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Question Framing and Support for Military Action and Diplomacy

This analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest

When do people support war, when do they support diplomacy? In this study, the authors examined if and how the framing of questions impacts how the public supports military versus diplomatic conflict resolution strategies. Existing literature suggests that governments weigh public opinion in their decision-making whether to engage in warfare instead of other approaches to addressing conflicts (e.g., diplomacy). Thus, this research is important from a real-life perspective of decision-making and public policies. If public opinion is measured with flaws and governments take those polls into account when deciding whether to wage war or pursue diplomacy, there can be dire consequences—the human, economic, and other costs of military action. One of the factors to consider when framing public support questions is how people evaluate the use of military force versus diplomacy. In polling, where people self-report their preferences, military force tends to be viewed in isolation (yes or no), whereas diplomacy tends to be viewed in conjunction with the alternative of military force.

The researchers conducted three experiments where they changed the way the question about support for military force or diplomacy was framed. Previous research has shown that different response alternatives indeed affect the answers. The main distinction made in this research was the framing in isolation (yes/no) or in conjunction with an alternative (either/or). In other words, the authors asked in three different ways: 1) whether or not military action was supported; 2) whether or not diplomacy was supported; and 3) whether military action or diplomacy was supported. In the first experiment, the authors used the real-life context of Israeli/Iranian relations to ask a sample of Israeli Jews about the threat of the Iran nuclear program to Israel and whether to respond to it militarily or through diplomacy. In the second experiment, the authors provided two hypothetical conflicts and one real-life conflict to a sample of American adults. In the third experiment, with a sample of American adults, the authors tested whether a conflict’s severity would affect the responses given.

A key finding across the three experiments is that there is seemingly stronger support for military action when the question presents it in isolation than when the question presents military and diplomatic strategies in conjunction with one another. In the context of the Israeli experiment, the most striking result was that opinion changed from a majority supporting a military response when it was presented in isolation to a majority supporting a diplomatic response when the two options were presented in conjunction with one another. A 63% majority opting for military action in isolated questioning (military action, yes or no?) changed to 46% of people favoring military action over diplomacy (military action of diplomacy?). The second experiment also found more military support for military action in isolated question framing than under joint question framing. In the third study, the authors added conflict severity to test whether military force would receive more support if the conflict were very severe. The authors assumed that question framing would only have an impact on the responses for moderately severe conflicts. Especially in moderate conflicts, the types of conflict where decision-makers would be more likely to consider public opinion, question framing had the most significant impact on self-reported support for the use of military action.

In sum, the authors found that question framing strongly influences people’s support for the use of military force. The authors recommend that pollsters and researchers always provide an alternative strategy to military action when asking respondents what approach they support. By doing so, mis- or under-informed decision-making by policy-makers can be minimized.

Talking Points:

  • In public opinion polling, question framing strongly influences people’s support for the use of military force
  • There is seemingly stronger support for military action when a question presents it in isolation than when a question presents military and diplomatic strategies in conjunction with one another.
  • When asked about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program, Israelis’ opinion changed from a majority supporting a military response when it was presented in isolation to a majority supporting a diplomatic response when the two options were presented in conjunction with one another.
  • In moderate conflicts, the types of conflict where decisions-makers would be more likely to consider public opinion, question framing had the most significant impact on self-reported support for the use of military action.

 Contemporary Relevance:

This research brings us back to a study that we presented in our first issue of the Peace Science Digest. The study showed that there was a proven decline in public support for war when alternatives were offered. It made clear that peace advocacy cannot be based on simply saying no to war without offering alternatives. This study adds to this understanding by showing that offering diplomatic solutions as alternatives to military action can change a majority of pro-military responses to a majority of pro-diplomacy responses in the context of Israeli public opinion on Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. is currently facing two key foreign policy questions on war and peace: 1) the deliberate sabotage of the so-called Iran nuclear deal by the U.S. administration is seen by many experts as a pretense to go to war; and 2) the constant threats by the U.S. administration against North Korea, despite efforts between North and South Korea to de-escalate, have all the warning signs of preparation for war. Therefore, in the current context, and quite frankly in any war and peace context, public information on the issues needs to go beyond a misleading “war, yes or no?” framing to a “war or diplomacy?” framing. The latter should be enhanced by a cost-benefit analysis of military action versus diplomatic efforts.

Practical Implications:

As peace professionals and advocates, one of the greatest services we can offer to change the dominant narrative about war and peace is to always introduce alternatives to military options. In doing so, the inaccurately measured public opinion of “support for war” can be challenged. In offering viable alternatives, peace advocates can create a counter-narrative to that offered by the commonly found “experts” in the public, whose differences sometimes only extend as far as which group to arm or how many troops to send—not whether to arm groups or send troops at all. In other words, the public debate often revolves around discussing the merits of different military approaches instead of discussing the merits of diplomacy versus military approaches. The latter, as this study has shown, can better inform and even change public opinion.

For many practitioners it may be stating the obvious, but peace advocacy must not get stuck in the negative frame (against war) without offering the positive frame based on a set of viable alternatives (for peace through an offered set of options).

Pollsters and media companies should consider the findings of this research to ensure that they are not under- or misinforming decision-makers by leaving out vital information in their question framing. Of course, peace advocates need to scrutinize and hold polling and media companies accountable for employing bad polling practices—knowingly or unknowingly—to ensure that the government does not justify going to war based on public opinion that is missing crucial information.

Citation:

Leidner, B., & Ginges, J. (2017). What You Ask Is What You Get: Citizens’ Support for Military Action, But Not Diplomacy, Depends on Question Framing. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 17(1), 184–204. 

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