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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Psychology of Nuclear Brinkmanship

The Psychology of Nuclear Brinkmanship

Authors: Reid B. C. Pauly and Rose McDermott

Affiliation: Brown University

Organization/Publisher: International Security 

Date/Place: Winter 2022/23/ US

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 51 


Keywords: Brinkmanship, Nuclear, Psychology, Human Emotions, Policy Makers


This article is an attempt to highlight the importance of psychology and human emotions in understanding and knowing how brinkmanship can work even when leaders retain control of their nuclear forces. In particular, this article seeks to answer the central question of how “chance” can generate coercive influence in nuclear crises while leaders retain the ability to “choose” escalation.

At the outset, the article attempts to provide a greater conceptual interpretation of brinkmanship. In this regard, the authors argue that brinkmanship is aimed at forcing the opponent to retreat, submit and compromise. This it does by making the  opponent think that you are unwilling to concede or submit even if it costs you dearly, while demonstrating risk sustainability by taking steps that increase the risk of the crisis inadvertently escalating into a strategic nuclear war in order to generate greater leverage to meet those demands.     

The article presents Schilling’s theory of threats that leave something to chance, explaining how states can stumble into war without intent, and why actors might strategically seek to manipulate risks to achieve advantage. Schilling believes that those who take the greatest risks will receive the greatest reward, such as in the Cuban missile crisis during the Cold War. This theory explains the rivalry and coercion between nuclear powers. However, the authors criticize the failure of this theory and the rest of brinkmanship theories to take into account the psychological role of decision makers in crises and their ability to choose how to respond. That is why they call for greater attention to the rational decision maker and nuclear conflict. From this point of view, the main problem is that decision makers are not entirely rational. Furthermore, even if they are rational, they are still able to make catastrophic mistakes in terms of cost and return. As such, researchers must highlight human psychology under threatening conditions and how psychological factors (emotion and desire for revenge) motivate aggression and their role in promoting or undermining deterrence.         

The researchers add that brinkmanship can be a “deterrent” or “compulsive”, with Schilling being the first to touch on and explain the difference between deterrence and compulsion. However, the authors believe that both are linked to the concept of coercion because two actors engaged in brinkmanship disagree on the status quo, and at least one of them seeks to change it. Still, the article uses Schilling’s definition of coercion to include both deterrence and coercion even though he ignores the role psychology plays in coercion. Moreover, it has had a significant impact on subsequent studies that have also tended to ignore the role of psychology in decision-making and sometimes completely exclude the role of individual leaders.

The article then turns to the literature on brinkmanship, which considers that nuclear weapons pose a natural threat that could lead to nuclear war and exacerbate crises to a peak. Accordingly, the authors raise important questions about this matter. The first question centers on what makes brinkmanship a successful policy even if seemingly irrational. The authors add another question: as long as the rational decision maker retains the right to choose to escalate to a strategic nuclear war, his threats to do so should not be credible. So what is the real source of risk when agency remains?          

In their attempt to answer these questions, the paper focuses on the use of individual psychology in the study of nuclear strategy, with a view to highlighting the individual decision maker’s role and their authority in the use of nuclear weapons in crisis situations. Hence, the authors present three main mechanics through which they believe that coincidence can be transformed into influence in situations of nuclear crisis: accidents; loss of self-control; and loss of control over others.                           

According to the article, the relationship between choice and chance must first be determined so that we can understand brinkmanship and choices that surround threats that leave something to chance. The authors argue that coincidence and choice can have space for overlap. On the one hand, opportunity refers to an uncontrollable event or cause that affects certainty and predictability. On the other hand, choice indicates the leader’s ability to guide events and make decisions on the direction of crisis or conflict. Overlaps show that both can allow the same result of “unpredictability” to emerge when a leader fails to read his opponents properly, affecting his ability to guide events, which can also present an opportunity (the possibility of events not happening as planned). However, for the author the overlap of these results does not prevent their causes from being different. The causal element of coincidence derives from the probable nature of the universe, whereas the causal element of choice arises from the structure of human decision-making, or the variation in individuals’ skills and abilities.

The authors review the three mechanisms in order to clarify the psychological basis of risks associated with each type of accident and choice that will allow us to determine whether leaders are capable of generating influence in nuclear crises.

  1. Accidents:                                                                                                               

Unintended accidents, such as mechanical faults, can cause two aircraft to collide in the air, or fire an erroneous warning shot to escalate the crisis. However, the article argues that leaders can manipulate the magnitude of these risks in crises.

