The Rational Decision-Making Model and Leadership Behaviour in International Crises

International crises between states are rare events in the grand scale of international relations. However, due to their potential influence on world events the need for a comprehensive study of their development and the behaviour of leaders during a crisis has increased over the last century and into the present day. One of the most commonly employed methods to analyse why actors make certain decisions is the ‘Rational Decision-Making Model’, otherwise known as Rational Choice Theory.

It is the purpose of this essay to study how appropriate the rational decision-making model is for examining the decisions and behaviour of a leader in an international crisis. The predominant focus of this study will be on the basic principles and assumptions of the rational actor models and game theories which are encompassed under the term rational choice theory. Unfortunately, due to constraints on the size of this essay it will be difficult for me to discuss these models in any great detail and as such I shall be forced to describe the models as briefly as possible while still accurately reporting the most important concepts. While authors such as Green & Shapiro[1]employ the term rational choice rather loosely to include work such as game theory, public choice theory, social choice theory and positive political economy, in addition to rational actor models, I shall employ it more specifically in reference to the latter. The motivation behind this is largely down to the particular relevance of these two theories to the study of leadership behaviour during an international crisis, as well as the constraints of time and space on the essay.

I shall begin the essay by providing a brief overview of rational choice theory, introducing basic concepts, and developing a background which with to conduct my evaluation of its suitability for analyzing leader behaviour. As part of the second section of my work, I shall place rational decision-making in the context of an international crisis, examining its failure to take into account the various psychological pressures which play a decisive role in the decisions leaders make during such situations and employing evidence from the work of authors such as Wallace & Suedfeld[2]. This section will also contain examples of various other criticisms of the rational choice model as made by authors such as Allison & Zelikow[3]. Finally, the third section of my essay will examine a few of the psychological studies on human behaviour and decision making, arguing that they are a more useful method of analysis. Examples of the psychological models I shall be examining include the ‘Groupthink’ model devised by Janis Irving. This will be followed by the suggestion that a more complete model of analysis would be one that included elements of both the rational decision-making model and psychological study in order to provide a more accurate picture of leader behaviour in a crisis.

Rationality in International Relations

Rational choice theory emerged as a tool of political analysis during the early 1950s. To place its evolution in a historical context one should consider its development at a particularly notable junction in history, namely the end of the Second World War in 1945, and the beginning of the Cold War shortly afterwards. This is significant since it coincides with the prominence of Realist thought in international relations, and particularly in the United States, where rational choice theory enjoys most of its popularity. One of the fundamental beliefs in the classical realism of the time is that states act rationally, calculating the costs and benefits of alternative actions and choosing the one which maximizes their utility. Miles Kahler discusses further the relationship between rationality and realism in his article entitled ‘Rationality in International Relations’[4], as do Allison and Zelikow[5]. The theory itself originated as an economic theory, designed to analyze the rationally self-interested behaviour of the average individual in a market place where competition for, and control of, scarce resources was seen to be the primary objective[6]. As Green & Shapiro suggest, “This parallel between market competition for goods and political competition for the fruits of power has suggested to a growing number of social scientists that the methods of economics might usefully be applied to the study of politics”[7]. To further explain this, one could say that in a supposed situation an actor wishes to achieve a specifiable set of goals, has a limited number of resources at his or her disposal, and is subject to a variety of specifiable constraints on his or her behaviour. The problems facing the actor are then posed as optimisation problems, where the relevant entities are whatever variables may be appropriate to the problem, be they utility, power or anything else[8]. A more simplified explanation of this claim is that actors would choose a rational action because, given their beliefs about the relationship between their choices and the outcomes these choices would bring about, their preferences would be best satisfied by the action chosen. Consequently, given the underlying circumstances, including their preferences, beliefs, and the set of alternatives available to them, the individuals’ rationality is sufficient to bring about the optimal choice[9]. Supporters of rational choice theory, as Heywood suggests, believe that it has allowed analysts of political phenomena to develop explanatory models similar to those employed in economic theory, thereby introducing greater rigour to discussion in the field[10]

The idea of ‘optimal choice’ mentioned earlier links well with the first of four basic assumptions identified by various authors as core to the theory of rational choice, the first being utility maximisation, the others being consistency or transitivity, expected value and individuals[11]. Allison & Zelikow give a similar but slightly alternative list of ‘core concepts’ which are listed as goals and objectives, alternatives, consequences and choice[12]. The constraints of this essay prevent me from going into any great detail over these concepts and assumptions, however, they are perhaps best summarised as such. “Rationality refers to consistent, value-maximizing choice within specific constraints”[13]and is generally believed by all rationalist thinkers to be homogenous across all individuals.

