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Untying Hands: De-escalation, Reputation, and Dynamic Audience Costs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 December 2021

Kai Quek*
Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Corresponding author. Email:


Two states in a dispute refuse to back down. One ties its own hands to strengthen its stand and gain advantage; the other tries to untie the tied hands to preempt disadvantage. Tying hands is a well-studied strategy, but it tells only part of the story, and the response strategy of untying hands remains unexplored. Can a state untie the tied hands of its opponent to give freedom back to its opponent—the freedom to concede? I identify three strategies of untying hands: counterthreat, reassurance, and normative framing. I show experimentally that these strategies can reduce the public costs of backing down and the perceived reputational damage from backing down. Tied hands and audience costs are not static and immutable, but dynamic and malleable by the other side.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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