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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Suboptimal Human Rights Decisionmaking

In a forthcoming paper, I explore ways in which human rights violations may result from suboptimal decisionmaking rather than utility-maximizing conduct by state leaders.  Most strategies to influence the human rights practices of a country involve efforts to alter its expected utility calculation, either by introducing material incentives so that compliance is more attractive or by changing underlying preferences so that human rights concerns are seen as more intrinsically valuable.  These are known in the literature as coercion and persuasion respectively.  Drawing on social science research that demonstrates how individuals often fail to maximize their expected utility, my paper argues that at least some human rights violations likely result from such suboptimal decisionmaking.  And if that is correct, then the human rights community may be missing out on opportunities to improve compliance that do not require altering a state’s expected utility calculation through coercion or persuasion, but instead work within a state’s existing incentive structure.

For this blog post, I thought I’d describe the three specific causes of suboptimal decisionmaking that I discuss in the paper and invite suggestions on other lines of research to explore.  As I discuss in the paper, there are methodological obstacles to applying behavioral research, which is generally based on studies of individuals in laboratories, to real-world state conduct, which involves decisionmaking by groups consisting of experienced elites who might not make the same mistakes that participants in artificial experiments do.  I chose the three causes of suboptimality that I did in part because there is a substantial international relations literature that has already attempted to make that translation, and in part because they seemed likely to contribute to the types of flawed decisions that would result in human rights violations.  But of course the behavioral literature is quite vast, and I may have missed some other promising avenue.

The first cognitive bias I discuss is loss aversion, and in particular the prediction that people who are operating in the realm of losses will engage in risky behavior in the hopes of obtaining an unlikely gain.  Many human rights violations arise from acts of desperation by state leaders who are under severe threat.  For example, leaders of an authoritarian regime facing domestic uprisings may take bold steps to reassert their power, resulting in brutal crackdowns.  Or a country that has recently experienced attacks by terrorists or rebel forces may take drastic measures to restore security, leading to widespread infringement upon individual liberties.  Risk taking can also be a rational course of action, and it will often be difficult from the outside to figure out whether loss aversion is at work in a particular situation.  But it is nonetheless valuable to recognize the possibility of loss aversion because it may call for different strategies for improving compliance.

The second bias I discuss is overconfidence, which is the tendency people have to make overly optimistic assessments of their abilities and prospects for success.  Overconfidence could contribute to suboptimal human rights decisionmaking at various stages in the process.  For example, at the planning stage, state leaders may consciously choose to violate a human rights norm, believing with overoptimism that the righteousness of their conduct will be recognized by the international community while failing to anticipate a costly backlash.  Likewise, at the operational level or implementation stage, state leaders may be overconfident in their assessment of the resources needed to meet human rights standards and thus fail to comply even when they intended to do so. 

Emotion-based reasoning, the third line of research I discuss, is not a bias per se, but it does produce distortions that undoubtedly lead to some suboptimal decisions.  The research on the role of emotions in decisionmaking has many facets, but one specific idea discussed by political scientist Stephen Peter Rosen is that human beings view situations through the lens of particular patterns that were formed during emotionally resonant past experiences.  This phenomenon may help to explain human rights violations that take place in the course of longstanding conflicts between religious or ethnic groups.  Leaders of a regime that has had a history of clashes with a particular minority group will view new conflicts through the lens of that history, and thus be prone to adopt more repressive policies than a more rational assessment would produce.

That is a very abbreviated sketch, but I hope the basic connection between the various causes of suboptimality and human rights violations seems plausible.  I do not argue in the paper that all or even most human rights violations result from suboptimal decisionmaking, but instead merely highlight the possibility as an alternative to exclusively rational explanations.  The paper then goes on to explore strategies that the human rights community could adopt in response, with the goal of supplementing rather than replacing coercion and persuasion.  In short, since coercion is costly and persuasion often takes a long time, there may be missed opportunities to make more immediate gains in compliance by addressing the causes of suboptimal decisionmaking and thereby clearing the way for states to comply when it is already in their interest to do so.

Posted by Richard Chen on September 25, 2014 at 11:54 AM in International Law | Permalink

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