– By choosing to indicate their determination by increasing the risk of accidents, such as mobilizing more military forces, placing them on high alert, deploying them forward or ordering them to work in close proximity to the enemy.

– By giving nuclear control power to military operators or leaving them in central hands, which would increase the risk of crisis accidents.

– According to the article, mechanical accidents and failures are prevalent and may even occur in complex and tightly interrelated systems such as military organizations that manage nuclear weapons. 

Despite all this, leaders are still able to choose. The authors once again argue that nuclear war only begins with a nuclear response. Leaders have the ability to choose between increasing the likelihood of an accident or not responding to provocations resulting from abuses. 

The authors add that leaders may underestimate the risk of accidents in crisis decision-making for two reasons. The first is that the illusion of control may make leaders overestimate their control over events and outcomes. This is because males have a strong tendency towards overconfidence and illusions of control. This provides a powerful evolutionary advantage to win fights as it allows more followers to be recruited which increases the likelihood of winning the battle. At the same time, it can have negative consequences because the illusion of control and overconfidence of victory may lead to further escalation. The second reason is leaders’ tendency to likewise overestimate their opponent’s unity and control.   


  • Loss of Self-control:  

The risk of escalation may occur as a result of:

First, emotions such as a desire for revenge, pride, shame or envy may generate a powerful motive for attack that affects the leader’s choices and the way he makes his decisions. This makes them manifest in a manner that may contradict the values expressed. Threats are often based on emotion. This was evident when United States Secretary of State James Baker, at a meeting in 1991 with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, used emotion as a threat to deter Saddam Hussein from using chemical weapons. “If the conflict begins, God forbid, and chemical or biological weapons are used against our forces, the American people will demand revenge.” The authors believe that these psychological patterns affect leaders’ choices regarding ending nuclear war or continuing to escalate and use nuclear weapons. Secondly, the two researchers point out that leaders can often act in a “no-rational” manner and that they may prefer to rely on emotional and psychological aspects of decision-making. For example, while examining Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, given the extravagant costs to Russia during this war, Putin’s view of the role of this war in Russian history seems irrational.

The article also explores the psychological consequences of unpredictability by distinguishing the mechanism of restraint and President Richard Nixon’s “mad man theory.” Schelling relied on the concept of “irrational rationality” where this method is used as a kind of strategic manipulation by making others believe that one is irrational and may do something crazy or unpredictable. This method may sometimes prove to be a rational strategy if it aims to stop fighting and not incur its costs. One way to illustrate this strategy is the Madman Bluff strategy, where US President Nixon assumed that he might be able to push the Vietnamese to surrender and comply with US demands if he could make them think he was crazy and could do anything, including using nuclear weapons against them. However, this plan did not succeed. According to the article, the reasons for the failure are “unpredictability.” In order for the threat to be successful, the other party should believe that compliance will result in benefit only when the target is confident that it can predict the other parties’ commitment to cease fighting and not vice versa. From it, the researchers emphasize that Mad Man Theory is a clearly emotional theory because anger is its primary driver. The authors warn against overlooking the importance of emotion in generating motivation to exert energy and act. On the other hand, feelings such as pride, shame, envy, anger, rejection or harm may affect the quality of the decision-making process and increase the risk of malignant results if leaders are narcissistic or lack emotional self-awareness or flexibility. It must therefore be borne in mind that different sentiments lead to different perceptions of risks.

  1. Control of Others:

The authors identify two subcategories:

First, when someone else is empowered to make the choice of war instead of the commander, such as granting military commanders the power to use nuclear weapons. This will likely further exacerbate the risk, as military commanders are also vulnerable to irrational decisions.

Secondly, when decision makers have full control over their forces, there may be an unintended transgression of one of the other’s red lines, constituting an element of coincidence in limited wars.

In the latter, the authors make some important recommendations on how to develop a new and different approach to improve our understanding of the nuclear crises that have passed and that may occur in the future, opening new avenues for research by:

1-Identifying the relationship between leaders’ personal characteristics and brinkmanship, such as knowing their endurance and means of dealing with risks.

2- Studies on nuclear leadership and control must attach greater importance to decision makers’ psychology. Some leaders may adopt changes in nuclear doctrine, and some are also likely to prefer not to do so in order to manipulate risks in both cases.

3- The need to focus future studies on the possibility of extending the concept of brinkmanship into non-nuclear contexts.                                       

Thus, the article asserts that threats that leave something to chance are experimentally rare as leaders seek to maintain control in crises.  

                                                                                                                                                             By: Ryma Meddah, MA in IR and International Law



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