POL S 425 A: Political Psychology And War

Meeting Time: 
MW 11:30am - 1:20pm
SMI 111
Jonathan Mercer

Syllabus Description:

Political Psychology and War

Syllabus, here

Assigned readings, here

Presentation schedule, here

Research paper, here



Political Science 425                            Professor Jonathan Mercer (mercer@uw.edu)

Winter 2017                                        Office hours, Gowen 135: M 1:30-3

Smith 111    

M, W: 11:30-1:20                               


This seminar explores how political scientists use psychology to address questions of war and peace. Deterrence theory frames most discussions of international security. The course begins with a selection from Thomas Schelling’s classic text on deterrence and a comparison of “spiral” and “deterrence” models of conflict. We will consider how states project desired images and how observers interpret those images. We will examine prospect theory, which proposes that people view risk differently depending on whether they are in a domain of gain or of loss. We will also address the importance of “justice” and “prestige” in international politics. After the exam, we will focus more generally on beliefs (including beliefs that seem to most of us quite strange). We will read the first five chapters of Dower’s book on race and power in World War II, as well as a chapter from Goldhagen’s book on the Holocaust that explores German beliefs. We will finish this section with an article on race and threat perception. We will continue with beliefs, though of a very different kind. Yuen Khong’s book examines how analogies influence what people believe and the policies they support. He applies his argument to the Vietnam War. The course concludes with an examination of the intelligence failures prior to the Iraq War.


Required Reading

John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986).


Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton, 1992).


William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (any edition).


New York Times (or another national newspaper).


All other readings are available from canvass, https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/1025603



            *class participation and reading presentation (15%)

            *two exams (25% each)

            *two research proposals and a research paper of 3,000-3,500 words (35%)


No make-up exams unless: 1) the student receives the instructor’s permission before the date of the exam, or 2) the student provides a written excuse from a physician for having missed an exam. Paper due no later than 10am on Monday 13 March (slip under my office door. Papers will lose .2 points each day late (a 4.0 becomes a 3.8).



  1. Wednesday 4 January: Deterrence

            Schelling, Arms and Influence, pp. 1-11, 92-109, 116-125.

                        **see the posted reading questions


  1. Monday 9 January: Spiral vs. Deterrence

Robert Jervis, “Deterrence, the spiral model, and intentions of the adversary,” Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, 1976), pp. 58-94.


  1. Wednesday 11 January: Signals

Robert Jervis, “Signaling and perception: drawing inferences and projecting images,” Political Psychology ed. Kristen R. Monroe (London, 2002): 293-312.


Monday 16 January Holiday (MLK Day)


  1. Wednesday 18 January: Prospect Theory

Jonathan Mercer, “Prospect theory and political science,” Annual Review of Political Science (2005). Read pp. 1-4, 11-18.


Rose McDermott, “The Iranian hostage rescue mission,” in Risk Taking in International Politics (Michigan, 1998), pp. 45-75.


  1. Monday 23 January: Motivated Biases and Justice

Richard Ned Lebow, “Miscalculation in the South Atlantic: The origins of the Falklands War,” Psychology and Deterrence (Johns Hopkins, 1985), pp. 89-124.


David Welch, “The justice motive and war,” and “The Falklands/Malvinas War,” Justice and the Genesis of War (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 1993), pp. 18-32, 155-185.


  1. Wednesday 25 January: Status

Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, “Status seekers: Chinese and Russian responses to U.S. primacy,” International Security 34/4 (Spring 2010), pp. 63-95.


  1. Monday 30 January: Exam (Meet in polisci dept’s computer lab, Smith #220)


  1. Wednesday 1 February: Beliefs

Robert Jervis, “Understanding beliefs,” Political Psychology 27/5 (2006).


Susan Clancy, Abducted: How people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens (Harvard 2005): 30-80.


  1. Class Cancelled: Monday 6 February:


Please e-mail (by end of day) your 100-200 word paper proposal to your group and me. Please make it a Word document (no pdfs).


  1. Wednesday 8 February: Small Group Meetings


  1. Monday 13 February: Beliefs and Genocide

            Daniel Goldhagen, “Explaining the perpetrators’ actions: assessing the competing                                          explanations,” Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf, 1996), pp. 375-415.


  1. Wednesday 15 February: Racist Beliefs

John W. Dower. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (NY: Pantheon, 1986). Read chapters 1-5 (pp. 3-117).


