Stein, Janis Gross. (1993) “Building Politics into Psychology: The Misperception of Threat,” in Political Psychology. Edited by Neil J. Kressel, New York: Paragon House, ch. 25, pp. 367-392.
In international relations, threats are broadly of two kinds. When leadrs use strategies like deterrence, for example, they signal their commitment and resolve in part by ussuing threats to a would-be challenger. This kind of threat, by its nature, is conditional. One leaders threatens with harmful consequences that are under the control of the threatener if the target does not comply with the request. What is relevant to the success of the strategy is not the threat itself but its perception; there is often a considerable gap between the intentions of the leader who issues the threat and its perception by another. Leaders perceive not only those that are communicated by another party, but also those that inhere in the envitonment — “situational threats.” Accuracy of perception in the situational threats is even more problematic for policymaskers to achieve. People may read their environment very differently (368).
COGNITIVE SOURCES OF THE MISPERCEPTION THREAT
Belief Systems — The most important is the overwhelming impact of leaders’ expectations and beliefs on their perceptions (370).
Lack of Empathy in Contrasting Cognitive Contexts. Empathy refers to the capacity to understand others; perception on their world, their conception of their role in that world, and their definition of their interests. Leaders are frequently unable to empathize, in part because of a difference in cognitive contexts (371).
The Heuristics of “Availability” and “Representativeness.” People are “cognitive misers”: because of well-defined cognitive limits, their processing of information is selective. Heuristics refers to shortcuts in the processes of information retrieval which leaders use to gain access to information stored within their organizing schemas and belief systems. Two of the most pervasive are “availability” and representativeness.” Leaders tend to interpret threats in terms of what is easily available in their cognitive repertoire. Often what is most available to policymakers are their own intentions, plans, and experiences and, consequently, they tend to perceive the actions of others in theri light (373). The bias of “representativeness” can also influence the perception of threat. Generally, people tend to exaggerate the similarity between one event and a class of events because they pay inadequate attention to base rate statistics, or the probability that the event is part of a general class independent of any specific information about the particular event (373).
The “Egocentric” Bias refers to the predilection of people to see themselves as the central point of reference when they explain the actions of others. When people exaggerate the causal significance of their own actions and discount the importance of other factors, they overestimaste the linkages between themselves and the behavior of others. They tend, in consequence, to exaggerate threat for two closely related reasons: because they overestimate the extent to which another’s behavior is targeted at them and, because they exaggerate the degree to which the behavior of others is the result of their prior actions (374).
Overconfidence — a closely related bias of overconfidence further complicates the signaling and the perception of threat. People generally tend to be too confident of their capacity to make complex judgements and perform complicated mental operations. This bias can have dangerous consequences insofar as leaders tend to overestimate their ability to design and communicate appropriate threats and to access the intentions of their adversary. Leaders in target state can also be overconfident in their perception of threat and insensitive to alternative explanations of action (375).
The “Proportionality” Bias — assumption people tend to make about the appropriate relationship between means and ends. Generally. leaders expect their adversary to expend efforts proportionate to the ends they seek. Consequently, they make inferences about the intentions of others from the costs and consequences of the actions they initiate. When a state incurs high costs, others assume that important objectives were at stake for the leadership. Even if leaders consider the costs of an adversary’s action to be low, but judge the immediate stakes to be lower still, they will perceive threat from this lack of proportion. Leaders are likely to perceive a threat if an a adversary demonstrates a high propensity to take risks or ignores accepted procedure. When an opponent infringes upon an accepted norm of behavior, leaders infer that their adversary is nolonger bound by conventional restraints, and is, therefore, a serious threat (375).
The “Fundamental Attribution Error” – people’s tendency to exaggerate the importance of dispositional over situational factors when they explain undesirable behavior of others and the corresponding tendency to emphasize situational rather than dispositional factors when they are explaining their own behavior. This error in attribution contributes significantly to the overestimation of threat. Like the egocentric bias, it transforms effect into intent (376).
Attribution of Greater Coherence and Centralization – Leaders frequently tend to attribute greater coherence to their adversary than the evidence warrants. Leaders overestimate the control their adversaries have over their machinery of government and attribute intent to all their actions. This frequently misplaced attribution of centralized decisionmaking is consistent with the attempt to assimilate discrepant information to existing images and beliefs (376-377).