Learning Theories

States are rational, and regime type matters. That is, countries will tend to do what is in their best interest. However, what is in the best interest of a country depends on what sort of country it is. Thus, Russia’s best interests are probably very different from those of India, China, Europe, or the United States, Russia desires to maximize oil prices means it needs to redistribute wealth away from the producers of wealth to the extent possible. Growth-oriented countries, by contrast, need to create wealth to the extent possible.

Still, none of this happens in a vacuum. Countries learn what is the best way to achieve their goals. In particular, is modeling (which is analogically adopted from the research of Albert Bandura) or “conquest-and-reward” (which is analogically adopted from the research of B.F. Skinner) the best method for removing bad behavior from the repetior of states?

First, some background on the approaches:

Conquest-and-reward is an operationalization of the Law of Efffect, which was first described by E.L. Thorndoke in 1898 and refined over the next decades to the following

Responses to stimuli that produce pleasing effects are more likely to occur again

Responses can be “positive” (some new good thing is added) or “negative” (some old bad thing is taken away). Punishment doesn’t work predictably, as it interacts with volition instead of motivation. Instead, to prevent a bad behavior from reoccuring, you would subject the organism to an upleasant state of affairs, and lift the bad experience when the organism complies. “Conquest-and-reward” (C&R) is a basic feature of all learning systems, whether mechanical, animal, or human. C&R, by itself, does not explain all variation in learning behavior. However, it is a great start.

Modeling is a more complex form of learning that relies on an orgasm using the behavior and consequences of other observable organisms as a form of “offloaded experience.” In modeling, an organism observes a behavior, acquires the gist of it, and reproduces the behavior (with variation) in similar situations. So, in the classic Bobo Doll study, for example, children watched a model abuse a doll in specific ways, and proceeded to abuse the doll in novel ways.

With states, my suspicion is that C&R is more important than modeling. Or rather, they operate in different ways. C&R, through condition, impacts what a country actually wants. America’s learned response from Vietnam was to avoid counterinsurgencies, for instance. Modeling, in contrast, provides methods for a country to get there. The successful integration of much of Old Core Europe into the European Union, for instance, modeled behavior that would allow the central European states to get what they want (rich and free of Russian domination). Thus, if a country wishes a bad outcome, such as the conquest of a neighbor, modeling provides a mechanism only of demonstrating how that could be done successfully, while C&R can reverse the bad behavior.

7 thoughts on “Learning Theories”

  1. The idea that states are rational is as wrong as the idea that market participants are rational.

    Some states are usually rational. Some states are not. Was Hitler’s Germany rational when it attacked Russia? Was US behavior through the period of the Vietnam War rational? Was Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran rational?

    Game theory tells us that states should conceal their degree of rationality to some extent – uncertainty is a useful tactic. To do so, they must be willing to act irrationally.

    Nuclear deterrence is based on the enforcement of irrational behavior: that if an enemy does you grievous damage, you will launch an all out attack that will result in mutual annihilation, which leaves both sides worse off than after the first attack.

  2. Useful Fools,

    Thanks for the comment!

    The idea that states are rational is as wrong as the idea that market participants are rational.

    Some states are usually rational. Some states are not. Was Hitler’s Germany rational when it attacked Russia? Was US behavior through the period of the Vietnam War rational? Was Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran rational?

    Rational refers to have a coherent preference schedule, and being able to act on it.

    You are speaking of wise, smart, etc., which are different concepts.

    Game theory tells us that states should conceal their degree of rationality to some extent – uncertainty is a useful tactic. To do so, they must be willing to act irrationally.

    You seem to confuse rational with trivially predictable.

    Nuclear deterrence is based on the enforcement of irrational behavior: that if an enemy does you grievous damage, you will launch an all out attack that will result in mutual annihilation, which leaves both sides worse off than after the first attack.

    For this reason, much of the early work at MAD was at enforcing the response in spite of human unpredictability.

    Stanley Kubrick’s film, ‘Dr Stangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,’ satires this approach.

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