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.
Poliheuristic theory focuses on the why and how of decision-making. The primary argument is that decision-makers are sensitive to both cognitive and environmental constraints and are particularly likely to focus on the political consequences of their decisions. Decision-makers use a two-stage process en route to choice, wherein heuristic shortcuts are implemented in the first stage in an effort to reduce complexity and in the second stage a maximizing strategy on the remaining alternatives in the choice set. The theory focuses on five main information-processing characteristics: order-sensitive, nonholistic, and dimension-based searching and noncompensatory and satisficing decision rules. The theory has been tested using numerous case studies and statistical and experimental analyses. These studies have provided strong empirical support for this theory.In 2013, the United States decided not to attack Syria, despite domestic and international pressure to do so. This case shows the importance of political constraints on President Obama's calculus of decision, leading to the adoption of the chemical disarmament of Syria.
Why do leaders make foreign policy decisions that often appear irrational or engage in major reversals of previous policy to the extent that observers wonder at their calculations? The field of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) offers multiple ways to approach questions of decision-making. Many kinds of variables are explored, in the general areas of elites, institutions, and ideas. The focus on leadership and decision-making is especially rich for comparative purposes, because it is open to specification of different contexts within which leaders operate. The poliheuristic theory (PH) and other work emphasizing the importance of the domestic context have provided explanatory power about the factors affecting leader decision-making. Extensive application of PH has shown that decisions about foreign policy are often made according to a noncompensatory principle (the acceptability heuristic): Leaders use a shortcut in which options that threaten their political position are ruled out. Generally, the metric is about domestic politics—an option has to leave the leader in a good position with his or her domestic audience. But much of FPA work has been based largely on case studies of Western or other developed states, or at least not approached in the context of non-Western or Global South states theoretically—in a way that recognizes it as governed by generalizable principles different from the Western context. What we know from scholars of Global South politics is that in fact the considerations of non-Western leaders can be quite distinct. They focus more on regime security than the Western notion of national security. We must question whether position in domestic politics is the primary noncompensatory guide. Further, threats to that security come from both inside and outside the state's borders and encompass economic concerns too, not only military calculations. In order to comprehend foreign policies around the globe, frameworks have to take into account how leaders conduct "intermestic" policy (where lines are blurred between the international and domestic). For these states, the models for intermestic policymaking differ from Western models.The analyst needs to understand two aspects: the threats the regime faces and the constituencies the leader sees as crucial to sustaining survival and controlling those threats.Analysis of how a leader uses a "framing threat" strategy and a "broadening audience" strategy can be used as tools to indicate the two criteria (threats the regime faces; internal/societal groups and external constituencies). By focusing on the analysis of the intermestic uses of threat, we gain insight into the most crucial priorities for the decision-maker and thus how the noncompensatory decision rule is applied. "Acceptable" policies must address these threats. Second, examining how a leader uses the broadening audience strategy shows us on which constituencies the leader calls as supporters and provides an indication of how the noncompensatory decision rule is applied. Indeed, we cannot only ask if the leader has legitimacy; we must answer the query, "legitimate to whom?" These audiences often cross borders. Integration of several FPA perspectives with work by Global South scholars provides a rich framework that sheds light on previously "puzzling" foreign policy decisions. If we keep domestic and foreign policy separate in our models, we are missing a key dimension of LDC politics: Underdevelopment of regime security and the legitimacy that helps provide it are tied to interests and identities that are transnational in nature.