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Jervis: Hypotheses on misperception

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Jervis. 1968. Hypotheses on misperception. World Politics 20 (April): 454-79.

In Brief

Jervis challenges the rational-choice view of international relations by arguing that misperception can undermine the real-world accuracy of game theoretic models.


Hypothesis 1: "Decision-makers tend to fit incoming information into their existing theories and images."

Hypothesis 2: There are two ways to make mistakes: One is to not change your views in the face of conflicting information, the other is to be too willing to do so. Both scholars and decision-makes are more likely to do the first (not to change their views).

Hypothesis 3: It's easier to integrate contradicting information into your image if it comes bit-by-bit than if it comes all at once. So deliver it all at once, as a fully-formed competing theory that must be reckoned with.

Hypothesis 4: Misperception is easiest to correct if an actor is miscategorized (but the category exists in your head) (e.g. Britain was aware of the category of expansionist states, but it didn't think Hitler belonged in it); it is hardest to correct if your mind completely lacks a certain category (e.g. China in the 19th century didn't know what to make of the West)

Hypothesis 5: If the sender (of a message) has something different on his mind (the "evoked set") than the receiver does, misunderstanding is likely.

Hypothesis 6: The more time I spend drawing up a plan, the more clear it is to me. So I will assume it is equally clear to you, making misperception on your part even more likely.

Hypothesis 7: An action may convey an unintended message if the action itself doesn't turn out as planned.

Hypotheses about Perception

Hypothesis 8: Decision-makers tend to see other states as more hostile than they are.

Hypothesis 9: We tend to assume that the behavior of others is more centralized and coordinated than it is (related to hyp. 7).

Hypothesis 10: Similarly, we tend to take the foreign ministry's position as representative of the government as a whole.

Hypothesis 11: When states do something w like, we give ourselves too much credit for getting them to do so; when states do something we don't like, we attribute it mostly to internal (domestic) forces.

Hypothesis 12: When I don't try to conceal my intentions, I assume that you accurately perceive them.

Hypothesis 13 "Suggests that 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.

Hypothesis 14: We tend to forget that a single bit of evidence might support more than one view, including opposing views. See also Allison on this point.

Research by the same authors

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Jervis, Robert (author)International RelationsPerceptionInformationRational ChoicePreferences

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