Fellowship Spotlight: Caleb Pomeroy

A new feature highlighting the work of CISAC fellows
Pomeroy White space

The Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), offers a rich variety of fellowships that allow early-career scholars to focus on a variety of security topics and participate in seminars to interact and collaborate with leading faculty and researchers.

In this Q&A, CISAC fellow Dr. Caleb Pomeroy, explores the intersection of psychology and international relations, delving into the impact of power on decision-makers, advocating for a "first image reversed" approach, and discussing the challenges and advantages of measuring psychological phenomena at a distance.

How did you become interested in the psychology of power in international relations? 

A basic premise of IR is that power begets security. So, I’ve always been puzzled by threat inflation in US foreign policy. The US invests substantial resources into addressing threats that other countries do not seem to see, like the impending fall of domino states to communism during the Cold War or the need for a global war on terror in response to the attacks of September 11. As a graduate student at Ohio State, I was surprised to learn that IR has almost no research on the psychological effects of power. I was also surprised to find that an expansive social psychological literature on power did exist. Inspired by this work, my first book project finds that the sense of state power – the intuitive feeling that “our state” is stronger than “your state” – activates a range of similar, unsettling effects in the context of IR, from overconfidence to threat inflation. In short, power makes leaders worse at power politics.

Could you elaborate on the concept of the "first image reversed" approach to international security that you introduce in your research? How does it differ from traditional perspectives in behavioral IR?

In addition to the lack of behavioral IR work on power, there was also a metatheoretic barrier to my interest in threat inflation. In IR, we typically think of psychology as a “bottom-up” enterprise focused on individual differences (also known as “first image” explanations of international outcomes). For example, Donald Trump and Joe Biden have very different personalities, and these differences probably matter for foreign policy. But, my interest in threat inflation stemmed from its persistence across time and personalities. That is, despite their differences, US leaders tend to see the world as a pretty dangerous place. To capture this process, I needed to reverse the standard causal arrow in psychological IR to examine the effects of structural and environmental forces (like power) on decisionmakers. The intuition here is that the exact same leader will think and behave very differently when given control over, say, a small versus large military. Humans are also a dependent variable shaped by power. 

Your methodological approach involves using statistical tools to measure psychological phenomena "at a distance.” Can you delve into the challenges and advantages of employing this approach?

Behavioral IR often uses experiments on everyday individuals to make inferences about elite psychology. The idea is that, if individuals generally think this way, then elites probably do too, and recent research suggests as much. Political scientists would prefer to run studies on elites themselves but, sadly, world leaders seldom respond to our survey requests. To overcome this challenge, I have been really impressed by the ability of text analysis in general, and word embeddings in particular, to quantify meaningful psychological phenomena “at a distance.” Elites talk a lot – in both public and private – and this textual data allows us to meet elites in their natural decisionmaking environments. A challenge is that much research is still needed to validate textual measures of psychological phenomena, but recent studies are very promising. 

In terms of success, which accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m really humbled by two recent things. First, my dissertation received the honorable mention for the Kenneth Waltz Award from the American Political Science Association’s international security section. Despite its psychological focus, the project retains Waltz’s intuitions about the causal force of structure, so I had fingers crossed for this award in particular (even if only as the runner-up!). Second, I’m really grateful that Rose McDermott and Charles Kupchan took the time to write responses to my first published paper on the psychology of power. It means a lot to a junior scholar when senior scholars invest time into feedback on a nascent research agenda, despite the lack of disciplinary incentives within political science to do so. I’m also indebted to Ron Krebs, as editor of the journal Security Studies, for organizing the exchange. Still, it’s important to reiterate that for any accomplishment in academia, there are often many more setbacks, as Melanie Stefan illuminates. It takes a village to raise an idea so, for any PhD candidates reading, be sure to find your village!

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

The factoid that seems to consistently surprise people is that, if not for academia, I would have likely gone into the fashion industry. As an artistic medium, fashion is an incredible mash up of design and aesthetics, politics and contestation, and identity production and co-production. At its best, it reveals new understandings of the world and what it means to be human in this world. To name just a few, I have been loving recent work by the designers Omar Salam (at Sukeina) and Venus Lo (at Chan Chit Lo). The late Alexander McQueen’s runway shows remain sorely missed exemplars of anticonventional thinking. And, the contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama has much inspiration to offer on all things design, life, gourds, and beyond.