Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Cheap Talk, Real Deterrence?

Dustin Tingley and Barbara Walter have an interesting article in the latest issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution on using controlled experiments to analyze the role of "cheap talk" in conflict deterrence situations. Here's the abstract:
What effect does cheap talk have on behavior in an entry-deterrence game? We shed light on this question using incentivized laboratory experiments of the strategic interaction between defenders and potential entrants. Our results suggest that cheap talk can have a substantial impact on the behavior of both the target and the speaker. By sending costless threats to potential entrants, defenders are able to deter opponents in early periods of play. Moreover, after issuing threats, defenders become more eager to fight. We offer a number of different explanations for this behavior. These results bring fresh evidence about the potential importance of costless verbal communication to the field of international relations.
The model itself posits a "defender" who is confronted with a series of possible "entrants" who must choose whether to challenge or not challenge the defender. This defender then decides whether to fight the "entrant" or concede. The balance of incentives for fighting vs. acquiescing is determined by whether the defender is a "strong" or a "weak" type. "Strong" defenders would prefer to fight a challenge while "weak" ones benefit more from accepting it. However, the type is randomly assigned and unknown to the entrant. The defender's actions reveal the type to the entrants in successive rounds (entrants know how a defender reacted in previous rounds when other entrants chose to challenge), but in early rounds the type is largely unknown. Therefore, a weak defendant may have an incentive to fight early in order to signal a "strong" type to future entrants and deter those challenges.

Tingley and Walter add into the game the possibility for "cheap talk" - private communication between the defender and entrant. Defenders could send a message that they will either fight or not fight if challenged before the entrant makes their decision. Both types of games (talk vs. no talk) were played out by a group of test subjects - conveniently available undergraduates.

Despite the prediction that communication should not alter the game since preferences remain static and talk itself should not reveal anything about whether the defender is strong or weak since all types of defenders have an incentive to bluff, Tingley and Walter find that talk has a deterrent effect in early rounds. That is, when entrants lack reliable information about the defender's type, they appear to be dissuaded by costless threats alone. The effect disappears in later rounds as entrants get more information about the defender. Surprisingly, the results also suggest that talk has a slight deterrent effect even when a defender has revealed weakness by not fighting a challenge. Even more interesting is the finding that in early rounds, weak defenders who issued a threat and previously not backed down were more likely to follow through with the threat if challenged (which is unexpected if not following through imposes no costs).

The authors suggest a signalling explanation. In the game, the participants are unsure of whether their opponents will understand how to play the game. Cheap talk can be a way of confirming that a player does indeed know how the game works thereby "deterring" opponents from exploiting information asymmetries. Early threats are expected since both sides know the defender wants to signal strength and will likely follow through in early rounds to deter future challengers. If a defender does not threaten, then they are signalling less competence and therefore inviting a possible challenge. This explains both why entrants pay attention to threats (since they reveal something about the games-playing ability of the defender) and why defenders follow through (both are associated with competence since more capable weak defenders understand that fighting early and taking a loss can benefit as a signal to future challengers). Essentially, its not that cheap talk itself deters, but rather that its absence may suggest a defender that does not fully understand the game.
Given that a threat is costless, a defender who threatens early in the game is playing exactly as one would expect him or her to play. Likewise, a player who does not issue a threat may be indicating that he or she does not fully understand the game. Thus, sending a threat or not sending a threat signals to the challenger something about the sophistication of the defender. (1010).
The model provides an explanation for the prevalence of "cheap talk" among international actors. Costless threats are assumed to exist and thus are conspicuous when absent. Even in inter-state disputes, where actors are likely to already be well-informed about the other's nature (via intelligence gathering), cheap threats remain ubiquitous. For example, Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz in response to sanctions is expected even if the action itself would be irrational. Although following through would be too costly, signalling the option shows that Iranian leadership is playing the deterrence game rationally, that is, it will try to show strength for as long as possible.

However, I think the Tingley and Walter model is most applicable in situations where there is a true "low-information environment." Protest movements against autocrats are one such example. Why do dictators like to "talk tough"? The model suggests that they must do so in order to avoid showing incompetence. Let's assume that autocratic leaders want to deter protesters from protesting. Conversely, protesters must decide whether to challenge the regime or stay quiet, and this choice depends on how intensely they think the leader will fight them. "Strong" type leaders will choose to fight while weak ones will "acquiesce." However, the information asymmetry in such authoritarian states is highly pronounced - protesters find it difficult to determine whether their leader is a strong or a weak type (because of media control, lack of political networks, etc...) and discover this only through the government's reaction to protests. Likewise, both sides are also unsure about how well the other will play the "game." There is a potential difference in expertise. Therefore leaders may send signals of toughness simply because they are expected to do everything they can to say "I will fight" in a costless fashion. Failing to do so reveals an imperfect player (a weak leader who doesn't try to hide it) and suggests the possibility that a leader may back down when faced with a protest.

The first related example that came to mind were the post-election protests in Russia. In a blog post at the Monkey Cage, Andrew Little hinted at a similar logic behind the persistence of election fraud. If everyone knows the results are falsified, why bother falsifying? He argues that because fraud is expected, lack of fraud can be a signal of weakness to protesters. Likewise the bluster coming from the Kremlin (which I discussed last week) is certainly just talk, but it is also expected - it shows that the Russian government knows that it must appear as a "strong" type rather than a "weak" type.

On an even more extreme end, the model might explain the persistence of the North Korean personality cult and the speed at which elites tried to build up the image of Kim Jong Un. If leaders want to deter challengers and show strength, then even if no one believes the propaganda, it still has a purpose. It confirms that the leadership will continue acting in a manner that projects a strong type even if the regime is itself weak. It also might explain the increasing absurdity of North Korean propaganda efforts. If Kim Jong Il's personality cult was at a "10," then Kim Jong Un must crank it up to "11" or risk revealing weakness.

Certainly all of these cases are imperfect applications of the model. Indeed, in the real world, it is difficult to isolate the effects of "costless" talk from other phenomena that may be unobservable. Talk in the aforementioned scenarios is also more public than private and therefore not entirely costless. Despite these and other differences between the model and its application, I think Tingley and Walter make an interesting point in providing a rational basis for ostensibly meaningless actions. Even if no one believes cheap talk, everyone expects that it will exist simply due to the lack of any consequences. Refraining from cheap talk suggests that an actor is not playing the game as efficiently as they could be (a revelation that is particularly meaningful).

I was also intrigued by the method that Tingley and Walter used in light of Brad Smith's recent post on the dearth controlled experiments in IR research. My sense is that although it is difficult to make the jump directly from undergrads to states, lab experiments can be a good first step in testing a new and possibly counterintuitive model. Here I think an experimental approach was effective since it is almost impossible to isolate the effects of communication in an observational study. Finding the "ideal" case of entirely private and entirely costless talk in the "wild" is a difficult task, especially when there is no clear starting point. The experimental approach is certainly nowhere near conclusive, but it does help define the initial parameters for an observational study. To use the Rumsfeldian theory of knowledge, there are a lot of "unknown unknowns" in IR, things that we cannot even begin to test observationally because we do not know where to start. Lab experiments can help convert those into "known unknowns."  That is, we can isolate an effect in a controlled study, so we "know" that it might exist, but cannot yet find a good example in real-world observation. From there it is a matter of finding cases that roughly fit the ideal type and varying some of the initial constraints (public vs. private talk, zero cost vs. near-zero cost) to figure out whether the model remains applicable. Truly controlled experiments are certainly fun and awesome, but my sense is that they are only the initial step to more rigorous real-world testing.

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