“Ah, it is easy to deceive me! I long to be deceived myself!” — thus famously ends one of Alexander Pushkin’s poems entitled “Confession”. A lot is being said today about the negative consequences of forced positivity as well as the effect that the excessive advertising has on our psychological well-being. Gender studies specialists point to the disruptive influence of unrealistic expectations of both women and men perpetuated by the media and society at large. For some reason though, foreign policy research, along with the scholarly work on public diplomacy — a field more readily associated with public outreach — rarely find themselves integrating findings from psychology; social, group subdiscipline of the latter all the less so.
Truth be told, the explanation seems to be obvious. Foreign policy making remains an exclusive, if not elitist, and not necessarily very transparent domain. On top of that, we still primarily associate it with the classic European tradition of diplomacy, wherein the grandmasters such as Metternich, Talleyrand, Richelieu and Bismarck almost single-handedly formulate and execute the chess game moves allegedly beneficial to their respective states. This hardly comes as a surprise: one of if not inherent then certainly currently observed features of democracies is the abundance of apolitical, uninformed or ill-informed citizens whose political activity or lack thereof directly impact the nature of the government. Given the high stakes involved in what is known as the high politics, providing for a separate set of procedures appears justifiable on both rational and irrational grounds: after all, the very essence of the social contract lies with the state ensuring security of its subjects.
Let us now take a closer look at the concept of consistency. We rightfully expect the politician of our choice to deliver on the promises made during the campaign. Or else, we like his or her personality to the point where our emotional predisposition makes us likely to consider this person’s failures as non-critical for re-election. One can think of a number of cognitive biases helpful in explaining this deviation from presumed (now we know: bounded) rationality; to name just two, subjective validation and halo effect are at play. But then, whenever this figure crosses the threshold of our approval, and this often comes in the form of not fulfilling some of the points we prioritized when casting our votes or even ruining our pre-existing image of oneself completely, he or she may well give up on a career of a politician.
Whether this pattern brings us closer to living in a more prosperous country might not be the question that is normally asked; however, neither is denying globalization of humanity’s challenges an option to consider. What is more, an act of taking a person off the political scene and refusing him or her the professional and otherwise future because of a stain on the reputation is frequently driven by the accusers’ own fears or self-interest. It is yet to be explicitly stated, with all the grassroots talk of mental health, what Monica Lewinsky and many others like her really did suffer for. Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony can be further generalized to account for the desire to preserve a given state of affairs by attaching moral evaluations to one’s behavior; without being trained in psychology, it is still easy to acknowledge that guilt tripping is a powerful manipulative technique. Another supporting line of thought was developed by Carol Gilligan, an American psychologist who criticized Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development as biased against women. She found that only white men and boys participated in his experiments and also that Kohlberg clearly saw the consideration of individual rights and rules as more important compared to the consideration of care in human relationships. Further research revealed that in competitive contexts, despite men being prone to reason from a justice rather than ethic-of-care perspective, they demonstrate lower moral standards than do women. This observation might be of an utmost significance to those engaged in social and political theorizing; what is left out of the picture is more telling than what serves to confirm a theory. Theories have the property of affecting us deeply since our mind is programmed to adopt shortcuts to navigate in a demanding environment; all the worse is the impact of those of them that gain broad recognition in spite of, or owing to the biases they are built on.
To add fuel to the fire, premature disappointment with a public figure is hardly a smart measure in the pursuit of one’s political aspirations. The person in question might be a real fighter and a quick learner, yet in no social interaction, and especially not within the complex interrelated governmental systems can one act in complete independence. Before blaming the culture of instant gratification for this tendency in people’s behavior — although undoubtedly invigorated by the former — let us refer to the collection of cognitive biases once again. Here we find the fundamental attribution error, categorized as one of the common distortions emanating from the need to act fast. Humans are inclined to assume that what people do reflects who they are; except when judging ourselves, we assign a greater importance to the external factors.
Every peculiarity of the thinking process had at some point its adaptive value, otherwise it would not have developed. The modern civilization, while taking enormous pride in the achievements of the rational mind, is no better prepared for a drastic revision of its founding principles, however outdated they might be, than any of its precursors. At the heart of liberalism lies the conviction that human beings are selfish by nature whereas proponents of anarchism assert that people are born equal; they bear neither merit nor guilt for their innate differences and are capable of interacting harmoniously without setting up a hierarchy. As the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observes, people today are fearful of public gatherings and joint decision-making; anarchic society, on the contrary, demands that the individual be active, open to dialogue and uninterested in handing over to the state or any superior group of people responsibility for managing one’s own life. What stands behind our willingness to be dependent on a state, is it not conformity or status quo bias? Have we not, in fact, had enough revolutions, or is it merely an ordinary ruling class rhetoric?
