Robert Jervis: Hypotheses on Misperception
An actor has to try to predict how others will act and how their actions will affect his
values in determining how he will act.
Theories -> Necessary and Dangerous
Hypothesis 1: Actors tend to perceive what they expect. A theory will
have greater impact on an actor’s interpretation of data the greater the
ambiguity of the data and the higher the degree of confidence with which
the actor holds the theory
Hypothesis 2: Actors tend to establish their theories and expectations
prematurely – often necessary given the need for action in politics.
Evidence is usually always ambiguous since accurate clues to others’
intentions are surrounded by noise and deception.
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 all comes at
Safeguards – able to minimize error in their inferences
1)decision makers should be aware they don’t make unbiased
interpretations of each new bit of incoming information, but instead are
influenced by the theories they expect to be verified; *Many events
provide less independent support fo the decision maker’s images than
they may at first realize.
2) Should see if their attitudes contain consistent or supporting beliefs
that are not logically linked. Eg. Most people who think it’s important for
the US to win the Vietnam war also believe that a meaningful victory is
possible. Most people who feel defeat wouldn’t endanger US national
security or be costly in terms of other values feel we can’t win
3) Make assumptions, beliefs and predictions that follow as explicit as
4) 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) Decision makers should realize the validity and implications of the
argument that “a willingness to play with material from different angles
and in the contest of unpopular as well as popular hypotheses is an
essential ingredient of a good detective, whether the end is the solution
of a crime or an intelligence estimate.
Sources of concepts: An actor’s perceptual thresholds are very much influenced by
what he has experienced and learned about. If an actor wants to place information
into a certain category it would seem evident that he would have had to off learned
about that category in the first place. Measuring the level of presence or absence of categories:
1) Missing: The actors cognitive structure may not include anything
corresponding to the phenomenon he is encountering this continues to be the
case in a world of constant rapid change.
2) Presence of a concept to which the actor believes has no relevance: A good
example is of how communists think of democracies and how democracies
think of communist countries and governments
3) Actor holds the concept but believes the other actor doesn't fill it: A good
example is the British and French fighting over what to do with Germany after
World War 1.The French came down the hardest on the Germans, ut how
could they think the world is titled to Napoleon's but not Hitler's this is very
Misperception is most difficult to correct in the case of a missing concept and least
difficult to correct in the case of a recognized but presumably unfilled concept.
- An actors belief about his own domestic policy is always extremely
important. Sometimes being tied down to a frame of ideology can really have
an effect on your policy towards foreign affairs.
For example, during World War 1, the United States could not
understand the bitterness of European countries towards one
Secondly the interpretation of concepts will be supplied by the actors
For example, it has been said that Chamberlain was slow to recognize
Hitler's intentions partly because of the limiting nature of his personal
background and business experiences.
Another good example is that a higher percentage of anti-appeasers
had the kind of knowledge that comes from close acquaintance (mostly
professional) with foreign affairs. In an experiment, pictures were shown
to both veteran police officers and new police officers (more aggression
was interpreted in the faces of the people in the pictures by veteran
police officers who had been more heavily trained).
A third concept is the importance of international history. As Henry
Kissinger points out, historical traumas can heavily influence future
A states pr