Decision Making in an International Crisis

Criticisms of rational choice theory have existed since the model itself was first developed and applied to social science in the early 1950s as I have already discussed. Many of these criticisms arise when the model is employed to explain leader behaviour in an international crisis. As I have shown already, rational choice is a way of explaining the behaviour of actors in ‘perfect’ situations where they are able to apply rationality to the problem without many of the constraints on that rationality which may occur during a crisis. It is my belief, and indeed the main argument of this section, that an international crisis may in fact be the exact situation in which the rational capacity of an actor is be undermined. A number of authors have examined the psychological stresses acting on leaders during a crisis, developing their own theories on the possible effects these stresses may have on an individual’s decision-making ability. Wallace and Suedfeld have recognized that the threat to important values which often defines a serious crisis affect changes in the decision-making process which in turn induces, “increased perceptions of time pressure in leaders, who begin to see their freedom of action as more and more restricted while their adversary’s options are perceived to increase”[14]. The effect of this is that leaders tend to focus on short-term “quick fixes”, as Wallace and Suedfeld term them, rather than long-term solutions. In addition to this, leaders concentrate on existing information rather than the novel information which typifies a crisis, meaning that there is a reliance on stereotypes, “historical experience, ideology or operational code beliefs as a guide to action”[15]. There is also a tendency amongst leaders in these situations to become increasingly insular in terms of the advisors they consult with regards to foreign policy. Leaders will tend to communicate less and less with adversaries or would-be mediators and instead surround themselves with others of a similar mindset, while distancing themselves from those people who may question their decisions. This in turn leads to a skewing of the analysis process and can polarize governments and even the society within a state. In essence then, what Wallace and Suedfeld identify is a negative relationship with stress levels and performance. The higher the stress levels, it is said, the lower the performance levels creating what is called a curvilinear relationship. This exists due to the fact that prolonged and intense stress decreases the complexity of information processing; a fact which the authors suggest often preceded all-out war between the nations involved where it was noted. On the other hand, crises resolved by means alternative to war were often, “characterized by continued high levels of integrative complexity among national leaders”[16]. Rational decision-making model and game theory fail to take into account the psychological stresses an international crisis can place on the decision-making process of a leader, dismissing them as unimportant. Rational choice plays down the role of the leader, preferring instead to argue that national interest will always remain paramount regardless of who is in power. However, it would be interesting to investigate whether this is the case in both democratic and autocratic states.

Empirical evidence of the psychological effects listed by Wallace and Suedfeld is given in their 1993 article entitled ‘Political Rhetoric of Leaders under Stress in the Gulf Crisis’[17], written in conjunction with Kimberley Thachuk. This study employs the theories already discussed above and investigates whether or not they can be applied to the first Gulf War of 1991 involving the United States (under George Bush Senior) and her allies against Iraq (under Sadaam Hussein). The article examines the integrative complexity levels of the two Presidents during the crisis, and draws its conclusions from the findings. Both leaders, it is said, “showed significantly lower complexity scores than those who had a far smaller role in the key decisions and a far smaller stake in the outcome”[18]. The findings of this study seem to confirm the claims made in this section of my own essay, that crises are ‘novel’ and unique situations in international relations which place large amounts of stress on leaders which in turn affects their decision making ability. Rational decision-making models fail to take this into account. I believe, and in the next section I shall briefly argue, that psychological models are more useful for analysing leaders.

