Territorial Gains and Losses: The Political Psychology of Issue Indivisibility

Doctoral Dissertation


Why do states develop intransigent maximalist preferences in territorial disputes? I argue that shifting relative power dynamics between states with territorial disputes causes dissatisfaction with the status quo. Rising powers feel they are entitled to more than the status quo and set new aspirational references points. Declining powers fail to accept the new status quo and retain the previous status quo as their reference point. When reference points shift such that states view compromise as a loss they develop a preference for territory that is averse to loss, resulting in intransigent maximalist preferences. This argument explicitly draws on the insights of prospect theory. I test my argument using a mixed-methods approach. I first present evidence from a survey experiment in which participants demonstrated a decreased willingness to compromise when primed in the domain of losses. I then present three case studies of territorial indivisibility, namely Israel/Palestine, Taiwan, and Ireland. I test these cases against prominent theories of indivisibility and find that issue indivisibility is an important factor in international relations and that the source of intransigent maximalist preferences lies in the psychology of loss aversion driven by shifting power dynamics.


Attribute NameValues
Author Sean P. Braniff
Contributor Sebastian Rosato, Research Director
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Political Science
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2018-06-04

Submission Date 2018-07-03
  • Preference formation

  • Territorial disputes

  • Prospect theory

  • Relative power

  • Issue indivisibility

  • International relations theory

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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