Human behaviours in crisis decision making processes: current trends

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The decision making process is about those human behaviours which substantiate (or concur to) an actor’s policy pathways when it comes to choosing amongst multiple options. Human security as research subject can serve well to explore decision making processes in crisis eruption, management, and solution.[i] Actually, a wide array of actors concurs to shape today’s crises, and the State is no longer the only relevant decision maker on the ground. Furthermore, new actors and their decision makers play in a multidimensional geopolitical space, whose specific features are no longer geography, politics and economics only. Understanding in deep all of the stakeholders’ behaviours in a multi-level-fought conflict requires granular situational awareness, yet without missing the big picture. It is no easy fix, especially when the toolbox proves obsolete.

TODAY’S TOOLBOX – In the Western world, study and support methodologies for crisis decision making rely on two principal models.

First, the realist and neoclassical realist model is borrowed from the economic domain and it is built around the utility maximization concept. Political calculus is based on two main variables, utility and likelihood, for each policy option. The decision maker, ideally fully aware of all of the possible alternatives, will opt for his best interest according to cost-opportunity considerations – and this is often thought to be the base of rationality.[ii] It is well known such conditions cannot be satisfied in full in the real world and, by the way, they would apply effectively only to a two-person zero sum game. Even supposing that anyone could determine certainly his maximin, if three or more actors were playing a “non-zero sum game” the number of variables and related strategies would increase exponentially for each additional actor dragged into the game.[iii] Therefore, the contemporary conflicts cannot be proficiently explained through the cost-opportunity toolbox only. Indeed, such toolbox has had hard times in addressing past conflicts as well as in providing reliable prediction models for tackling international terrorism phenomena. Yet, a considerable part of today’s analytic models for risk assessment and risk management are based on indexes derived from utilitarian theories of decision making.

The second inspiring model was born from the first critics to realist theories and it is known as cybernetic approach to decision making. To support the decision making process, the analytic objective is not to provide value-related insights but, rather, to track a few simple variables that trigger a behavioural change in the actors. In short, it is about quality, rather than quantity. Complexity has to be disjointed into simpler elements, easier to understand. This process is based on selecting a few main drivers through a holistic approach. The decision maker monitors a small set of critical variables that allows him to understand the main triggers of the crisis he is dealing with, and to decide accordingly.[iv] Nevertheless, current scenarios are so complex that even reducing sensitively the number of variables they can still be overwhelming. Furthermore, cybernetic approaches depend, in their decisional phase, on the decision maker’s last choice, who will evaluate according to subjective criteria such as perception, knowledge of the issue, impression of the actors, beliefs, political pressure, and even level of stress.[v]

Summing up, both approaches – and their derivative analytic methods – are less effective than they should in theory, because decision makers might choose without having full awareness of the impact their choice will have for each policy option, or by reasoning on a scale of values which is independent from their best interest. As a consequence, in times when the number of non-State actors arises – as well as the number of variables States have to take into account while deciding –, unpredictability is much higher than the past.[vi]

CONFLICTS AND DECISION MAKING – To date, decision making in armed conflicts is no longer about a State deciding how, when, and why to intervene only. As a consequence, the models discussed above and already poorly efficient do not apply any longer. In fact, it is almost impossible to understand and/or prevent the non-state actors’ behaviour in depth through those patterns, as their way of thinking does not match the concept of rationality thought for rigid social schemes (bureaucratic politics). Furthermore, even for States a systematic knowledge on crisis management behaviours has never been reached. State’s decision makers have never had a comprehensive know-how on crisis management based on previous experience. The most ambitious projects have failed, such as the International Crisis Behaviour Project. It has been studying more than 470 international crises and 1036 stakeholders’ decision making dilemmas.[vii] The final headline of the project is that there is no comprehensive theory of decision making in crisis situations yet. Even if there was, it would have been influenced by western way of doing politics, and thus little explanatory of autocratic or exotic bodies’ decision making processes.

