POL S 425 A: Political Psychology and War

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
MEB 102
Jonathan Mercer

Syllabus Description:

Syllabus here

Assigned readings here

Presentation schedule here


Political Psychology and War (Spring 2019)


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

spring 2019                                                      Office hours, Gowen 135: Monday 3:30-5:30

M, W: 1:30-3:20 in MEB 102                           Course webpage here


This seminar explores how political scientists use psychology to address questions of war and peace. The first half will focus on deterrence and psychology. I’ll introduce the course with a brief discussion of Michael Lewis's book on Kahneman and Tversky (K&T). We’ll then turn to Jervis’s classic discussion of deterrence and an unintended consequence, the spiral model. Then back to Lewis, which will provide background for understanding K&T’s classic 1974 article, which we’ll follow with Jervis’s discussion of signaling (crucial to deterrence). We’ll then discuss prospect theory, for which K&T won a Nobel prize, and apply it to President Carter’s Iran hostage rescue mission in 1980. The next two classes will focus on cognitive and motivated biases in deterrence, the role of justice, with competing explanations of the Falklands/Malvinas War. The final class before the midterm considers how emotion and justice influences collective action.

            The second part of the course will address more general security issues. We’ll start off thinking about “beliefs,” and then examine social identity theory (SIT) and is application to status. We then turn to the role analogies (and some of T&K’s biases) might play in decision-making, and then detail how racism (and SIT) might influences alliances and war. The next class examine rumors, riots, and genocide. It seems race and rumors are often partners in crime. The final class addresses choice, beliefs, genocide and the psychology of altruism.


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).

Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project (Norton, 2017)

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

New York Times (or another national newspaper), subscription info here

All other readings are available on Canvas.



            *class participation and reading presentations (15%)

            *two exams (25% each)

            *two research proposals and a research paper of 2,500 - 3,000 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 in my email inbox (and upload to course webpage) no later than 10 June 4pm (and a hard copy slipped under my office door anytime on 11 June). Papers will lose .2 points each day late (a 4.0 becomes a 3.8).

I’m prohibiting the use of laptops and phones in this seminar. Laptops kill student participation and students who take notes long-hand perform better than those who rely on laptops.


1. Monday 1 April. Introduction.

Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project (Norton, 2017), pp. 15-51.


2. Wednesday 3 April. Deterrence Theory and Spiral Model

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


3. Monday 8 April. Heuristics and Biases

Lewis, The Undoing Project, pp. 142-237.

Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases,” Science 185/4157 (1974): 1124-31.


4. Wednesday 10 April. Signals

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


5. Monday 15 April. Prospect theory

Lewis, The Undoing Project, pp. 238-290.

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


6. Wednesday 17 April. Attribution Theory, Deterrence, Motivated Bias

Robert Jervis, “Introduction: Approach and Assumptions,” and “Perceiving and Coping with Threat,” in Psychology and Deterrence, edited by Jervis, Lebow, Stein (Johns Hopkins, 1985), pp. 1-33.

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


7. Monday 22 April. Justice and Deterrence: The Falklands/Malvinas War

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


8. Wednesday 24 April. Injustice, Collective Action, and Emotion

Wendy Pearlman, “Emotions and the Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings,” Perspectives on Politics 11/2 (June 2013): 387-409.


9. Monday 29 April Exam. Meet in polisci dept’s computer lab, Smith #220.


10. Wednesday 1 May. Aliens and Beliefs

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

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


11. Monday 6 May. Social Identity and Status

Mercer, “Anarchy and Identity,” IO 1995. Read only the section on social identity theory, pp. 237-243.

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.

Email your 100-200 word proposal to your group. Single space and in Word. One page. Due 6am Tuesday.


12. Wednesday 8 May Research paper.

 First small group meetings.


13. Monday 13 May. Analogies

Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War (Princeton, 1992), pp. Chapters 2, 5, 6, pp.19-46, 97-173.


14. Wednesday 15 May Analogies and Race

Continue discussion of Khong, chapter 6.

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


15. Monday 20 May. Race and War

John W. Dower.  War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (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.

Email your 250-350 word proposal to your group by Tuesday 5am.


16. Wednesday 22 May. Research paper

Second small group meetings


Monday 27 May. Holiday. Memorial Day


17. Wednesday 29 May. Rumors, Riots, and Genocide

Kelly Greenhill and Ben Oppenheim, “Rumor has it: The adoption of unverified information in conflict zones,” International Studies Quarterly (October 2017): 1-17.

Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, “Where Facebook rumors fuel thirst for revenge,” NYT (22 April 2018). Posted on canvas and here.

Paul Mozur, “A genocide incited on Facebook, with posts from Myanmar’s military,” NYT (15 October 2018). Posted on canvas and here


18. Monday 3 June. Genocide and Altruism

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

Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice,” PS: Political Science and Politics (July 2011): 503-507.


19. Wednesday 5 June. Exam.

Meet in polisci dept’s computer lab, Smith #220.

Final paper due MONDAY 10 June 4pm.

Email me a copy, upload copy to the course webpage, and slide a hard copy under my office door.


425 Research Paper

 The final paper should be between 2,500 and 3,000 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. It is due 10 June 4pm.

A proposal before each small group meeting. Keep to one page. Must be in Word.

  1. May 6: 100-200 word email proposal to your group (and me) by midnight.
  2. May 20: 250-350 word email proposal to your group (and me) by midnight.


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 spiral model), the influence of the justice motive, problems/successes of signaling, prospect theory, the role of prestige, analogies, race?
  4. Fourth, briefly discuss 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).

*Examine a case where an attempt at deterrence might have caused a war (spiral model).

*Or, where fear of a spiral led to a failure of deterrence.

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

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

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

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

*How well does prospect theory explain risk acceptance/aversion in a specific case?

*Use trust, credibility, or justice to examine an event.

*Which explanation for the importance of rumor or fake news is best in a particular case?

*Use social identity theory to assess the importance of status in international politics.

*Use SIT to examine the influence racism might have on an alliance or in a war.

*How important is racism in explaining behavior during a war or in a trade dispute?

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

*Read ahead and examine the role analogies play in a specific case, or consider if the intel mistakes Jervis identifies apply in other cases.


Need help with how to conduct research, go here. Or, make an appointment with your new best friend, the amazing Emily Keller, Political Science and Public Affairs Librarian, University of Washington Libraries emkeller@uw.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. Some of you might be interested in using Zotero. The University has a license agreement with Vericite, an educational tool that helps identify plagiarism. You will submit your research paper through this service. The Vericite Report indicates the amount of original text in your work and whether all material that you quoted, paraphrased, summarized, or used from another source is appropriately referenced. Be careful not to plagiarize. If you are uncertain about the meaning of plagiarism and how to avoid it, consult the Political Science Writing Center as well as the resources available on the UW website.



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: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:08pm