.

Arguably, behavioral economics originated with Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s two joint papers published in the 1970s. In the first of these papers, Kahneman and Tversky show that humans are not very good at statistical reasoning. They observe that people tend to avoid the complex task of probability assessment by resorting to simple heuristics. One such heuristics is representativeness, and people regularly apply it when estimating the probability that object A belongs to class Y.

Take for example Steve. If he was described as a ‘very shy, orderly, and structured person, with little interest in the world of reality’ and people were asked to estimate the probability of him being either a farmer or a librarian, most would say the chances are greater that he is a librarian. Unfortunately, their judgement would be wrong. Since on average there are more farmers than librarians, the probability is greater that Steve is a farmer. However, research shows that people rarely consider this base-rate probability, choosing instead to see Steve as representative of the stereotype of a librarian.

In their second paper, Kahneman and Tversky introduced prospect theory. They show that, contrary to expected utility theory, people do not value outcomes of their decisions in absolute terms but in terms of the value they assign to potential losses and gains. On average, loses hurt people more than gains make them feel good. For this reason, people are likely to work harder not to lose 10 EUR than to earn the same amount.

Kahneman and Tversky’s insights generated a discovery of many new biases and heuristics inherent in our thinking. Some of the most famous include the framing effect, the endowment effect, the anchoring effect, the halo effect, hyperbolic discounting, and the availability heuristics.

The current scholarly interest in the (social) role of emotions is usually associated with the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, especially with his book Descartes’ Error. By studying patients with lesions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, Damasio has shown that damage to this part of the brain causes patients not only to struggle with processing emotions but also severely limits their ability to reason and make decisions. Damasio has thus revealed that, contrary to common wisdom, social cognition and decision-making are not exclusive realms of reason, but categories that also critically depend on emotions.

A vast number of recent neuroscientific studies also points in this direction. In one such study, researchers were interested in the play of emotions in two dominant forms of ethical reasoning: deontology and consequentialism. Deontology judges the ethics of an action based on whether that action itself is right or wrong, rather than on the effects of its outcomes. The opposite, however, is true for consequentialist reasoning. The common assumption is that the former is based on ‘hot’ emotional response, while the latter emerges from ‘cold’ reasoned calculation. By using the famous trolley thought experiment and its modified version while looking at subjects’ brains through fMRI, research has shown that this is not the case. Both deontological and consequentialist forms of ethical decision making include emotional response, the only difference being that consequentialist judgments involve the weighing of emotional and cognitive responses over a longer period of time.

The 2014 forum on emotions and world politics published in International Theory and the 2017 special issue on behavioral economics and IR published in International Organization indicate that these two trends are developing into distinct research programs in IR. They also hint at a divide. To begin with, the research on emotions is framed as an ‘emotional turn,’ while the research on so-called nonstandard beliefs, preferences, and decision-making is seen as a ‘behavioral revolution.’ Emotions scholars are much more interested in fundamental theoretical questions. For example, an important issue they are grappling with is the location of emotions. Are individuals the only ones who can feel emotions, or are they also a property of groups, institutions, and discourse? On their part, behavioral scholars show little interest in these kinds of questions. With few exceptions, they mostly relate preferences, beliefs, heuristics, and biases to innate human dispositions, seeking to show how changes in these lead to variations in the behavior of international agents. Finally, these two groups of scholars differ in their choice of method. While emotions scholars generally employ interpretive methods such as discourse and narrative analysis, behavioral scholars mostly use experimental and survey methods.

But what is behind these differences? It is largely the tradition from which scholars tackle their respective topics. Those interested in emotions seem to come mostly from the constructivist tradition, which biases them towards adopting a sociological frame of mind. Scholars employing insights from behavioral economics, however, come mostly from game theoretical tradition which biases them towards agent-centric explanations. Moreover, behavioral economics, which emerged from psychology, generally shows little appreciation for social structures. Its explanations are mostly related to Kahneman and Tversky’s notion of two cognitive systems in humans: System 1 (an automatic, fast, and often unconscious way of thinking) and System 2 (an effortful, slow and controlled reasoning).

This division, however, should be overcome. Just as they do not buy the myth of rationality, emotions and behavioral economics IR scholars should not buy the agent vs. structure myth. As several scholars already point out (see Jonathan Mercer and Richard Herrmann), beliefs, preferences, emotions, biases, and heuristics emerge from a complex relationship between our psychological dispositions and our social embeddedness. Consider for example the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a norm urging international intervention when there is evidence that mass atrocity crimes are taking place. This norm would not be possible if it were not for our capacity to experience empathy. But empathy is not enough. For this emotion to be effective, it first needs to be turned into pro-social preference, which then has to be institutionalized. On the whole, if old ontological, epistemological, and methodological biases are left behind, these new trends in IR could create a much-needed opportunity for a unified, empirically founded, and groundbreaking research program in IR, a program often promised but never achieved.

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