Strategy and Psychology in Foreign Policy

Module titleStrategy and Psychology in Foreign Policy
Module codePOL2086
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Catarina Thomson (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

This module will introduce you to two different approaches to understanding foreign policy. First you will learn the role psychological factors such as emotions, morality, and deciding under pressure play in foreign policy and international relations. You will also be exposed to key decision-making models. This module will then introduce you to rational choice theory and how it can be applied to understand international problems and conflicts.

This module will provide you with an entry-level introduction to psychological approaches to foreign policy and rational choice theory. Understanding the psychological underpinnings of foreign policy decision-making and international relations will help make sense of political outcomes that might otherwise be difficult to explain. We will also learn the basics concepts of game theory, and learn to calculate simple expected utility calculations. We will then apply rational choice theory to identify the motivations of different international actors and make sense of international behaviour that might otherwise seem ‘irrational.’ Unfortunately, scholars of international relations often fail to integrate psychological and rational choice approaches: here we will see how these analytical tools can complement each other. Aspects of this course are quantitatively orientated. There are no quantitative prerequisites (the instructor will give all relevant training to perform well in the course, but you should be prepared to engage with quantitative work).

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module will aim to:

  • To introduce you to basic concepts in political psychology.
  • Expose you to different decision-making models in foreign policy.
  • Introduce you to rational choice theory and help you understand how to apply it to topics that are currently important in international relations.
  • Provide you with an understanding of the psychological opportunities and barriers faced by key decision-makers, as well as how employing a rational choice framework can help governments design effective policies.
  • Provide you a dynamic learning environment in which to develop and test ideas interactively.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate knowledge of the effects of psychological factors in foreign policy and international relations and basic concepts from rational choice theory.
  • 2. Apply concepts from political psychology and rational choice theory to current international strategic problems.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Analyse empirical and theoretical material.
  • 4. Examine how political psychology and rational choice theory change the way in which current international and foreign policy problems are conceptualized (and thus how we need to resolve them).

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Self-organization under time pressure.
  • 6. Think critically.

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Introduction to key psychological concepts in foreign policy and international relations,
  • decision-making models,
  • decision-making in times of crisis,
  • the importance of psychological traits such as authoritarianism and social dominance orientation,
  • introduction to rational choice theory,
  • strategies for political leaders across different regime types,
  • the role of public opinion and leader motivations in coercive foreign policies.

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activity2211 x 2 hour seminars
Guided Independent Study25Reading texts for class
Guided Independent Study18Preparing class presentation in pairs
Guided Independent Study45Essay preparation and writing
Guided Independent Study40Preparation for and completion of examination


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
In Class Mid-Term exam45 minutes1-6Verbal

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay401,500 words1-6Written
Written exam601.5 hours1-6Mark and short comments


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay (1,500 words)1-6August/September re-assessment period
Written examWritten exam (1.5 hours exam)1-6August/September re-assessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

The Feeling of Rationality: The Meaning of Neuroscientific Advances for Political Science Rose McDermott (2004)

Jack S. Levy. 1997. "Prospect Theory, Rational Choice, and International Relations." International Studies Quarterly 41, 1 (March), 87-113

Lake, David, and Robert Powell, “International Relations: A Strategic-Choice Approach”  (1999) Princeton University Press. Chapter One: International Relations: A Strategic-Choice Approach David A. Lake and Robert Powell 3-38 

Thomson, Catarina. “Public support for Economic and Military Coercion and Audience Costs” (2016) British Journal of Politics and International Relations” Vol 18 (2): 407–421

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, “Testing Novel Implications from the Selectorate Theory of War,” World Politics 56(3) 2004 368-388.

Geddes, Barbara, “What do we know about democratization after Twenty Years?”, Annual Review of Political Science 1999 2:115-44.

Pape, Robert. 2003. “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97(3), 343-361.

Baum, Matthew A. and Philip B. K. Potter. 2008. “The Relationship Between Mass Media, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis.” Annual Review of Political Science 91-109.

Module has an active ELE page

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Other materials and resources will be identified by the module convener in lectures and/or via ELE.

Key words search

Psychology, Strategic Approach, Rational Choice Theory, Foreign Policy, International Relations

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date