Leader Psychology

As I have argued in the previous section, crisis situations place great stresses on leaders decision-making ability, something which is not and cannot adequately addressed by the rational decision model. A number of authors have employed various psychological models as ways of analysing leader behaviour. Perhaps one of the most well known of these is Irving Janis. In his book entitled ‘Victims of Groupthink’[19], Janis examines the Bay of Pigs invasion under the Kennedy administration. He argues that Kennedy and his small group of advisors made six major miscalculations in the build up to the invasion. These miscalculations took the form of assumptions made by the group regarding both their own ability and the ability of the enemy. Kennedy’s group of advisors contained a number of highly intelligent individuals such as Dean Rusk (Secretary of State), Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defence) and Robert Kennedy (Attorney General). Acting as rational and intelligent individuals, one could assume that as a group, Kennedy and the members of his team would have been able to see the failings of their planned invasion. However, Janis suggests that, “Members of any small cohesive group tend to maintain esprit de corps by unconsciously developing a number of shared illusions and related norms that interfere with critical thinking and reality testing”[20]. These ‘illusions’ which Janis speaks of include an illusion of invulnerability, where any dangers which may arise from risky action will not affect the group, and the illusion of unanimity, which describes the belief that because the group reaches a unanimous view each member of said group will convince themselves that it must be true. Other authors, such as t’Hart, Stern and Sundelius[21], do not wholly agree with Janis’ take on group dynamics and so have developed their own theories on the influence of group psychology on explaining leader’s decisions and behaviour.

Other studies of psychology, such as David Houghton’s article on ‘The Role of Analogical Reasoning in Novel Foreign-Policy Situations’[22], focus on the use of analogy by leaders in times of crisis in order to simplify the situation in their own minds. Haughton himself draws on the example of the Bay of Pigs invasion in his article, while also mentioning other international crises such as the Iranian hostage crisis. In these situations, the decision makers convince themselves of the similarity of their own situation to one that has occurred in the past which “seems particularly useful in understanding the nature of a present situation…the base is then ‘mapped’ on to the target”[23]. Aiden Hehir provides the example of US foreign policy towards Kosovo as analogical reasoning in practice, claiming that analogies employed by leaders on both sides distorted the realities of the situation[24].

It is my belief, as I have argued above, that psychological models of analysis are more useful to the study of leader behaviour in a crisis due to the fact that they take into account a greater variety of individual and group motivations than the rational decision-making model. These motivations are vital to our understanding of behaviour. However, it is possible to argue that a model which takes encompasses parts of both the rational decision-making model and psychology would perhaps be an even more useful method of analysis. The common interest between the models identified by Bueno de Mesquita and McDermott provides an excellent starting point for a study into the compatibility of the two. Both models, it is said, “share a common interest in trying to explain and predict central features of human decision-making”[25]. I share the belief of these two authors that an overlap between the two models does exist and that separately they cannot fully analyse leader behaviour. Together, the models may be able to develop new insights into “the complex interrelationship between cognition and emotion by exploring how emotion generates desire and motivates action”[26], something which Bueno de Mesquita & McDermott see as key.


As I mentioned in the introduction of this essay, the depth to which I have been able to go into regarding the explanations of rational choice and the counter arguments to it has been limited by restrictions on its size. However, I have attempted to give an accurate overview of some of the main arguments while recommending my sources as further reading. The rational decision-making model has assisted theorists in the study of certain cases in international relations. It offers a basic ‘nuts and bolts’ approach to the field which can be useful as it provides a general understanding of how and why actors may behave in a situation- and that is to maximise their own utility. I illustrated this in the first section of the essay by providing a basic background to the development of the theory and its use in politics from the early 1950s, while attempting to highlight some of its key points. However, it has been the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that the rational decision-making model is not entirely adequate for the specific study of leader behaviour during a crisis. The second section of this essay argued that the novelty of an international crisis means that leader’s decision-making processes are put under pressures that can have a profound effect on the choices they make, affecting their perception of time, their analysis of the situation and ultimately their performance. Finally, I have argued that psychological models, such as Irving Janis’ groupthink model, provide a more accurate depiction of the way leaders make decisions under these conditions and are therefore a more appropriate tool for its analysis. I concluded by suggesting that a more accurate analysis could possibly be provided by combining parts of the rational decision-making model with psychological study as Bueno de Mesquita and McDermott have done, and recommend that greater research be done in this area.


Allison, G. & Zelikow, P. “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”, (New York, Longman; 1999).

Brecher, M. “Crises in World Politics: Theory & Reality”, (Oxford, Pergamon Press; 1993).

Bueno de Mesquita, B. & McDermott, R. “Crossing No Man’s Land: Cooperation from the Trenches”, Political Psychology 25 (2): (2004). pp. 271–87.