NEW PERSPECTIVES – Although a “theory of crises” will not exist nor apply in concrete, it is worth searching for alternative approaches to crisis management. In particular, the new approach should be based on thorough understanding of the multidimensional geopolitical space where the conflict takes place, rather than pivoting to behavioural analysis of the stakeholders. The concept of human terrain is increasingly interesting as it allows to penetrate scenarios vertically, from macro to granular levels of analysis.[viii] Today, freedom of access to information and social media make anyone a potential fighter. Hacker groups will fight in cyberspace, wealthy local warlords will have their personal militias, and so forth. Given such an environment, decision making dilemmas will be amplified exponentially. Thus military action will develop across a dynamic and evolving framework rather than on a geographic area only. This reshapes the idea of political-military intervention at the point that distinguishing between combat and non-combat roles is increasingly hard. Hence, the effectiveness of intervention depends on the decision maker’s (state or non-state) ability to clearly assign roles to its relevant assets (soldiers, officials, militants, engineers, and so forth).[ix]

IMPACT ON CRISIS MANAGEMENT – Pivoting the decision making process on the human terrain implies a structural revolution in crisis/conflict management. The actor that wanted to propose itself as security provider has to develop its crisis/conflict management skills at multiple levels. Furthermore, decisions to take have to be divided among multiple subjects, from the single serviceman on the ground to the politician. Each of them will have to take a small piece of decision that will contribute to the broader decision making process within the theatre of operations. Such a revolution develops through four main strategic patterns:

  • Political-military action does not develop as reaction to an event that takes place in a known geopolitical space. Rather, the theatre has to be preventively shaped by the security provider, if it wants its policy action to be effective. Otherwise, as highlighted above, variables to take into consideration would be so many that even the most sophisticate strategies would encounter a high risk of failure. This approach is everything but easy, but there are several recent samples of actors that reshaped the human terrain at their advantage. For instance, the Islamic State had limited resources, in comparison to state actors, but it was able to magnify its points of strength while compensating for its weaknesses. It is difficult to assess to what extent this has been pursued consciously. Nonetheless, Daesh perverted geopolitics in the Iraqi and Syrian border areas by ideological and military alternative narratives. It succeeded in creating a suitable physical, media, and political (especially locally) environment for its existing capabilities. Paradoxically, the Islamic State forced its opponents, both in Syraq and in Europe, to fight on its favourite battleground. Worse still, such environment included cyber, economic and psychological components as well.[x] To sum up, pre-emptively shaping the theatre of policy actions (or operations) is fundamental in raising possibilities of success as well as avoiding to undergo the scenario shaped by someone else.
  • Political-military action can no longer focus on the enemy’s centres of gravity. The United States has failed repeatedly in applying doctrines and strategies dating back to the Second World War. In particular, its favourite strategy is about striking the enemy in its vital strongholds with technologically and numerically overwhelming forces. Washington’s lessons-learned tell this doctrine does not apply on theatres where there are multiple actors, ever changing alliances, State/non-State asymmetry, and multidimensional geopolitical domain. Hence, centres of gravity are temporary and part of a flux. Furthermore, the operational environment might not shape like an open conflict, nonetheless it might require military action. U.S. troops fought well during the Second Gulf War, and they took Baghdad in a short time. However, Iraqi geopolitics had not been reshaped prior, during and after the operation so that it could have a comprehensive impact on the country.[xi] As a consequence, in the aftermaths of military operations, policy actions failed. As decision makers missed command of the geopolitical domain where the U.S. troops were moving across, the following policy action did not complement their war operations. Rather, U.S. military ops altered local balances of forces in favour of the most adaptive actors and at the expenses of the most reliable ones.
  • As a consequence of the previous point, military action (real or potential) remains the core of intervention in crisis or conflict, yet it falls of impact (real or potential) if the battleground/battlefield has not been reshaped in advance. This element creates severe concerns in assigning roles – who does what. The security provider will have to perform both civil and military tasks. In fact, the expertise to reshape scenarios come from civil society mostly (communications, psyops, diplomacy, and so forth). Experts are required to model the environment so that the military component can accomplish its tasks in the most effective and impacting way. Doctrines pivoting on human terrain are about finding an optimal capability balance between “civilians in uniform” and “soldiers with civil expertise”.[xii]
  • Civil and military assets have to become extremely flexible in order to cope with dynamic battlegrounds. The more the security provider is able to reshape the scenario according to its toolbox, the less its assets will have to struggle into it at the economic, capability, technological and cultural level. This aspect of the U.S. Human Terrain System has been hardly criticized as it implied leveraging on delicate figures such as psychologists. In effect, the decision maker has to assess to what extent reshaping a scenario is ethically acceptable for his standards as well as to what extent regretting doing it reduces its possibilities of success. For instance, non-State actors’ experiences demonstrate that media strategies and psychological leverages are relatively cheap, and easy to use. Conversely, a peacekeeping operation on the ground is expensive and unsustainable in the long term. Reconstruction programs, equipment, and advanced weapons are demanding as well. To sum up, security providers intervening in crisis/conflict have a set of political goals to achieve; to be proficient at this they need to find the adequate set of capabilities that allow to reshape the scenario and carry out operations (economic, military, and political) within it.

