Risk Taking and Decisionmaking: Foreign Military Intervention Decisions

Risk Taking and Decisionmaking: Foreign Military Intervention Decisions

Risk Taking and Decisionmaking: Foreign Military Intervention Decisions

Risk Taking and Decisionmaking: Foreign Military Intervention Decisions


Risks are an integral part of complex, high-stakes decisions, and decisionmakers are faced with the unavoidable tasks of assessing risks and forming risk preferences. This is true for all decision domains, including financial, environmental, and foreign policy domains, among others. How well decisionmakers deal with risk affects, to a considerable extent, the quality of their decisions. This book provides the most comprehensive analysis available of the elements that influence risk judgments and preferences.

The book has two dimensions: theoretical and comparative-historical. The study of risk-taking behavior has been dominated by the rational choice approach. Instead, the author adopts a socio-cognitive approach involving: a multivariate theory integrating contextual, cognitive, motivational, and personality factors that affect an individual decisionmaker's judgment and preferences; the social interaction and structural effects of the decisionmaking group and its organizational setting; and the role of cultural-societal values and norms that sanction or discourage risk-taking behavior.

The book's theoretical approach is applied and tested in five historical case studies of foreign military interventions. The richly detailed empirical data in the case studies make them, metaphorically speaking, an ideal laboratory for applying a process-tracing approach in studying judgment and decision processes at varying risk levels. The case studies analyzed are: U.S. interventions in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 (both low risk); Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (moderate risk); U.S. intervention in Vietnam in 1964-68 (high risk); and Israel's intervention in Lebanon in1982-83 (high risk).


A few years ago an advertisement for Bankers Trust caught my attention. It warned: "Risk. You have to look at it even when you don't want to." I thought then, as I do now, that as obvious and banal as this advice was, decisionmakers, even astute ones, too often neglect to follow it. Decisionmakers, confronted with complex high-stakes problems, are faced with the tyranny of resultant risks, which are often difficult to identify and define with precision or anticipate with certainty. They find that the combined impacts of these objective difficulties in accurately perceiving and assessing potential risks, as well as the prospects of grave consequences from risky choices, make coping with risk a daunting task that they would rather avoid. Yet there is no escape. Coming to terms with and coping with risks are unavoidable features of effective decisionmaking and policy formulation.

Risk is a generic problem in human affairs, and viewed strategically, the manner of coping with it is for the most part not domain specific but generalized across domains and issue-areas. Responses to risk are driven primarily not by the content of the problem (e.g., whether it is a problem concerning international security, a health hazard, financial investments) but by its structural attributes (e.g., the level of complexity, the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, the time horizon for gains and losses) and the personal and social attributes of the decisionmakers (e.g., personality, group structure). Risk-taking behavior thus varies mainly as a function of changes in the defining attributes of the problem and the decisionmakers and relatively marginally with problem-domain changes. Because the essence of the risk problematique is shared across different decision domains, the study of risk and risk-taking behavior is, by implication, a field in which scholars from different disciplines should find common ground, share findings, and aim for cross- disciplinary fertilization through interdisciplinary research. At the same time, the high salience and policy relevance of the study of risk should provide an . . .

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