Green, D. P. & Shapiro, I. “Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science”, (London, Yale University Press; 1994)

t’Hart, P.; Stern, E. K.; Sundelius, B. “Beyond Groupthink: Political Group Dynamics and Foreign Policy-making”, (Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press; 1997)

Heywood, A. “Political Theory: An Introduction”, (London, Palgrave Macmillan; 2004)

Houghton, D. P. “The Role of Analogical Reasoning in Novel Foreign-Policy Situations”, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Oct., 1996). pp. 523-552

Kahler, Miles. “Rationality in International Relations”, International Organization 52 (4): (1998). pp. 919–41.

Landa, D. “Rational Choices as Social Norms”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 18(4): (2006). pp. 434–453

Myerson, R. B. “Game Theoretic Consistency and International Relations”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 18(4): (2006). pp. 416–433

Nicholson, M. “Formal Theories in International Relations”, (Cambridge University Press; 1990)

Wallace, M. D. & Suedfeld, P. “Leadership Performance in Crisis: The Longevity-Complexity Link”,International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4. (Dec, 1988). pp. 439-451

Wallace, M. D.; Suedfeld, P.; Thachuk, K. “Political Rhetoric of Leaders under Stress in the Gulf Crisis”, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 37, No. 1. (Mar., 1993). pp. 94-107.


[1]Green, D. P. & Shapiro, I. “Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science”, (Yale University Press; 1994)

[2]Wallace, M. D. & Suedfeld, P. “Leadership Performance in Crisis: The Longevity-Complexity Link”,International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4. (Dec, 1988). pp. 439-451

[3]Allison, G. & Zelikow, P. “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis”, (Longman; 1999)

[4]Kahler, Miles. “Rationality in International Relations”, International Organization 52 (4): (1998). pp. 919–41.

[5]Allison & Zelikow, Essence, pp. 26-33

[6]Heywood, A. “Political Theory: An Introduction”, (Palgrave Macmillan; 2004). pp. 246

[7]Green & Shapiro, Pathologies, pp. 1

[8]Nicholson, M. “Formal Theories in International Relations”, (Cambridge University Press; 1990)

[9]Landa, D. “Rational Choices as Social Norms”, Journal of Theoretical Politics 18(4):(2006). pp. 434–453

[10] Heywood, Political Theory, pp. 246

[11] For a more in depth explanation of this assumptions see Green & Shapiro, Pathologies, pp. 14-16

[12] For greater detail see Allison & Zelikow, Essence of Decision;, pp. 18

[13] Allison & Zelikow, Essence, pp. 18

[14]Wallace, M. D. & Suedfeld, P. “Leadership Performance in Crisis: The Longevity-Complexity Link”,International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4. (Dec, 1988). pp. 440.

[15] Brecher, M. “Crises in World Politics: Theory & Reality”, (Pergamon Press; 1993). pp. 44

[16] Wallace & Suedfeld, Leadership Performance, pp. 441

[17]Wallace, M. D.; Suedfeld, P.; Thachuk, K., “Political Rhetoric of Leaders under Stress in the Gulf Crisis”, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 37, No. 1. (Mar., 1993). pp. 94-107.

[18] Wallace, Suedfeld & Thachuk, Political Rhetoric, pp. 103

[19] Janis, I. L. “Victims of Groupthink”, (Houghton Mifflin Company; 1972)

[20] Janis, Groupthink, pp. 35-36

[21] t’Hart, P.; Stern, E. K; Sundelius, B. “Beyond Groupthink: Political Group Dynamics and Foreign Policy-making”, (The University of Michigan Press; 1997)

[22]Houghton, D. P, “The Role of Analogical Reasoning in Novel Foreign-Policy Situations”,British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Oct., 1996). pp. 523-552.

[23] Houghton, Analogical Reasoning, pp. 524

[24]Hehir, A. “The Impact of Analogical Reasoning on US Foreign Policy Towards Kosovo”,Journal of Peace Research,

vol. 43, no. 1, (2006). pp. 67–81

[25]Bueno de Mesquita, B. & McDermott, R. “Crossing No Man’s Land: Cooperation from the Trenches”, Political Psychology 25 (2): (2004). pp. 283

[26] Bueno de Mesquita & McDermott, No Man’s Land, pp. 284

Written by: Niel Ross
Written at: Aberystwyth University, Department of International Politics
Written for: Dr. Graeme Davies
Date written: 2007