Poliheuristic Theory: An Introduction

This post is part of a series of posts I’m working on covering some basic models in Decision Theory.  For my previous post on Cognitive models, click Here.

Decision theory in foreign policy analysis has been characterized by a split between two different, and at times rival, models of human behavior (James and Zhang, 2005).  The first is the classical model of Rational Choice theory, a theory that takes as its starting point the end of the decision making process and attempts to figure out why the choice was finally made.  The second is the Cognitive approach, a theory that focuses on the “how” questions of decision making and attempts to reconstruct why the end outcome occurred.  In an attempt to integrate these two different, but useful, approaches, Alex Mintz created Poliheuristic Theory (PH) (Mintz 2005).

The model consists of two stages (Mintz, 2005).  The first is the “heuristic” stage.  In this stage the actor uses heuristics, or simple tools of thought, to limit the number of choices available to him.  This is similar in character to Robert Axelrod’s Schema Theory (1973) and other cognitive approaches (Simon, 1955; Tversky and Kahneman, 1981, 1986, and 1991), including Prospect Theory (Levi, 1997; Tversky and Kahneman, 1992).   The second stage is the “evaluation” or “calculation” stage.  Here the actor makes calculations based on the given information garnered from the first stage.

The components of the first stage culminate in a “decision matrix” that has a number of parts: alternatives, dimensions, implications, ratings, and weights.  The alternatives are the choices available to the actor.  The dimensions are the relevant criteria used to evaluate the different alternatives.  The implications are what happens at each pairing of the alternatives with the dimensions.  Ratings can be given to each of the implications to aid in analysis for the researcher.  The weights are the relative “importance level” of the different dimensions.

The second stage takes the information given in the first stage and analyzes the different outcomes associated with the given values.  This stage resembles classical Rational Choice Theory (Arrow, 1959), and uses the Expected Utility Principle to justify which options are the most viable.

The theory has been successfully applied to Presidential decisions, including Bill Clinton’s bombing of Kosovo (Redd, 2005) and Jimmy Carter’s decisions during the Iranian hostage crisis (Brulé, 2005), and even to autocratic regimes (Kinne, 2005).

For readers with knowledge of Game Theory, there may seem to be a number of similarities between it and the PH model.  But, these similarities are surface deep.  Among them is the use of a decision matrix in the PH model.  Game Theory employs a similar matrix, called the “strategic form” of the game (Gates and Humes, 1997; Gintis, 2000; Rapoport, 1966).  Another is the rating of implications in PH theory with numerical values that can then be assessed mathematically.  Game Theory uses the same devise to make calculation easier-and possible.  But, the differences are more important.  PH theory is an attempt to understand both why and how a particular actor came to a decision.  Game Theory, by contrast, is interested in the dynamics of interactions between and among actors in a given situation.  Game Theory does have methods of evaluating why a choice was made based on expected value, but not how it was made.

However, PH theory and Game Theory are compatible and may, if used together, provide a powerful method of analyzing the decisions of actors in relation with other actors.  Game Theory can illuminate the potential outcomes resulting from the interaction of the players, and PH theory can explain how and why any particular player would make the choices they would make.  This is an advantage over the traditional use of Rational Choice Theory with Game Theory which presumes players are bound by a careful analysis of their expected utility, when in fact, many people do not respond this way in the “real” world (Camerer, 2003).  It is also an advantage to using only the cognitive approach, which tends to shun rational choice thinking as too unrealistic, when in fact, once an actor (in the PH version) has narrowed down their list of actions, they are more likely to make a choice based on the expected utility principle (Redd, 2005).

Poliheuristic Theory is a welcome addition to the literature, and toolbox, of Political Scientists, Economists, and Social Scientists generally.  It bridges the gap between the two primary perspectives in the field, Rational Choice and the Cognitive Models, and provides an easy to use framework for analysis.  Further research may prove that it will work well with Game Theory as a positive approach to understanding why decisions were made in complex interactions among agents.


  • Arrow, Kenneth J.. 1959. “Rational Choice Functions and Orderings.”  Economica.  New Series, Vol. 26, No. 102, pp 121-127.
  • Axelrod, Robert.  1973.  “Schema Theory:  An Information Processing Model of Perception and Cognition.” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 67, No. 4, 1248-1266.
  • Brulé, David J.. 2005.  “Explaining and Forecasting Leaders’ Decisions: A Poliheuristic Analysis of the Iran Hostage Rescue Decision.”  International Studies Perspectives. 6, 99-113.
  • Camerer, Colin F.. 2003.  Behavioral Game Theory: Experiments in Strategic Interaction. Princeton University Press.
  • Gates, Scott and Humes, Brian D.. 1997.  Games, Information, and Politics: Applying Game Theoretic Models to Political Science. University of Michigan Press.
  • Gintis, Herbert.  2000.  Game Theory Evolving: A Problem-Centered Introduction to Modeling Strategic Interaction. Princeton University Press.
  • Kinne, Brandon J.  2005. “Decision Making in Autocratic Regimes: A Poliheuristic Perspective.” International Studies Perspectives.  6, 114-128.
  • Levi, Jack S.. 1997. “Prospect Theory, Rational Choice, and International Relations.” International Studies Quarterly.  Vol.41, No.1, 87-112.
  • Mintz, Alex.  2005.  “Applied Decision Analysis: Utilizing Poliheuristic Theory to Explain and Predict Foreign Policy and National Security Decisions.” International Studies Perspectives. 6, 94-98.
  • Rapoport, Anatol.  1966.  Two-Person Game Theory.  Dover Publications, Inc.
  • Redd, Steven B.. 2005. “The Influence of Advisers and Decision Strategies on Foreign Policy Choices: President Clinton’s Decision to Use Force in Kosovo.”  International Studies Perspectives.  6, 129-150.
  • Simon, Herbert A. 1955.  “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 69, No. 1, 99-118.
  • Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel.  1981.  “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” Science, New Series, Vol. 211, No. 4481, 453-458.
  • Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel.  1986.  “Rational Choice and the Framing of Decisions.” The Journal of Business, Vol. 59, No. 4, Part 2: The Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory, S251-S278.
  • Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel.  1991.  “Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 4, 1039-1061.
  • Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel.  1992. “Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. 5:297-323.
  • James, Patrick and Zhang, Enyu.  2005.  “Chinese Choices:  A Poliheuristic Analysis of Foreign Policy Crises.”  Foreign Policy Analysis.  1, 31-5

4 responses to “Poliheuristic Theory: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: A Review of Cognitive Models and Bounded Rationality « Good Tithings

  2. Meutia Ananda

    it helped me on my exam. thanx

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