Stephen King, “Second forward,” and “Toolbox,” excerpts from On Writing (Scribner, 2000), pp. 11, 111-137.


Proposals due no later than Sunday 19 February.


{cut: Racist Beliefs

Zoltan Búzás, “The Color of Threat: Race, Threat Perception, and the demise of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1923),” Security Studies (2013): 573-606.



Monday 20 February: Holiday (President’s Day)


  1. Wednesday 22 February: Small group meetings


  1. and 15. Monday 27 February, Wednesday 1 March: Analogies and Beliefs

            Monday: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War (Princeton, 1992), pp. 3-96.


Wednesday: Khong, Analogies at War, pp. 97-173.


  1. Monday 6 March: Intelligence

Robert Jervis, "Reports, politics, and intelligence failures: The case of Iraq." Journal of Strategic Studies 29/1 (2006): 3-52.


  1. Wednesday 8 March: Exam in computer lab, Smith 220


Final paper due 10am Monday 13 March (slip under my office door and email me copy).



425 Research Paper


The final paper should be between 3,000 and 3,500 words (about 250 words on a page). Please put a word count on the first page. Papers will lose .2 points for each day late. Get your paper to me early (by Saturday 11 March) then no hard copy is necessary.


A proposal before each small group meeting

  1. Monday 6 February: 100-200 word proposal due, email to your group and me. Word doc only.

                        Wednesday 8 February, first small group meeting.


  1. Sunday 19 February: 250-300 words proposal due.

                        Wednesday 22 February, second small group meeting


The second proposal must address four issues (the first proposal, address as many as you can):

  1. First, what is your puzzle and what is your empirical case?
  2. Second, what are you arguing and what are you arguing against?
  3. Third, what is your theoretical approach: are you relying on misperceptions (cognitive, motivated, both), the influence of the justice motive, problems/successes of signaling, some aspect of prospect theory, the role of prestige, analogies, race?
  4. Fourth, discuss briefly the evidence you have found so far. Include at least five library sources.


Paper Topics: You can write on any security topic that also addresses a theoretical issue discussed in class. Do not pick empirical cases that overlap with assigned readings. Here are some ideas:


*Explain why deterrence failed/worked (pick a historical case)

*Pick a case and apply “deterrence” and “spiral” models.

*What happens to a country’s (leader’s/party’s?) reputation with other states after a victory/defeat?

*Assess a crisis or war from different levels of analysis: which is best at explaining what?

*Does everyone view the same signal similarly? Examine a signal and how others interpreted it.

*Use a historical case to examine the importance of misperceptions.

*How important is the justice motive compared to other motives in a specific case?

*Use prospect theory to help figure out when to use threats or promises in a conflict.

*Test prospect theory against a historical case.

*How important is prestige to explaining nuclear proliferation, battleships, the space race, colonialism?

*Does prestige exist in international politics? Show that it does/doesn’t.

*When are beliefs powerful/autonomous, rather than driven by the situation?

*Use a historical case to examine how a policy-maker responded to new information: update/assimilate?

*How important has racism been historically (or today) to explaining foreign policy? How would you know?

*Does perception of threat correlate with perceived racial difference? Use a historical case.

*Does Khong oversell analogies? Examine their role in a specific case.

*Pull out a few Jervis observations on intel failure and test them against a historical case.


Need help with the research? See http://guides.lib.washington.edu/polisci. Or, make an appointment to see Emily Keller, Political Science and Public Affairs Librarian, University of Washington Libraries emkeller@u.washington.edu


Style counts. Even a skilled writer can benefit by reading, or re-reading, William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style (or Steven King’s On Writing)


The paper should be 1.5 spaced with a 12 pt. font, and use Chicago Style for citations (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.htmlfootnotes). Be careful not to plagiarize. Students who plagiarize risk having the College Disciplinary Committee put them on academic probation and will receive a zero for the assignment. If you are uncertain about the meaning of plagiarism and how to avoid it, consult the Political Science Writing Center http://depts.washington.edu/pswrite/plag.html as well as the resources available on the UW website https://depts.washington.edu/pswrite/plag.html



Catalog Description: 
Explores how political scientists use psychology to address questions of war and peace.
Department Requirements: 
International Relations Field
International Security Option
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
January 10, 2018 - 9:32pm