Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
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The Psychology of Nuclear Brinkmanship

February 2, 2023

Reid Pauly and Rose McDermott recently co-authored a paper published in the January issue of International Security titled, "The Psychology of Nuclear Brinkmanship."

This article brings the study of psychology and emotion to bear on the central puzzle of how “chance” can generate coercive leverage in nuclear crises while leaders still retain agency over the “choice” to escalate. Leverage is the ability to generate power or influence over an adversary to get them to bend to your will. Nuclear threats can produce leverage if made credibly. But a rational decision-maker should never choose mutually assured destruction (MAD); therefore canonical theories of brinkmanship assume that the “threat that leaves something to chance” removes leaders from the process of escalation. We argue instead that chance can coexist with choice. In a MAD world, it is indeed irrational to carry out a nuclear threat if massive nuclear retaliation is expected; but a human decision-maker acting on emotion or psychological bias might do so anyway. Psychological factors explain how brinkmanship can operate even when leaders retain control over their nuclear forces.


Additional News Coverage: 
Don’t Be So Confident in Nuclear Decision-Making - Lawfare