Foreign Policy and Neuroscience

Dr. Jeffrey D. Berejikian

Department of International Affairs

University of Georgia


Welcome to the University of Georgia!

First Year Odyssey Seminars (FYOS) are a bit different than traditional classes. In addition to learning about a subject (more on that below), FYOS classes are designed to accomplish several goals. Each of these is intended to assist you in the transition to life as a student at UGA, and to give you a better understanding of the mission and purpose of the university. Broadly, the goals are:

  • Introduce you to the importance of scholarship and academics so that you can engage productively with faculty and fellow students at the University of Georgia.
  • Provide you with an opportunity to interact closely with faculty so that we can be a resource for you as you progress through your education.
  • Communicate the research, instruction, and public service missions of the university, and foster an understanding of the role of the university in the local, national, and international community.

Public research universities like the UGA are amazing institutions. So, in short, the central goal for our FYO is to help you appreciate and understand what UGA is all about, and to help you find a place here where you can contribute to our collective mission while receiving a first-rate education!

Class Overview:

The substantive topic for this class is foreign policy and neuroscience. This means that we will explore how our understanding of foreign policy is shaped by recent advances in the study of human decision making. Topics like war and peace, international economics, ethnic conflict, etc., often seem as if they are the result of forces beyond human control. The study of foreign policy and decision making suggests otherwise. Here we will learn that the foreign policy choices of governments are driven by the very same factors that shape the decisions you make routinely in your everyday life.

Graded Components:

There are five graded components in this class. Each component is worth 100 points.

  • The first is a team-generated project in which you will identify the resources here at UGA that are designed to assist students in their research on International Affairs. The goal is to get you out of the classroom and explore the university. Each team will be given a topic in the second week of class. Your assignment is to build a database of research personnel, libraries, digital archives, and other information that can serve as a resource throughout your time here. You will also share this information with your classmates; each team will present the results of their search the class and construct a detailed digital booklet – containing web links, contact information, and other resources – for distribution. This project is due at the mid-point of the semester. (100 pts)
  • The second component is a team research project. Each team will use resources identified in the first half of the semester to examine a contemporary foreign policy issue by applying class concepts. The goal of these projects is to conduct a “deep” dive into a topic of interest. Teams will select their own issues and will offer a 10 to12 minute research presentation at the end of the semester. (100 pts)
  • Third, students will draft three analytical/thought essays that apply the reading material to a current foreign policy issue (750 words). The purpose of the essay is to utilize a class concept to posit an explanation for a foreign policy event that is different than an explanation offered in the popular press.  Each essay must discuss a different class concept and event. (100 points each)
  • Fourth each student will complete a reflective essay that will be due the last day of class. The topic for these essays is (100 points)
  • Finally, your active and engaged participation is required for a successful seminar. You can earn up to 100 points through your active participation. Informed discussion means that you will have to do the assigned readings and come to class prepared for debate.


Non-Graded Components

There two non-graded activities that will be central to the success of our course.

First, this semester we will take two-three weeks to work on an active research project. Our research team is currently running a series of psychological decision experiments on approximately 300 active-duty U.S. military commanders (ranging from Major though Two-Star General) on issues related to nuclear, chemical, and cyberwar. Part of the research involves coding responses to open-ended questions. Working as teams, you will receive instruction on how to categorize these responses for analysis from a fellow UGA undergraduate who is part of our team.

Here’s the fun part.  This is *not* an exercise. You will be participating in a real research project! Later this semester I will present the results of this research, including the data you will build in our class. Our visits include Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, the Pentagon, Offices of the Joint Chiefs, and the Office of the President. After each visit, we will discuss how the research was received, how each of the audiences reacted, and where this project fits into the broader landscape of US foreign policy.

The second non-graded component will be an out-off class session (with pizza provided by UGA!) where we consider two important topics that are not connected to class material, but that are important for your success as a student. The first is the importance of establishing a routine to get sleep. As a new college student, it’s easy to let this slip. However, the research is clear: not getting enough sleep damages your physical and emotional health and degrades your academic performance. The second topic relates to organization. Every student needs some form of a daily planner. The specific kind of planner doesn’t matter as much as committing to a routine of staying organized. Please read the two articles below before our meeting (date to be determined). We will have an informal discussion about our success, failures, and strategies for improvement on both of these dimensions.

