Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Force of Face-to-Face Diplomacy: Mirror Neurons and the Problem of Intentions

  • Marcus Holmes (a1)

Face-to-face diplomacy has long been the lynchpin of international politics, yet it has largely been dismissed as irrelevant in theories of cooperation and conflict—as “cheap talk” because leaders have incentives to dissemble. However, diplomats and leaders have argued for years that there is often no substitute for personally meeting a counterpart to hash out an agreement. This article argues that face-to-face diplomacy provides a signaling mechanism that increases the likelihood of cooperation. Face-to-face meetings allow individuals to transmit information and empathize with each other, thereby reducing uncertainty, even when they have strong incentives to distrust the other. The human brain has discrete architecture and processes devoted to parsing others' intentions via cues in face-to-face interaction. These processes enable actors to directly access the intentions of others with a higher degree of certainty than economic and game-theoretic models of bargaining predict.

Hide All
Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
Avikainen, Sari, Wohlschläger, Andreas, Liuhanen, Sasu, Hänninen, Ritva, and Hari, Riitta. 2003. Impaired Mirror-Image Imitation in Asperger and High-Functioning Autistic Subjects. Current Biology 13 (4):339–41.
Bennett, Andrew O. 2003. Trust Bursting Out All Over: The Soviet Side of German Unification. In Cold War Endgame: Oral History, Analysis, Debates, edited by Wohlforth, William C., 175206. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Bond, Charles F. Jr., Omar, Adnan, Pitre, Urvashi, Lashley, Brian R., Skaggs, Lynn M., and Kirk, C.T.. 1992. Fishy-Looking Liars: Deception Judgment from Expectancy Violation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 63 (6):969–77.
Bush, George, and Scowcroft, Brent. 1998. A World Transformed. New York: Knopf.
Cacioppo, John T., and Berntson, Gary G.. 1992. Social Psychological Contributions to the Decade of the Brain: Doctrine of Multilevel Analysis. American Psychologist 47 (8):1019–28.
Calvo-Merino, Beatriz, Glaser, Daniel E., Grezes, Julie, Passingham, Richard E., and Haggard, Patrick. 2005. Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers. Cerebral Cortex 15 (8):1243–49.
Carnevale, Jessica J., Inbar, Yoel, and Lerner, Jennifer S.. 2011. Individual Differences in Need for Cognition and Decision-Making Competence Among Leaders. Personality and Individual Differences 51 (3):274–78.
Chiappe, Dan, Brown, Adam, Dow, Brian, Koontz, Jennifer, Rodriguez, Marisela, and McCulloch, Kelley. 2004. Cheaters Are Looked at Longer and Remembered Better Than Cooperators in Social Exchange Situations. Evolutionary Psychology 2:108–20.
Chollet, Derek H., and Goldgeier, James M.. 2003. Once Burned, Twice Shy? The Pause of 1989. In Cold War Endgame: Oral History, Analysis, Debates, edited by Wohlforth, William C., 141–74. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Crowe, William J. Jr., and Chanoff, David. 2001. The Line of Fire: From Washington to the Gulf, the Politics and Battles of the New Military. New York: Simon and Schuster.
de Talleyrand-Perigord, Charles Maurice, de Broglie, Albert, de Beaufort, Raphael Ledos, and Hall, Angus W.. 1892. Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
de Vignemont, Frederique, and Singer, Tania. 2006. The Empathic Brain: How, When and Why? Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (10):435–41.
Druckman, James N., Green, Donald P., Kuklinski, James H., and Lupia, Arthur. 2011. Cambridge Handbook of Experimental Political Science. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Edelstein, David M. 2002. Managing Uncertainty: Beliefs About Intentions and the Rise of Great Powers. Security Studies 12 (1):140.
Ekman, Paul. 2009. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: Norton.
Ekman, Paul, and O'Sullivan, Maureen. 1991. Who Can Catch a Liar? American Psychologist 46 (9):913–20.
Faber, David. 2009. Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Fearon, James D. 1994. Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes. American Political Science Review 88 (3):577–92.
Fogassi, Leonardo, Ferrari, Pier Francesco, Gesierich, Benno, Rozzi, Stefano, Chersi, Fabian, and Rizzolatti, Giacomo. 2005. Parietal Lobe: From Action Organization to Intention Understanding. Science 308 (5722):662–67.
Frank, Robert H. 1988. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions. New York: Norton.
Frank, Mark G., and Ekman, Paul. 1997. The Ability to Detect Deceit Generalizes Across Different Types of High-Stake Lies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72 (6):1429–39.