It is time to explore in greater detail just what exactly the above-mentioned rational and irrational justifications for singling out the foreign policy making are. The curtailed opportunities for popular control of and say in developing strategies and decisions applied in this public policy area is something often taken for granted or seen as historically inevitable. As Eric Alterman shows, the democratic deficit in the way the foreign policy of the US, a traditionally strong democracy, is being made is no recent phenomenon. He comes up with a proposal to set up a novel institution allowing for a more inclusive discussion, thereby tackling the root cause of the problematic situation — a tradition of institutional and, in particular, presidential secrecy in foreign affairs. This political reality precludes the enlightenment of the people, necessary for a healthy functioning of republic. Neither are the conditions for it created nor the incentives of the elites to proceed in that direction are formed.
The idea that a handful of specially trained people would do a better job of deciding on highly complicated issues than a larger group of non-specialists holds in most contexts. The content of the training and the organizational setup, however, are of crucial importance. Social institutions within which the reflective forms of information processing are encouraged effectively attenuate common biases. All too often, closed systems operating on rarely questioned principles — this is what many states’ foreign policy communities resemble — amplify cognitive biases by relying on shared misconceptions. When the price of making commitments is low; when there is no audience to judge one’s choices; when there is a high degree of certainty regarding one’s professional future, no motivation to think more flexibly and rigorously exists. Accountability pressures have to be introduced artificially. Additionally, experimental work indicates that the choice process taking place in the open and transparent settings is characterized by a reduced number of breakdowns in consistency on the part of decision-makers. Here is another reason to transform the conventional mechanisms of shaping the foreign policy — if only consistency is what we are striving for.
Coming back to the question of personal consistency in political leaders, let us now address the following question: since ensuring security is referred to as the most important function of the state and the competence unique to it, can a popular preference for the strong, confident and principled leaders be connected with the public understanding of security? A situation in which the people of the country vote for an authoritarian personality after having been through a period of tumultuous transition or war is well-known and can easily be described in psychological terms. Yet the right choice to make is frequently counterintuitive. In fact, if by consistency we mean sticking to the same set of values and beliefs all along as well as maintaining little to no gap between words and actions, then by putting it first, we basically deny a politician opportunity for personal growth. People would rather have it predictable than look out for someone who is capable of reassessing his or her past behavior, draw conclusions and change; someone whose approach is nuanced and adjustable. Both the US-led and the USSR-led camps during the Cold War rallied behind an unambiguous ideology and both, just as observed in the aforementioned studies on male morality in competitive contexts, committed horrible things while positioning themselves as firmly committed to the common good — only to preserve a holistic facade and come out a winner. The American approach towards proliferators of the weapons of mass destruction has the quality of placing every hostile to it authoritarian regime in the same box regardless of the motivations behind the pursuit of weapons — at the same time, treating proliferators friendly to the US much more leniently — and the following adoption of harsh measures with little attempt at negotiating. Possibly out of the experience of a highly consistent but criminal political regime, today’s Germany pays greater attention to specific circumstances of the proliferator and acts on the basis of the nature of the threat, if any, and the degree of urgency of prevention. On the other hand, its commercial interests prevailed on a number of controversial occasions in the past and it might be argued that the same is happening these days, too. These examples demonstrate just how typical is the connection between the exhibited and desired consistency and the quest for power. A psychological explanation for the proposed cases requires a reference to the need for closure, an urge to put an end to uncertainty, to find a clear answer to a disquieting question. In the words of Vladimir Bibikhin, a prominent Soviet-Russian philologist and philosopher, “..Unfortunately, nothing in humanity is as widespread, takes away as much energy and kills the mind as mercilessly as mending consciousness for fear of rupture. Supposedly in life there must be a “harmony” of consciousness. No, there should not, for this is death.”
Before moving on to the issue of application of marketing tools in public diplomacy, let me add another stroke to the psychological portrait of a person who chooses to outsource his or her security. Prospect theory, which was developed by Kanehman and Tversky in 1979, challenges the expected utility theory by positing, on the basis of empirical information, that people assess their gain and loss perspectives in an asymmetric manner. Not surprisingly, this approach is extensively applied to political decision-making, predominantly in matters relating to security. The statesmen trained to view the international arena as a realist-type environment of self-help and resenting certain historical occurrences are tempted to disregard the subjective well- being of the citizens they supposedly serve and work towards tilting the geopolitical balance. Their perception of a probability of success or failure in this endeavor has a decisive influence on whether an attempt to do so, and by what particular methods, will be undertaken. And so, because chances are — and as we learn from history, they are high — that the decision-makers under- or overestimate those probabilities, the nation is at great risk of suffering economic and otherwise hardship. Even if the venture turns out to be successful, availability bias — the tendency to overestimate the probability of events that come to mind easily — along with a long list of other cognitive distortions inevitably are here to plague every new cohort of politicians. Conversely, the population does not fancy any alternative institutional setup and regards conflicts as normalcy: people are either unaware of a larger socio-political context or live with implicit ideas of an established state of affairs, not recognizing that many of their private struggles result from a mode of societal functioning they take for granted. Yet beyond it there may lay a reality in which a discontinuation of outsourcing security brings about a more peaceful and prosperous world. Until then, we are destined to instinctively choose the leaders whose apparent resolve to prevail at all cost feels comforting and makes us believe that the entity meant to protect us will not disintegrate.