FINAL HEADLINES – Decision making models in International relations are on deep crisis because of their growing inadequacy to present and future geopolitical scenarios. Sophisticate analytic models and advanced data mining technologies fed the illusion of compensating for methodology gaps with enhanced capability of managing a big number of variables. Nevertheless, to date, these models failed in preventing political-military disasters – both domestic and foreign – for actors with even great economic and operational capabilities. Security as comprehensive service to deliver (human security) and the concept of human terrain are paving the way for alternative approaches to decision making in crisis/conflict. The great potential these approaches have makes them compelling for both academia and political-military actors. However, their most revolutionary features might prove controversial for several actors – especially democratic states – as they could require them to hold assertive approaches in foreign politics. So, several democratic states might experience serious troubles in coordinating proactive approaches with their public opinions’ requests. Nonetheless, complexity of today’s scenarios might put the issue in existential terms.


[i] United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, Human Security in Theory and Practice, Human Security Unit, 2009, pp. 12-14.

Available at:

http://www.un.org/humansecurity/sites/www.un.org.humansecurity/files/human_security_in_theory_and_practice_english.pdf

[ii] Snyder, R., Bruck, H., Sapin, B., Hudson, V, Foreign Policy Decision-Making, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2002, p.176

[iii] Duffy, J., Game Theory and Nash Equilibrium, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada, 2015, pp.25-32

Available at: https://www.lakeheadu.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/77/images/Duffy%20Jenny.pdf

[iv] Steinbruner, J.D., The Cybernetic Theory of Decision: New Dimensions of Political Analysis, Princeton University Press, 2002, pp.47-87

[v] Steinbruner, J.D., ibid.

See also Singer, P.W., Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, Cornell University Press, New York, 2008, pp.191-205

[vi] Carothers,T., Khatib, L., Muasher,M., Paal,D.H., Weiss, A.S., Is the world falling apart? – Q&A, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 14, 2014.

Available at: http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/08/14/is-world-falling-apart/hkuw

[vii]The project is still ongoing, but its goals have changed throughout time. Today, the database contains information for all crises occurring during the 1918-2013 period. There are 35 protracted conflicts as well. The database is available at: https://sites.duke.edu/icbdata/

[viii] Sims, C.J., The Human Terrain System: Operationally Relevant Social Science Research In Iraq And Afghanistan, Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, December 2015, pp. 33-45

Available at: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB1308.pdf

[ix] Sims, C.J., pp. 231-307

[x] Arnaboldi, M., Il nostro giornalismo al servizio del Califfo, Il Caffè Geopolitico, May 12, 2015

Available at: http://www.ilcaffegeopolitico.org/28962/il-nostro-giornalismo-al-servizio-dellisis

[xi] Sims, C.J., pp.159-218

See also Sims, C.J., Academics in Foxholes – The Life and Death of the Human Terrain System, Foreign Affairs, February 4, 2016

Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2016-02-04/academics-foxholes

[xii] Rahbek-Clemmensen, J., Beyond ‘The Soldier and the State’ -The Theoretical Framework of Elite Civil-Military Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science, August 2013, pp. 20-47

Available at: http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/782/1/__lse.ac.uk_storage_LIBRARY_Secondary_libfile_shared_repository_Etheses_Content_Theses%20submitted%20by%20students%20%26%20alumni_Live%20theses_Rahbek-Clemmensen_Beyond%20soldier%20and%20state.pdf

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Author

Marco Giulio Barone

Marco Giulio Barone is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Marco Giulio is Contributing Analyst and subject matter expert at Wikistrat, Counter-Terrorism and East Asia divisions. He is also project leader and columnist at “Il Caffè Geopolitico”, an Italian online journal about geopolitics. His research and analysis activities focus on counter-terrorism, geopolitics, East Asian and MENA countries defence and security matters. Marco Giulio holds a Master in International Science from the University of Torino. He is fluent in Italian and English, working knowledge of French, elementary in Spanish and Arabic.

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