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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Do Costly Signals Matter?: Unifying Theories of Signaling and Perceptions in International Relations
by Kim, Seok Joon, Ph.D., The George Washington University, 2016, 351; 10152997
Abstract (Summary)

Are state intentions important for explaining state behaviors in international politics? If state intentions are important under certain conditions, then can a state accurately communicate its intentions to another state as needed? What variables influence states’ understanding of and responses to other states’ behaviors? Answering these questions could be one key to understanding the causes of war and peace.

I conduct four survey experiments and case studies to address these questions. I find quite a bit of support for the rationalist logic of costly signals. Costly signals, as opposed to “cheap talk,” are those actions incurring high costs that an actor who wants to send false signals cannot afford. Generally speaking, observers of state actions tend to infer an adversary’s intentions as the logic of costly signals dictates. Costly signals tend to be perceived as credible in the eyes of signal receivers.

I found however that some of observers’ perceptions and attitudes deviate from what rationalists would expect. First, in my experiments, the costly signals of an adversary intended to reassure were not perceived as credible as frequently as rationalists would expect. In contrast, the rationalist theory of costly signals effectively predicts observers’ perceptions and responses to those signals when a state intends to show aggressive motives. Those perceiving an adversary’s actions seem to have a conservative bias: they are late in lowering their guard against enemies exhibiting conciliatory gestures and quick in responding to threats. Second, non-costly signals often have a sizable and significant impact on assessment of intentions, threat perception, and support for the use of force. In my survey research, information about how a state treats its domestic ethnic/religious/racial minorities affected how perceivers of signals assessed threats posed by a state and how they made foreign policy choices in response towards that state. Similarly, information about how a state treats other countries suffering from poverty or conflict also affected observers’ threat perceptions and attitudes towards the signal-sending state. Third, I found that democracies receive the benefit of the doubt in their signaling. When disputes are limited to rhetoric, people perceive democracies to be less threatening than non-democracies, even if the democracies say what any non-democratic country would. However, once disputes escalate and costly signals are used, individuals begin to evaluate only the actions on display without regard for regime type.

I explain these “irrational” responses of signal receivers with cognitive psychological and constructivist theories. The findings of this dissertation make important contributions to literatures on signaling theory and foreign policy decision-making.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Downes, Alexander B.
Commitee: Croco, Sarah, Glaser, Charles L., Hayes, Daniel, Lawrence, Eric D.
School: The George Washington University
Department: Political Science
School Location: United States -- District of Columbia
Source: DAI-A 77/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: International Relations, Political science
Keywords: China, Costly signal, International security, Perception, Signaling, Survey experiment
Publication Number: 10152997
ISBN: 978-1-369-08127-5
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