How Humiliation Motivates War

International relations theories often assume that actors make military conflict decisions unemotionally, weighing the costs and benefits as a computer might. However, abundant historical examples suggest this is not the case. According to Bob Woodward’s account, President Trump responded to the news that the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, had used chemical weapons by saying, “Let’s ****ing kill him! […] Let’s go in. Let’s kill the ****ing lot of them.” In another example, Nixon justified his administration’s decision to secretly bomb Cambodia by insisting, “we will not be humiliated.” Emotional reactions in foreign policy crises are not limited to the United States or democracies. During a meeting of China’s top leaders after NATO bombs struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, President Jiang Zemin said, “I was so filled with anger when I heard the news [that] I could not say a word, and my mind went completely blank.” Leader emotions and pressure from emotionally aroused citizens likely influence decision-making.

In particular, scholars have suggested that “humiliation” influenced the Russian government’s decision to use forcibly annex Crimea from Ukraine. Further, narratives of national humiliation have become dominant in China and are reinforced by Chinese propaganda and the state-controlled education system. These narratives proclaim that China has a glorious history but was humiliated by foreign powers during the ‘century of national humiliation,’ beginning with the First Opium War in 1839 and ending with the Communist takeover in 1949. Previous research suggests that these narratives increase the tendency of the Chinese government to escalate international disputes.

Despite its importance, we lack a clear account of exactly how humiliation influences conflict decision-making. Further, we lack evidence that can clearly distinguish humiliation’s effect from other influences. Actors might simply use the rhetoric of humiliation to justify decisions they would have made anyway. Further, it could be that certain events, such as international setbacks or defeats, lead to both humiliation and conflict. In either of these cases, the humiliation would only be a byproduct rather than a driving factor in conflict decision making. My article proposes a theory that explains how humiliation influences conflict decision-making and uses a pair of experiments to determine whether humiliation plays a causal role in these decisions.

I draw on research from psychology and neuroscience to argue that humiliation increases support for using military force by decreasing sensitivity to the cost of using force. In brief, humiliation’s intensity makes humiliated individuals less responsive to the negative consequences of hostile actions. Starting a war or even a smaller scale conflict is likely to be costly both in terms of lives and treasure. If individuals are less sensitive to these costs, then they should be more willing to initiate conflict.

To test this theory, I conduct both a survey experiment and a laboratory experiment. Experiments allow me to examine the effect of humiliation while holding the international context, which could influence individuals’ attitudes towards conflict through means other than humiliation, constant. In the survey experiment, I randomly assign participants either to write an essay designed to provoke humiliation or a control essay that does not trigger an emotional response. After the participants write their essay responses, I use a series of questions to measure their emotional states. Then I present them with an international scenario in which the United States faces a decision about whether to use military force. Respondents are randomly assigned to read either that using force would either be “very costly” or “not very costly” to the United States. I find that humiliated respondents are more likely to support using force because they reduce their support for conflict less than respondents in the control condition when informed conflict will be very costly.

One potential objection is that, unlike initiating an actual conflict, expressing support for a hypothetical war does not involve real costs. For this reason, participants might respond differently in the artificial conditions of the experiment than they would when making decisions that entail real costs. To partly address this concern, I conduct a second experiment in a laboratory setting in which participants play a game that requires them to decide to attack or not. Participants are paid a bonus, in cash, depending on the result of the game. As in the survey experiment, participants are randomly assigned either to write the control essay or the humiliation essay, and I measure their emotional reaction. Unlike the survey experiment, instead of simply reading that using force is costly or not, respondents are randomly assigned to different monetary bonus conditions that imply attacking either has a higher or lower cost. This means that respondents attacking in the high-cost condition forfeit real money they could have made had they chosen not to attack. Consistent with the results of the survey experiment, I find that humiliated participants in the laboratory experiment are more likely to choose to attack and that this effect is driven by the humiliated respondents being less responsive to the higher cost of conflict.

These findings have implications for international disputes. For example, the Chinese government claims, and many Chinese citizens believe, that Taiwan as well as territory in the South and East China Seas rightfully belongs to China and was taken during the century of humiliation. My findings indicate that governments, like China, that have humiliation narratives regarding a dispute are more willing to pay the cost of fighting than we would think when not taking emotions into account. This higher than expected resolve means that to prevent conflict, countries on the other side of these disputes will either need to make China better offers in order to settle these disputes or be able to impose enough costs to deter even individuals who are emotionally motivated to pay greater costs. Another implication is that if the emotional effect of these humiliation narratives could be weakened, it would have an effect similar to raising the cost of war from the Chinese perspective, making conflict less likely.

This blog piece is based on the article “Humiliation and International Conflict Preferences” by Michael Masterson,  forthcoming in the Journal of Politics,  April 2022.

The empirical analysis of this article has been successfully replicated by the Journal of Politics and replication materials are available at The Journal of Politics Dataverse.

About the author

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Michael Masterson- Missouri State University

Michael Masterson is a Rosenwald Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Dartmouth College and an Assistant Professor at Missouri State University. His work sits at the intersection of international conflict and political psychology with an area focus on China. You can find further information regarding his research here. 

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