Understanding the impact of emotional stress on crisis decision making

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Decision making often varies from the rational in situations of high risk and uncertainty. In the most extreme of forms, policymakers and leaders of major organizations often consider military intervention that has the potential to cause war. Taking this into consideration, research of the involvement of stress in decision making by Irving Janis and Leon Mann, is relevant to understanding the kinds of departures of rationality that are routinely witnessed in foreign policy behavior. The core assumption of Janis and Mann’s motivational model maintains that highly stressful foreign policy decisions may provoke non-rational responses. A problem with their “conflict model” of decision making is that Janis and Mann theorize policymaker stress during crisis is derived from decision deliberation, leading to a circular approach. Janis and Mann’s circularity occurs because their model states that stress is caused by the demand for decision making in certain conditions, while also specifying that dysfunctional decision making behavior is caused by the same stress. The key contribution of this research project will be the reformulation of Janis and Mann’s crisis model in an effort to circumvent this circularity. This particular advancement will make the construct more rigorous and empirically useful to the study of decision making. 

The main objective of this research project will be the development of an independent measure of decision maker stress levels. This will be accomplished by conducting a psychological study of policymakers under pressure in case studies of crisis, focusing on decision making conditions and their influence on cognitive processing. An independent measure of stress can be specifically devised by evaluating policymaker statements for cognitive complexity in information processing. When compared to complexity in non-stressful situations, the analysis of decision maker cognitive complexity in conditions of crisis will provide an effective independent measure of the decision making conditions in which foreign policy choices take place. This will enable the opportunity for focused study of policymaker behavior and decisions. Case studies will also provide a forum for exploring the behavioral pathologies that Janis and Mann specify and examining the quality of decisions executed in crisis. The findings of this research will prove to be a valuable addition to the Janis and Mann conflict model and ultimately serve to combine, or bridge, cognitive and motivational psychology by using cognitive complexity to help improve a motivational model of decision making.
Date of Award1 Jan 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorNed Lebow (Supervisor) & Huw Dylan (Supervisor)

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