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Estimating signaling games in international relations: problems and solutions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2019

Casey Crisman-Cox*
Department of Political Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA
Michael Gibilisco
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:


Signaling games are central to political science but often have multiple equilibria, leading to no definitive prediction. We demonstrate that these indeterminacies create substantial problems when fitting theory to data: they lead to ill-defined and discontinuous likelihoods even if the game generating the data has a unique equilibrium. In our experiments, currently used techniques frequently fail to uncover the parameters of the canonical crisis-signaling game, regardless of sample size and number of equilibria in the data generating process. We propose three estimators that remedy these problems, outperforming current best practices. We fit the signaling model to data on economic sanctions. Our solutions find a novel U-shaped relationship between audience costs and the propensity for leaders to threaten sanctions, which current best practices fail to uncover.

Original Article
Copyright © The European Political Science Association 2019

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