Schub, Robert: Are You Certain? Leaders, Overprecision, and War

(PDF) Does greater certainty about an opponent's military characteristics cause peace? This paper argues that the relationship between certainty and war is conditional on certainty's sources.

Consistent with bargaining models of war, certainty is pacifying when it is appropriate given the available information. However, leaders and advisors often inappropriately inflate the precision of their information. These errors of overprecision are most common when estimation processes exclude elites who oversee a state's international diplomacy and when leaders have no combat experience. In either scenario, greater certainty can increase the likelihood of war. I test the hypotheses by measuring certainty in an original data set consisting of over 850 speaker texts from declassified documents pertaining to 44 crises involving the US during the Cold War. Results support the theory, demonstrating the conditional relationship between certainty and war. The findings highlight the potential danger of leader and elite certainty and illustrate that integrating rationalist and behavioralist approaches can improve our understanding of interstate conflict.