Do Costly Signals Matter? Unifying Theories of Signaling and Perceptions in International Relations

Can a state accurately communicate its intentions to another state as needed? What variables influence states’ understanding of and responses to other states’ behaviors? Answering these questions could be one key to understanding the causes of war and peace.

I find quite a bit of support for the rationalist theory of signaling. Costly signals, as opposed to “cheap talk,” are those actions incurring high costs that an actor who wants to send false signals cannot afford. I find that observers of state actions tend to infer an adversary’s intentions as the theory of signaling dictates. Costly signals tend to be perceived as credible in the eyes of signal receivers. However, observers’ perceptions and attitudes sometimes deviate from what rationalists would expect. I explain these “irrational” responses of signal receivers with cognitive psychological and constructivist theories.

This project makes both theoretical and methodological contributions. It contributes to what we know about state intentions and signaling: whether and when a state’s intentions matter in security, and how a state can communicate its intentions. This project attempts to expand current understanding in three ways. First, it addresses the debates between standard structural realists and defensive realists about the role of intentions by empirically testing their competing theories. Second, it tests the theory of signaling by examining the effectiveness of three signaling mechanisms—military, nonmilitary, and diplomatic signaling—in conveying a state’s intentions. Third, this is the first study that brings both reassurance and resolve into the same model, which the current literature has not done sufficiently. Another contribution is methodological. This project provides some of the first empirical micro-level evidence of the theory of signaling. Previous studies on signaling, based on case studies, can solve neither the endogeneity nor the collinearity problem. Survey experiments can overcome these obstacles and find the pure effects of a state’s signals on signal-receivers’ perceptions and attitudes.

This study has the potential to achieve a broader impact on the security community as well. It will enable policy makers to make better-informed security decisions by providing scientific data about ways to communicate their governments’ preferences in security. Studying signaling mechanisms will illuminate which policy options decision makers can choose to increase national security by conveying their governments’ preferences to other states. Additionally, policy makers can make better policies with a deeper understanding of the public’s perceptions and attitudes toward an adversary.