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Do Participants and Observers Assess Intentions Differently During Bargaining and Conflict?


  • An online appendix containing supplemental analyses and sample instructions to subjects can be found at the author's website, I am grateful to Becky Morton, Mik Laver, Andy Schotter, Chris Weber, Meredith Rolfe, seminar participants at Stony Brook University, Florida State University, Nuffield College (Oxford), and Northwestern University, and several anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions.

Eric S. Dickson is Assistant Professor of Politics, New York University, 19 West 4th St., New York, NY 10012 (


Political actors in conflict settings are often uncertain about their counterparts' intentions. This article explores the psychology of how intentions are assessed using a novel experimental design that randomly assigns subjects to one of three roles—“proposer,”“recipient,” or “observer.” Recipients and observers are given identical noisy information about proposers' actions, and make postplay assessments of proposers' intentions that are rewarded based on accuracy. A first experiment explores a context of ambiguity, while a second experiment explores a context of uncertainty. The results suggest that actors' perceptions can sometimes be directly affected by the set of strategic alternatives they possess. When signals about proposer behavior appear “negative,” recipients' assessments of proposers' intentions are more negative than observers' assessments if recipients have the ability to respond to the proposer's action—but not if recipients lack this ability. The ability to respond to proposer behavior appears to cause recipients to make more negative inferences about the proposer than circumstances warrant. Interestingly, recipients' and observers' assessments are indistinguishable when signals about proposer behavior instead appear “positive.”