Listro on Harrington and Knopf, 'Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons'

Anne Harrington, Jeffrey W. Knopf, eds.
David Listro

Anne Harrington, Jeffrey W. Knopf, eds. Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019. 232 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-5563-4.

Reviewed by David Listro (Air University) Published on H-War (November, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

The editors, Anne Harrington and Jeffrey Knopf, seek to employ elements of the growing field of behavioral economics towards understanding nuclear decision-making in their book Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons. The field of behavioral economics set forth by Noble Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman builds on research in psychology, neuroscience, and other fields to aid us in understanding human decision-making. The editors point out that the rational actor model is insufficient in predicting a state’s decision to use nuclear weapons and suggest that behavioral economics offers decision-makers a more realistic picture for how humans actually decide to use, or not use, “the bomb.” The book makes it clear that behavioral economics does not provide a complete solution to nuclear weapon decision-making, but does provide important insights that deserve consideration. 

The first chapter may be the most influential to the book’s overall theme as it provides the first-ever statistical analysis of the effectiveness of prospect theory on both nuclear and non-nuclear conflict deterrence. Prospect theory suggests that people “engage in risk-averse behavior with respect to gains [gains frame] and risk-acceptant behavior with respect to losses [loss frame].”[1] The study reveals that deterrence may not work if a state is operating in a “loss frame.” The statistical analysis shows that the “loss frame” factor is highly significant in predicting if a state will initiate conflict. In fact, the factor remains important, regardless of whether the rival state has nuclear weapons or not. Determining if a state is in a “loss frame” is not trivial. Doing so requires understanding a state’s security position in the world, which is outside the scope of this review. However, if one can show that a rival state is operating in a “loss frame,” one will have a better understanding of how difficult it will be to deter them from conflict and can adjust policy as necessary.

Chapter 2 reveals problems with the behavior of personnel who monitor nuclear warning systems. The authors, Janice Stein and Morielle Lotan, discover that personnel hesitated to relay nuclear warnings because they were worried about false alarms and inadvertently starting a nuclear war. This discovery may cause policymakers to suggest more automation in the launch of nuclear weapons. Alternatively, some policymakers may take solace in the knowledge that there is a strong buffer between warnings and launch, thus reducing the chance of an accidental nuclear war. 

Chapter 3 reviews doctrinal publications of deterrence for the United States and China. The author, Nicholas Wright, notes that “both China and the United States recognize a psychological component to deterrence, seeing it as a state of mind brought about in one’s adversary” (p. 14). Wright argues, however, that neither side has the psychology correct. This error could lead to mistakes in predicting what the other side will do. The final chapter on nuclear deterrence contains philosophical thought experiments. The chapter is full of abstract concepts such as projected time and temporality that are better suited for people with a background in philosophy or metaphysics. The author, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, struggles to show how this information can be applied to nuclear decision-making.   

Chapters 5 and 6 delve into the world of nuclear proliferation. Chapter 5 discusses sanctions. It shows that sanctions are more likely to work on states that are interested in participating in the global economy. States that practice isolation, such as North Korea, may not be easily coerced through sanctions.   

Chapter 6 studies the implications of justice and fairness and explains why the nuclear nonproliferation regime has had difficulty stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. In short, non-nuclear weapon states often find it unjust or unfair that they are not allowed to have nuclear weapons. The author makes the assertion that this perception of injustice makes those countries want nuclear weapons even more. In fact, neuroscience has shown that the motivation for humans to reject unfairness, perceived or real, can influence national decision-making.[2] 

In chapter 7, the author studies the processes that drive decision-makers to select certain ballistic missile defense (BMD) technologies. The author, Zachary Zwald, examines US debates concerning BMD technology and exposes potential problems when allowing biased parties such as military services or defense contractors to decide which BMD technologies to pursue. The author recommends utilizing the democratic political process to make such decisions. Zwald suggests that having an open political debate will require interested parties to work together to determine the best BMD technology for the United States.

The final chapter discusses potential problems when applying behavioral economics to nuclear decision-making. It is imperative that decision-makers understand that much of behavioral economics is rooted in the cognitive processes of the human brain and applies at the individual level. The author states that treating “complex social actors, such as states, as if they would display the same biases as an individual is to commit a category mistake” (p. 198).   

Despite some minor deviations from the book’s central theme in chapters 4 and 7, the authors bring to light several important revelations concerning the applicability of behavioral economics to nuclear decision-making. Although rational-actor models are still at the forefront of most nuclear deterrence strategy deliberations, they are most likely deficient. The study of behavioral economics offers an alternative window through which to evaluate decisions about nuclear weapons.


[1]. David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis, eds., Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 270. 

[2]. Nicholas Wright and Karim Sadjadpour, “The Neuroscience Guide to Negotiations with Iran,” The Atlantic, January 14, 2014,






Citation: David Listro. Review of Harrington, Anne; Knopf, Jeffrey W., eds., Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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