It may be objected that the role of the liberal norms in contemporary international community is such that hardly any state wholeheartedly believes and has a possibility to exercise Realpolitik. This statement does not stand up to criticism; to see that, it suffices to review the latest doctrines and policy proposals in the fields of security and defense issued by various states. The language being used and the total absence of references to any recent psychological discoveries that have the potential to alter our threat perceptions are indicative. The promise of nuclear disarmament enjoys little enthusiasm of possessor states. This traditional political actor has indeed lost much of its mandate in the last decades, but a number of states nevertheless pretend to be operating in an environment where the primary demands of their citizens are concentrated not around their own material and spiritual well-being but around an imaginary success of an imaginary community.
Political choice is optional, economic choices are inescapable. Marketing experts never tire to emphasize the importance of consistency in branding. A brand, just like a country, is both imagined and experienced. Companies seek to promote a clear picture of themselves, to become associated with certain values, to gain trust of potential customers. Money is a key resource people dispose of and exchange for what brings comfort and satisfaction. We choose from a great variety of options and quite naturally, every firm does its best to appeal to us and be preferred over others.
In doing so, it essentially cultivates its recognizable identity with a view to grab its share of customer attention and finance. Is market economy, especially when regulated loosely, not an example of a kind of self-help space similar to that pictured by the realist school of thought in international relations? Simon Anholt might regret having coined a term “nation brand”, but what happened to it is a timely reminder of how politics is about economic competition more than anything else.
The central problem is the same as outlined above: people’s interests, not necessarily expressed in economic terms but necessarily contradicting, are nowhere to be represented. As Naomi Klein brilliantly put it, “..Unlike strong brands, which are predictable and disciplined, democracy is messy and fractious, if not outright rebellious.” In other words, the task of self-presentation for a country is complicated by the fact that there is no such thing as an absolute consistency whereas dynamic objects evade clear-cut definitions. Governors are supposed to appreciate and act on the feedback from those affected by the measures they enact. When a country seeks to improve its image and feels pressed to present itself in a consistent manner, it is tempted to clamp down on some of the dissenting manifestations of itself, both domestic and external. However, this goal itself is questionable. Among Robert Jervis’ hypotheses on misperception there are some underlining human tendency to assume that others act in a more coordinated fashion than is the case. The foreign ministry is responsible for conveying the state’s official position, but it is only natural that the state institutions are incapable of keeping tabs on the moves of every agent associated with it. What makes this impossible should not be called the state’s weakness, for this term is misleading. Expanding state control will not only gain us a diminished discrepancy between what it claims to oversee and what it actually does, but will also come with all of the adverse effects of centralization. Instead, reinventing a state’s role would avert the need to correspond to an unlikely standard.
Psychological research does more than chronicle human cognitive imperfections. In actuality, it also uncovers the features of behavior that give hope for the positive change. It was shown that people dislike being instructed by infallible and overly smart leaders. Not only do you have to be an effective communicator — and this correlates with emotional intelligence stronger than it does with IQ — but you also have to, in order to gain public sympathy, be able to admit your shortcomings and thus give people a sense of being in the same boat rather than clearly standing out. An approach both human-oriented and strategic, said to be more congenial to women, wins over hearts and drives the business forward. If men are socialized to suppress their emotions to be able to concentrate on what is called the facts of life and fix the problems, we can now claim that this practice probably entails more negative repercussions than benefits. A caring, empathetic governing style is usually not welcome in the top political circles and especially not in those of the nation states aiming to project a coherent, uniform image. It is not the change per se that is a problem, but rather an adversarial mindset we are taught in our families and societies, often ageing and inherently conservative.
Man-made orders cannot but be flawed, if only because so are our ways of thinking. Order is created and maintained to ensure predictability and one’s freedom to be fulfilling one’s vision using captured resources over at least some period of time, always at the expense of somebody else’s freedom to do so. Hence, the question of whether inconsistency as a characteristic of an image projected outwards can induce desire to take possession of or grow closer to the given object, can be curiously rephrased. What kind of people and under what circumstances would find the lack of security, predictability and material wealth to be a positive, not a negative? This question makes me think of revolutionaries who are committed to an idea and brings to mind the unfortunate events of the Russian 20th century. Together with that, it reminds me of how high of a price in violence, stifled voices and, ultimately, underreported and unresolved problems is being paid in the name of the status quo. Knowing that social reality impacts immensely on the way we perceive and interpret things, one may well arrive at a thought that we have to learn to transition smoothly. Only then will a deep-entrenched association between the change and humiliation gradually retreat into the past, along with all the cognitive biases borne of fear of defeat and exclusion. And if today, triggering the erosion of this link still requires some risk, those who embark on this path regardless may draw some courage and inspiration from a proven fact — and prove it yet again — that people fall for honesty.