Book chapter

Poliheuristic Theory: A Middle Ground Between Rational and Cognitive Decision Theories (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


The poliheuristic theory of decision making is a framework for explaining both the outcome of a choice and the process by which the decision maker arrives at that outcome. It posits a two-stage process in which individuals first apply a noncompensatory principle, eliminating those options that negatively impact the decision maker on one or more critical dimensions. In the second stage, the decision maker employs a conventional decision rule, such as expected utility theory or the lexicographic decision rule, to choose among the remaining alternatives. The poliheuristic theory of decision has been used by scholars of political science and international relations to explain decisions in hundreds of scenarios—these include foreign policy in democratic and autocratic states, the organizational and operational decisions of terrorist leaders, and the behavior of groups—attesting to its explanatory and predictive power. Other scholars have used experimental methods to demonstrate the theory's ability to accurately describe the decision process. Analysts can apply poliheuristic principles when using the Applied Decision Analysis methodology to explain or predict a decision. The analyst can use his or her knowledge of a decision to construct a matrix of possible choices (alternatives) and decision criteria (dimensions). The analyst can then assign weights to the various dimensions and determine which should be regarded as noncompensatory. By eliminating the alternatives that result in a negative impact on the critical dimensions and then choosing among the remaining options in an analytic way, the analyst can then predict (or explain) the decision maker's choice.