Jervis, Robert 1940-
Robert L. Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University since 1980 and president of the American Political Science Association (2000–2001), has been a leading figure in academic research on war, peace, and diplomacy. His theories explain how misperceptions, unintended consequences, and competitive dilemmas often confound the efforts of political leaders and strategists to escape from the insecurities of international competition.
The Logic of Images in International Relations (1970) introduced the distinction between signals and indices in strategic bargaining, later referred to as “cheap talk” and “costly signals.” Perception and Misperception in International Politics (1976) assessed the applicability of a wide range of psychological propositions to the study of deterrence failures, conflict spirals, intelligence failures, strategic assessments, and diplomatic judgments and misjudgments. The central message is that perception is theory-driven, that decision makers tend to see what they expect to see, and that these expectations are often driven by stereotyped lessons of history, analogies, or routine scripts that provide short cuts in making assessments under uncertainty. Jervis examines common perceptual biases, such as the cognitive shortcuts that lead actors to overestimate the extent to which their opponents intend the harmful consequences of their actions and underestimate the extent to which those actions are a reaction to the observers’ own initiatives.
Jervis’s most cited article, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” (1978), draws on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712–1778) parable of the stag hunt and the prisoner’s dilemma game to show how states seeking only to defend the status quo can end up fighting due to the fears engendered by the situation of anarchy. Jervis defines a security dilemma as a situation in which any state’s efforts to increase its security necessarily decreases the security of others. In this situation, one side’s efforts to escape its insecurity through an arms buildup or through the conquest of strategic territory will inevitably trigger similar behavior by other security-conscious actors. Both strategic circumstances and the whole array of perceptual biases discussed in Jervis’s earlier work shape behavior under the security dilemma. Offensive military technology and barrier-free geography heighten vulnerability to attack and thus intensify the security dilemma. Strategists and political leaders often misestimate the ease of attacking or defending, misperceive the balance between offensive and defensive incentives, and err in their judgment of the likelihood that the other “stag hunters” will defect from cooperation.
Applying these ideas to the problem of nuclear deterrence, Jervis explained why nuclear war-fighting is a delusion and how a stable balance of terror relaxes the security dilemma. While building on earlier theories of deterrence, Jervis added important new insights by drawing on new ideas from cognitive psychology. For example, psychologists have found that most people are risk-averse when faced with the chance to grab gains, but are more risk-acceptant in forestalling losses. Thus, Jervis reasoned that the side defending the status quo, and in particular the side defending its vital interests, should be more willing to run the shared risk of mutual annihilation. If so, the nuclear stalemate ought to make threats to change the status quo less credible and consequently should ease the security dilemma. In 1990 Jervis’s The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (1989) won the Grawemeyer Award for the book with the Best Ideas for Improving World Order.
Jervis received his BA from Oberlin College in 1962 and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. He also taught at the University of California, Los Angeles (1974–1980), and Harvard University (1968–1974).
SEE ALSO American Political Science Association; Conflict; Cooperation; Deterrence; Deterrence, Mutual; Diplomacy; International Relations; National Security; Risk; Risk Neutrality; Risk Takers; Strategic Behavior; Strategic Games; Weaponry, Nuclear
Jervis, Robert. 1968. Hypotheses on Misperception. World Politics 20 (3): 454–479.
Jervis, Robert. 1970. The Logic of Images in International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1976. Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1978. Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma. World Politics 30 (2): 167–214.
Jervis, Robert. 1979–1980. Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter. Political Science Quarterly 94 (4): 617–633.
Jervis, Robert. 1984. The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1985. From Balance to Concert: A Study in International Security Cooperation. World Politics 38 (1): 58–79.
Jervis, Robert. 1989a. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1989b. Rational Deterrence: Theory and Evidence. World Politics 41 (2): 183–207.
Jervis, Robert. 1991. Domino Beliefs and Strategic Behavior. In Dominoes and Bandwagons: Strategic Beliefs and Superpower Competition in the Eurasian Rimland, eds. Robert Jervis and Jack Snyder, 20–50. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1993. International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle? International Security 17 (4): 52–67.
Jervis, Robert. 1997. System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1998. Realism in the Study of World Politics. International Organization 52 (4): 971–991.
Jervis, Robert. 2005. American Foreign Policy in a New Era. New York: Routledge.
Jervis, Robert, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Stein. 1985. Psychology and Deterrence. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.