Sleep! https://aasm.org/college-students-getting-enough-sleep-is-vital-to-academic-success/

Get Organized! https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/smarter-living/paper-planner-guide.html


The grade scale is as follows (percent basis):

A     100-93

A-   92-90

B+   89-87

B     86- 83

B-   82-80

C+   79-77

C     76-73

C-   72-70

D     69-60

F     59 and below


Academic Honesty:

You will see references to this in every syllabus from here forward. Become  familiar with the culture and policies at here at UGA:

Reading Assignments:

I will assign readings as we progress through the course. Each week, after our discussions, we will collectively pick a topic for the following class. The reading burden here will be light and will focus almost exclusively on topics that you will propose and find interesting. Your job will be to come to class prepared to talk about the issues. My responsibility will be to connect these to what we know about decision making from the view of contemporary cognitive science.

As we begin the class, the US disputes with North Korea and Iran are prominent and crucial foreign policy issues in the news today. So, we will start with a discussion of nuclear deterrence and the role of psychological factors in making deterrence decisions. This also dovetails nicely with the data project you will work on later this semester. We will start by establishing a basic understating of deterrence logic, and then move to psychology.

Note on readings:

  • We will be examining both popular press and academic articles related to decision making. Some of these readings will assume a background and training that you do not (yet) possess. These will be challenging as a result. That’s fine. Don’t panic. We will provide the necessary background information in class.
  • All the readings in this class are open-source. The cost to you for course materials is $0.00

Reading Schedule

Week 1


Week 2

Please read through the slides summarizing the history of nuclear deterrence:

Optional: This is for those who want a deep-dive into US deterrence policy:

Organize team projects to learn about the UGA and its resources.

Week 3

Introduction to Neuroscience (basic brain structure)

Optional: This is short, compelling and really quite amazing Ted Talk by one of the best cognitive scientists on the planet.

How our modern understanding of the brain might affect when nuclear deterrence is likely to work, and when it is likely to fail?

Week 4

Loss Aversion

First, identify examples of loss aversion in your everyday life, and then consider how this cognitive heuristic might affect deference behavior.

Week 5

Background on Russian hacking of the US election:

Week 6

Fear and politics.

Do you believe that the Russian government use social media to explicit how the brain processes fear?

Week 7

Group Presentations

Each Group will distribute a copy of their digital booklet prior to class.

Please bring your presentations on a USB thumb drive, and load them onto the media center prior to class

Week 8

Fear-based decision making continued.

We started with an application of fear and the Russian election hack. Now, think about other examples of how fear is shows-up in American politics, and about US foreign policy. How might this affect the kinds of policies that the American public supports?

Week 9

Data Coding!

Bring copies of your coding sheets to class.

Week 10

Data Coding!

Week 11

Ethnic conflict and civil war


What is the conventional explanation for why Syria used chemical weapons on specific ethnic groups in Syria

Week 12

In-group bias, out-group hostility:

  • Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C. D., & Singer, T. (2010). Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup members’ suffering predict individual differences in costly helping. Neuron, 68(1), 149-160.

How does in-group/out-group bias help us understand ethnic conflict and civil war?

Week 13

How do does a society justify killing? We rationalize it?

First 25 minutes are most important for our discussion, but the remainder is fascinating and tragic!)

Week 14

Debriefing on DC trips!

Here is a link to the powering slides for one of our presentations.

We will discuss how policymakers in the US security community reacted to research project you helped create earlier this semester.

Week 15

Maybe it’s Ok that we are not rational all the time.

We have spent the semester considering the many ways in which our decision making can go off-track. With respect to foreign policy this is potentially devastating. But maybe the problem isn’t as bad as we first imagined.

…you will have to decide!

Week 16

Group Research Presentations

Please bring your presentations on a USB thumb drive, and load them onto the media center prior to class