Gallese, Vittorio. 2009. Mirror Neurons, Embodied Simulation, and the Neural Basis of Social Identification. Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives 19 (5):519–36.
Gallese, Vittorio, Fadiga, Luciano, Fogassi, Leonardo, and Rizzolatti, Giacomo. 1996. Action Recognition in the Premotor Cortex. Brain 119 (2):593609.
Gallese, Vittorio, and Goldman, Alvin. 1998. Mirror Neurons and the Simulation Theory of Mind-Reading. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (12):493501.
Gazzola, Valeria, van der Worp, Henk, Mulder, Theo, Wicker, Bruno, Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Keysers, Christian. 2007. Aplasics Born Without Hands Mirror the Goal of Hand Actions with Their Feet. Current Biology 17 (14):1235–40.
Glenberg, Arthur M. 2011a. Introduction to the Mirror Neuron Forum. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 (4):363–68.
Glenberg, Arthur M. 2011b. Positions in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 (4):408–10.
Goldman, Alvin I. 2006. Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology, and Neuroscience of Mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grèzes, Julie, Frith, Chris, and Passingham, Richard E.. 2004. Brain Mechanisms for Inferring Deceit in the Actions of Others. Journal of Neuroscience 24 (24):5500–5.
Gutsell, Jennifer N., and Inzlicht, Michael. 2011. Intergroup Differences in the Sharing of Emotive States: Neural Evidence of an Empathy Gap. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 7 (5):596603.
Hari, Riitta, and Kujala, Miiamaaria V.. 2009. Brain Basis of Human Social Interaction: From Concepts to Brain Imaging. Physiological Reviews 89 (2):453–79.
Hasson, Uri, Ghazanfar, Asif A., Galantucci, Bruno, Garrod, Simon, and Keysers, Christian. 2012. Brain-to-Brain Coupling: A Mechanism for Creating and Sharing a Social World. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 16 (2):114–21.
Herrmann, Richard K., and Choi, Jong K.. 2007. From Prediction to Learning: Opening Experts' Minds to Unfolding History. International Security 31 (4):132–61.
Hogan, Robert. 1969. Development of an Empathy Scale. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 33 (3):307–16.
Horgan, Terence, and Woodward, James. 1985. Folk Psychology Is Here to Stay. Philosophical Review 94 (2):197226.
Iacoboni, Marco. 2009a. Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons. Annual Review of Psychology 60:653–70.
Iacoboni, Marco. 2009b. Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. New York: Picador.
International History Review. 1994. Symposium on Paul W. Schroeder. 16 (4):663862.
Jay, Martin. 2010. The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Jönsson, Christer, and Hall, Martin. 2005. Essence of Diplomacy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Keysers, Christian, and Gazzola, Valeria. 2007. Integrating Simulation and Theory of Mind: From Self to Social Cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (5):194–96.
Kydd, Andrew H. 2005. Trust and Mistrust in International Relations. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Langleben, Daniel D., Willard, Dan F.X., and Moriarty, Jane C.. 2012. Brain Imaging of Deception. In Neuroimaging in Forensic Psychiatry: From the Clinic to the Courtroom, edited by Simpson, Joseph R., 217–36. Chichester, UK: Wiley.
Levendusky, Matthew S., and Horowitz, Michael C.. 2012. When Backing Down Is the Right Decision: Partisanship, New Information, and Audience Costs. Journal of Politics 74 (2):323–38.
Lindley, Dan. 2003. Avoiding Tragedy in Power Politics. Security Studies 13 (2):195229.
Lindley, Dan. 2007. Promoting Peace with Information: Transparency as a Tool of Security Regimes. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
McDermott, Rose. 2009. Mutual Interests: The Case of Increasing Dialogue Between Political Science and Neuroscience. Political Research Quarterly 62 (3):571–83.
Mearsheimer, John J. 2011. Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.
Meyer, John W., and Rowan, Brian. 1977. Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony. American Journal of Sociology 83 (2):340–63.
Mitzen, Jennifer. 2013. Power in Concert: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Global Governance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mitzen, Jennifer, and Schweller, Randall L.. 2011. Knowing the Unknown Unknowns: Misplaced Certainty and the Onset of War. Security Studies 20 (1):235.
Molnar-Szakacs, Istvan, Wu, Allan D., Robles, Francisco J., and Iacoboni, Marco. 2007. Do You See What I Mean? Corticospinal Excitability During Observation of Culture-Specific Gestures. PLoS ONE 2 (7):e626. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 11 January 2012.
Mondak, Jeffery J. 2010. Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Orme-Johnson, David W., Alexander, Charles N., Davies, John L., Chandler, Howard M., and Larimore, Wallace E.. 1988. International Peace Project in the Middle East: The Effects of the Maharishi Technology of the Unified Field. Journal of Conflict Resolution 32 (4):776812.
