International Organization

Research Article

Emotional Beliefs

Jonathan Mercera1

a1 University of Washington, Seattle. E-mail:


A belief in alien abduction is an emotional belief, but so is a belief that Iran intends to build nuclear weapons, that one's country is good, that a sales tax is unjust, or that French decision makers are irresolute. Revolutionary research in the brain sciences has overturned conventional views of the relationship between emotion, rationality, and beliefs. Because rationality depends on emotion, and because cognition and emotion are nearly indistinguishable in the brain, one can view emotion as constituting and strengthening beliefs such as trust, nationalism, justice or credibility. For example, a belief that another's commitment is credible depends on one's selection (and interpretation) of evidence and one's assessment of risk, both of which rely on emotion. Observing that emotion and cognition co-produce beliefs has policy implications: how one fights terrorism changes if one views credibility as an emotional belief.

Jonathan Mercer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, Seattle. He can be reached at


I thank Michael Barnett, Roland Bleiker, Tuomas Forsberg, Peter Viggo Jakobsen, Oded Löwenheim, Craig Parsons, Brian Rathbun, Pascal Vennesson, the editors at IO and their anonymous reviewers, and especially Elizabeth Kier for excellent suggestions and critiques. I also received very helpful comments from seminar participants at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), the European University Institute, the University of Helsinki, and the Psychology Pro-Seminar at the University of Minnesota. Kristan Seibel provided excellent research assistance. Final thanks go to my remarkable colleagues at DIIS, who provided me with a congenial and stimulating sabbatical home.