World Politics

Research Article

The Rational Timing of Surprise

Robert Axelroda1*

a1 University of Michigan


National leaders are frequently surprised by the actions of other governments. This paper explores the structure common to problems involving the use of resources for achieving surprise. Such resources include deception through double agents and through sudden changes in standard operating procedures. Still other resources for surprise include cracked codes, spies, and new weapons. Since surprise is usually possible only by risking the revelation of the means of surprise, in each case the same problem arises: when should the resource be risked and when should it be maintained for a potentially more important event later? A rational-actor model is developed to provide a prescriptive answer to this question. Examining the ways in which actual actors are likely to differ from rational actors leads to several important policy implications. One is that leaders may tend to be overconfident in their ability to predict the actions of their potential opponents just when the stakes get large. Another implication is that, as observational technology improves, the potential for surprise and deception may actually increase.

Robert Axelrod is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and an Associate Research Scientist in the Institute of Public Policy Studies of the University of Michigan. He is the editor of Structure of Decision: The Cognitive Maps of Political Elites (1976). Currently he is working on decision rules for the Prisoner's Dilemma game, and on deception in the Soviet press.

* I would like to thank Brian Barry, Steven Brams, John Chamberlin, Michael Cohen, Alex George, Mark Granovetter, Jeffrey Hart, and Zvi Lanir for their help. I am indebted to Douglas Danforth and Carol Treanor for their assistance in the development of the mathematical ideas. I would also like to thank the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where this paper was written.