Palazhchenko, Pavel. 1997. My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter. University Park: Pennsylvania State University.
Pettigrew, Thomas F., and Tropp, Linda R.. 2011. When Groups Meet: The Dynamics of Intergroup Contact. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Putnam, Robert D. 2001. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rathbun, Brian C. 2007. Uncertain About Uncertainty: Understanding the Multiple Meanings of a Crucial Concept in International Relations Theory. International Studies Quarterly 51 (3):533–57.
Rathbun, Brian C. 2011. Trust in International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics and American Multilateralism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Redcay, Elizabeth, Dodell-Feder, David, Pearrow, Mark J., Mavros, Penelope L., Kleiner, Mario, Gabrieli, John D.E., and Saxe, Rebecca. 2010. Live Face-to-Face Interaction During fMRI: A New Tool for Social Cognitive Neuroscience. NeuroImage 50 (4):1639–47.
Rendall, Matthew. 2007. A Qualified Success for Collective Security: The Concert of Europe and the Belgian Crisis, 1831. Diplomacy and Statecraft 18 (2):271–95.
Renshon, Jonathan. 2009. When Public Statements Reveal Private Beliefs: Assessing Operational Codes at a Distance. Political Psychology 30 (4):649–61.
Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Craighero, Laila. 2004. The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27:169–92.
Rizzolatti, Giacomo, Fabbri-Destro, Maddalena, and Cattaneo, Luigi. 2009. Mirror Neurons and their Clinical Relevance. Nature Clinical Practice Neurology 5 (1):2434.
Rizzolatti, Giacomo, Fogassi, Leonardo, and Gallese, Vittorio. 2006. Mirrors in the Mind. Scientific American 295 (5):5461.
Ross, Dennis. 2008. Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Schroeder, Paul W. 1996. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schulte-Rüther, Martin, Markowitsch, Hans J., Fink, Gereon R., and Piefke, Martina. 2007. Mirror Neuron and Theory of Mind Mechanisms Involved in Face-to-Face Interactions: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Approach to Empathy. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 19 (8):1354–72.
Schultz, Kenneth A. 2001. Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Self, Robert. 2006. Neville Chamberlain: A Biography. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.
Self, Robert, ed. 2005. The Neville Chamberlain Diary Letters. Vol. 4, The Downing Street Years, 1934–1940. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.
Sharp, Paul. 2009. Diplomatic Theory of International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shumaker, David. 1995. Gorbachev and the German Question: Soviet-West German Relations, 1985–1990. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
Snyder, Jack, and Borghard, Erica D.. 2011. The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny, Not a Pound. American Political Science Review 105 (3):437–56.
Storper, Michael, and Venables, Anthony J.. 2004. Buzz: Face-to-Face Contact and the Urban Economy. Journal of Economic Geography 4 (4):351–70.
Tetlock, Philip E. 1998. Social Psychology and World Politics. In Handbook of Social Psychology. 4th ed. Vol. 2, edited by Gilbert, Daniel T., Fiske, Susan T., and Lindzey, Gardner, 868912. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Tingley, D. 2006. Neurological Imaging as Evidence in Political Science: A Review, Critique, and Guiding Assessment. Social Science Information 45 (1):533.
Vrij, Aldert, Akehurst, Lucy, Soukara, Stavroula, and Bull, Ray. 2004. Detecting Deceit via Analyses of Verbal and Nonverbal Behavior in Children and Adults. Human Communication Research 30 (1):841.
Webster, Hutton. 1921. World History. New York: D.C. Heath.
Webster, Charles K. 1931. The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh: Britain and the Reconstruction of Europe. 2 vols.London: G. Bell and Sons.
Wendt, Alexander. 1999. Social Theory of International Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wohlforth, William C. 2003. Cold War Endgame: Oral History, Analysis, Debates. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Xu, Xiaojing, Zuo, Xiangyu, Wang, Xiaoying, and Han, Shihui. 2009. Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathic Neural Responses. Journal of Neuroscience 29 (26):8525–29.
Yamagishi, Toshio, Tanida, Shigehito, Mashima, Rie, Shimoma, Eri, and Kanazawa, Satoshi. 2003. You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover: Evidence That Cheaters May Look Different from Cooperators. Evolution and Human Behavior 24 (4):290301.
Zelikow, Philip, and Rice, Condoleezza. 1995. Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Zubok, Vladislav. 2002. Gorbachev and the End of the Cold War: Perspectives on History and Personality. Cold War History 2 (2):61100.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed