Cyber-attacks and psychological IR perspectives: explaining misperceptions and escalation risks

  • Mischa HanselEmail author


This article aims to assess the explanatory power of psychological perspectives for understanding political decision-making during cyber-attacks. After introductory remarks about social cognition and IR research, it is deductively argued that cyberspace should be prone to cognitive biases because of several issue area characteristics. The case studies that follow serve as rudimentary plausibility tests of this claim. The first focusses on threat perception and crisis decision-making in Estonia in 2007. It is argued that an inherent bad faith image of their Russian neighbour and a search for consistency led Estonian decision-makers to believe in a state-led cyber-attack despite a great deal of ambivalent evidence. Several smaller case studies show further evidence of misperceptions during a range of other cyber-attacks primarily against targets in the United States. Altogether these case studies demonstrate that cognitive approaches are promising tools for analysing cyber-related decision-making and for inferring policy recommendations. At the same time, there are serious methodological challenges that future studies need to address.


cognitive approaches cyber-attacks cyberspace misperception psychological IR theories 



Some of the empirical material in this article has come out of my PhD research at the University of Cologne. An earlier version of the paper has been presented at the 2015 Annual Conference of the British International Studies Association (BISA) in London. The author wishes to thank all panellists as well as two anonymous reviewers for many helpful comments and suggestions that enabled him to clarify and improve his argument.


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© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Political ScienceJustus Liebig University GiessenGiessenGermany

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