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Bounded Rationality and the Diffusion of Revolution

Cognitive psychology guides theory of 1848 revolutionary contagion

Posted: August 28, 2009

The 1848 wave of revolution that spread across Europe and reached parts of Latin America stands to this day as an archetypical case of the diffusion of regime contention. Kurt Weyland explains revolutionary contagion by advancing a theoretical argument rooted in the concept of bounded rationality and drawn from the empirical findings of cognitive psychology. “The Diffusion of Revolution: ‘1848’ in Europe and Latin America,” published in the July issue of International Organization, outlines how events induced brash decision making during the “springtime of the peoples.”

Explaining why people participate in the risky business of revolution at all is a complicated social science task, let alone untangling the multi-layered processes that propel revolution’s diffusion. However, as Weyland explains, humans do not tend to process relevant information systematically, but instead simplify complexity, allowing them to effectively make decisions and act, but potentially limiting the quality of their decisions. Dramatic information grabs human attention, irrespective of the information’s actual relevance, and leads to excessively firm conclusions from limited data. The ease with which the French monarch fell in 1848 led to rash – and ultimately false – inferences that if it happened in Paris, it could happen anywhere.

This article is part of a larger project Weyland is working on: "Waves of Regime Contention in European and Latin American Democratization." Weyland is Lozano Long Professor of Latin American Politics.

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