Robert Jervis, “Hypotheses on Misperception,” World Politics 20, 3 (April 1968), pp. 454-79.
Hypotheses: 1) Decision-makers tend to fit data into existing theories and images. 2) A theory will have greater impact on an actor's interpretation of information the greater the ambiguity of the data and the higher the degree of confidence with which the actor holds the theory.
An event is more apt to shape present perceptions if it occurred in the recent rather than the remote past. Information that supports a hypothesis could equally likely support a different hypothesis.
Extended summary by Elisabetta
Hypotheses on Misperception, Robert Jervis
World Politic s, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Apr., 1968), pp. 454-479
Main point: According to Jervis in determining how he will behave, an actor must develop an image of others and of their intensions. But, the actor may, for a number of reasons, misperceive both others' actions and their intentions. Jervis, then discusses the types of misperceptions of other states' intentions wich states tend to
make. Defining intension : the ways in which the state feels it will act in a wide range of future contingencies.
Background: Student of I.R. Have generally ignored the topic of misperception. One group of theorists that have studied misperception in I.R like C.Osgood, A. Etzioni, Kenneth Boulding, J.D. Singer have interpreted the cold war in terms of spiral of misperception. This approach combines the mathematical theories of L.F.Richardson and some findings of social and cognitive psychology. But, what they don't provide enough historical evidence for their theories. Furthermore their theoretical analysis is of reduced value because it seems to be a product of their assumption that the Soviet Union is a basically status-quo power whose apparently aggressive behavior is a product of fear of the West. Little or no evidence to support this view.
Jervis identifies 14 Hypothesis of misperception:
Theory vs. Data (the belief-fact gap)
Decision-makers tend to fit incoming information into their existing theories and images. A theory will have greater impact on an actor's interpretation of data (a) the greater the ambiguity of the data, and (b) the higher the degree of confidence with which the actor holds the theory.
Theory vs. Theory (belief-new idea gap)
Scholars and decision-makers are apt to err by being too wedded to the established view and too closed to new information, as opposed to being too willing to alter their theories.
Data vs. Data (spoon-feed new information)
Actors can more easily assimilate into their established image of another actor information contradicting that image if the information is transmitted and considered bit by bit rather than all at once.
Theory vs. No Theory (you need the concept to register the fact)
Misperception is most difficult in the case of a missing concept and least difficult in the case of a recognized but presumably unfilled concept.
Goals vs. Data
When messages are sent from a different background of concerns and information than is possessed by the receiver, misunderstanding is likely.
When people spend a great deal of time drawing up a plan or making a decision, they tend to think that the message about it they wish to convey will be clear to the receiver.
Actors often do not realize that actions intended to project a given image may not have the desired effect because the actions themselves do not turn out as planned.
There is an overall tendency for decision-makers to see other states as more hostile than they are. (480)
Actors tend to see the behavior of others as more centralized, disciplined, and coordinated than they are.
Because a state gets most of its information about the other state's policies from the other's foreign office, it tends to take the foreign office's position for the stand of the government as a whole.
Actors tend to overestimate the degree to which others are acting in response to what they themselves do when the others behave in accordance with the actor's desires; but when the behavior of the other is undesired, it is usually seen as derived from internal forces. If the effect of another's action is to injure or threaten the first side, the first side is apt to believe that such was the other's purpose. (482)
When actors have intentions that they do not try to conceal from others, they tend to assume that others accurately perceive these intentions. Only rarely do they believe that others may be reacting to a much less favorable image of themselves than they think they are projecting. (482)
If it is hard for an actor to believe that the other can see him as a menace, it is often even harder for him to see that issues important to him are not important to others. While he may know that another actor is on an opposing team, it may be more difficult for him to realize that the other is playing an entirely different game. This is especially true when the game he is playing seems vital to him. (483)
Actors tend to overlook the fact that evidence consistent with their theories may also be consistent with other views.(483)
Safeguards to minimize errors:
Jervish provide with five Safeguards intended to avoid Misperception or minimize errors:
1. Decision-makers should be aware that they do not make "unbiased" interpretations of each new bit of incoming information, but rather are inevitably heavily influenced by the theories they expect to be verified;
2. Second, decision-makers should see if their attitudes contain consistent or supporting beliefs that are not logically linked (example, most people who feel that it is important for the United States to win the war in Vietnam also feel that a meaningful victory is possible);
P.S : Decision-makers should also be aware that actors who suddenly find themselves having an important shared interest with other actors have a tendency to overestimate the degree of common interest involved. This tendency is especially strong for those actors (e.g., the United States, at least before 1950) whose beliefs about international relations and morality imply that they can cooperate only with "good" states and that with those states there will be no major conflict.
3. A third safeguard for decision-makers would be to make their assumptions, beliefs, and the predictions that follow from them as explicit as possible;
4. The decision-maker should try to prevent individuals and organizations from letting their main task, political future, and identity become tied to specific theories and images of other actors;
5. The decision-maker, in other words, should have devil's advocates around because he will want to ensure that incoming information is examined from many different perspectives with many different hypotheses in mind;
Of course all these safeguards involve costs. They would divert resources from other tasks and would increase internal dissension. Determining whether these costs would be worth the gains would depend on a detailed analysis of how the suggested safeguards might be implemented. Even if they were adopted by a government, of course, they would not eliminate the chance of misperception. However, the safeguards would make it more likely that national decision-makers would make conscious choices about the way data were interpreted rather than merely assuming that they can be seen in only one way and can mean only one thing.
These safeguards are partly based on Hypothesis 3: actors can more easily assimilate into their established image of another actor information contradicting that image if the information is transmitted and considered bit by bit than if it comes all at once. When the information arrives in a block, the contradiction between it and the prevailing view is apt to be much clearer and the probability of major cognitive reorganization will be higher.
Sources of Concepts:
An actor's perceptual thresholds are influenced by what he has experienced and learned about.
Three level at which concept can be present or absent:
1. The concept can be completely missing (ex. China's image of the Western world extremely inaccurate in the mid-nineteenth century);
2. The actor can know about a concept but not believe that it reflects an actual phenomenon;
3. The actor may hold a concept, but not believe that another actor fills it at the present moment (ex. the British and French statesmen of the I930's held a concept of states with unlimited ambitions. They realized that Napoleons were possible, but they did not think Hitler belonged in that category);
We should be careful lest we forget that a piece of information seems in many cases to confirm a certain hypothesis only because we already believe that hypothesis to be correct and that the information can with as much validity support a different hypothesis.