Home / Robert Farley / Let’s Emote, and See What Happens

Let’s Emote, and See What Happens


For this week’s Diplomat column I delve into (gasp!) actual political science:

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.

Disclosure: Mercer was my dissertation advisor at UW. It’s interesting work, and I recommend reading the full article.

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