How Social Cues Can Shape Public Opinion: Peace and Knowledge of Diplomacy

Evaluating a war tends to be done in a retrospective manner. The Iraqi War, in the current day, tends to be evaluated as a complete and total mistake. However, in the days leading up to military action in Iraq, a majority of the people of the United States supported the initiative. Hoffman, Agnew, VanderDrift, and Kulzick examined this issue, trying to determine what, if any, social cues could have led to public support for this imminent disaster.

Studies of the past suggest that the American public is not afraid of suffering causalities in war, so long as victory is the likely outcome. That would then suggest that the reason behind many Americans supporting the war in Iraq was that they believed that victory would be swift and decisive. Polls indicate that 60% of all Americans believed that such was the case.

Hoffman et al. believe that support being driven by probability of victory is a flawed method of thinking. They hypothesize that instead public support for war is based on their knowledge of alternative solutions to armed conflict, such as diplomacy or sanctions. They base their hypothesis around the idea that the public tends to believe that war is an option of last resort, which according to a recent poll, is a belief that over 70% of the nation holds. If such is the case, they hypothesize, times of ardent war support must be times when the American public does not believe or know that alternative courses of action exist.

To examine this claim, Hoffman et al. set up an experiment to test their hypothesis. In this experiment, they asked participants about whether they would support the United States using military force to respond to a hypothetical crisis in the Middle East, and if so, how many causalities were acceptable for the cause. In the control condition, they made no mention about the prospect of diplomatic negotiations. The first experimental condition posed the same hypothetical scenario, on top of mentioning that diplomatic negotiations could also be used successfully. In the second experimental condition, participants were asked the same question about their thoughts on the use of military force, while also being told that diplomatic negotiations did not have a high chance of success.

The results were similar to the hypothesis. They found that when participants were told that the use of diplomatic negotiations would be successful, they reported a lower number of casualties would be acceptable for them to support the war. However, the results also showed that the level of support when not being informed of diplomatic alternatives was very similar to the level of support when being told that diplomatic alternatives would not be successful. These results held true regardless of the hypothetical scenario presented to the participant: whether weapons of mass destruction were a part of the equation or not, whether al-Queda was a part of the equation or not, or whether the details of the operation itself were largely unknown or known.

The question becomes, what do these results mean? Hoffman et al. made a strong case for why the war in Iraq received a large amount of public support: Americans did not know that there were diplomatic alternatives, and assumed that war was the last and only option. In terms of the future of foreign policy, these results suggest that the media could play a large role due to their ability to expose these social cues. If CNN were to run a story on how to diplomatically resolve a specific conflict (say, the situation in Iran) without the use of military force, the results of this experiment suggest that public support for a war could be altered dramatically.

As we move toward the future, and presidents become less and less autonomous with the decision of war making, we must realize the breakthrough this study could be for the prospects of world peace. In the United States, it is difficult to go to war without the public’s backing, and if the public is made aware of the possibilities of diplomatic alternatives, they are less likely to support war. Could peace be this simple? It may be as simple as a reminder that negotiations are more effective than bullets and guns.



Hoffman, A. M., Agnew, C. R., VanderDrift, L. E., & Kulzick, R. (2015). Norms, diplomatic alternatives, and the social psychology of war support. Journal Of Conflict Resolution, 59(1), 3-28. doi:10.1177/0022002713498706



This entry was posted in PS253-2015. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.