Monday, September 9, 2013

Framing Syria: The Psychology of Pro vs. Anti U.S. Intervention

Stephen R. Poteau, Ph.D.

This is not meant to be another well-worn politicized psychology piece highlighting the differences between Democrats and Republicans, but instead, a reminder of how psychology affects the attitudes of citizens, both Democrat and Republican alike, regarding foreign policy. The big news these last few weeks has focused on Syria and how the U.S. is poised for action. There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people, and that is a tragedy, but there are many atrocities committed on foreign soils that we, as a nation, were/are comfortable ignoring (e.g., genocides in Cambodia,[1] Rwanda,[2], and Bosnia,[3] to list only a few examples). What underlying psychological processes are responsible for our neutral, supportive, or opposing stances when it comes to U.S. foreign policy?

The psychological research on framing isn’t new, but in areas like attitudes toward politically charged issues, it has a much more recent history. Simply put, the psychology of framing is the examination of how the presentation of something (e.g., emphasizing losses or gains) biases choices/behaviors and attitudes. Since comparisons have been made between the situation in Syria and the missteps we took in going to war in Iraq,[4] a look at the framing of the issues surrounding the Iraq wars may shed light on why nearly 60% of Americans oppose a U.S. intervention in Syria, according to a Reuters poll[5] (only 9% are supportive and 30.2% are supportive if chemical weapons had been used by the Syrian government).

A framing study in 2008 examined a multitude of factors that influenced attitudes regarding the Iraq wars (Borrelli & Lockerbie), and found, for example, that when asking Americans whether or not they support the Iraq war, merely mentioning U.N. or international support for U.S. involvement in Iraq lends American citizens to be much more likely to support the war. However, when the same question is posed with a mention of a lack of international support, American citizens are not supportive of the U.S. engaging in the Iraq war (Borrelli & Lockerbie).  Applying these framing effects to the Syria question, not only is there a lack of international support for our proposed intervention,[6] but there is also a lack of interest among U.S. politicians (across both parties) to wait for the U.N. to inspect chemical weapon sites,[7] which may ring eerily reminiscent of WMDs in the days George W. Bush was in office (as I write this my phone buzzed with the CNN headline, ‘Clothing and soil samples collected after Syria gas attack tested positive for sarin, UK PM’s office says’[8]).
Questions regarding support also skewed in favor of the Iraq wars if they were framed in such a manner that Hussein’s threats to Saudi Arabia, WMDs, or terrorism were mentioned (Borrelli & Lockerbie, 2008). Similarly, as noted, there is an increase in support for a U.S. intervention in Syria from 9% to 30.2% when sarin is mentioned. There is talk of terrorism in the form of a response from Hezbollah directed at Israel should the U.S. intervene in Syria, but the majority of media outlets have dubbed the repercussions (largely emanating from Syria, Russia, Iran, and China) to a U.S. intervention as exaggerated and unlikely to transpire.[9] In fact, in an article inaptly titled,‘5 Possible Repercussions of a U.S. Military Strike on Syria,’ ABC news addresses only 4 repercussions (the 5th repercussion is that there is no repercussion!). The other 4 repercussions noted are softened or muted by policy wonks.  Obama’s appeal to action in Syria hasn’t gained traction in the psychology of Americans possibly because his claim that there is a direct threat to our own national security[10] isn’t as convincing as WMDs and terrorism after 9/11. The semantic framing of the Iraq war as the ‘War on Terror’ by the Bush administration appealed to American psychology as the confrontation of an evil and irrational adversary that is lacking in the media coverage of the Syrian conflict (Harmon & Muenchen, 2009).

One very interesting finding in the study of the framing of the Iraq war was the effect of the names of the political actors in the forefront of the conflict (Borrelli & Lockerbie, 2008). An explicit mention of George H. W. Bush or George W. Bush led to an oppositional stance on the Iraq war, while explicit mention of Saddam Hussein led to increased support for the Iraq war (Borrelli & Lockerbie). The authors suggest further study into why the American psyche is affected in such a curious manner, but there appear to be parallels with the current Syria situation. Though there is a good amount of coverage of Assad, the dominant theme of the U.S. news cycle revolves around Obama (e.g., Obama pressing/almost ignoring Congress to push forward with a U.S. intervention, Obama versus Putin at the G-20 summit over Syria, etc.). Perhaps this framing with Obama as the dominant focus of the U.S. media coverage of Syria has dampened support for a U.S. intervention just as it did when George H. W. Bush or George W. Bush was mentioned in the context of the Iraq war.  
Framing effects are much more pronounced when attitudes are not strongly held, but maybe after 9/11 and the Iraq and Afghan wars, attitudes regarding foreign policy have calcified into a non-interventionist mindset among the American public. To think we are no longer susceptible to framing effects, however, would be naïve and dangerous. There is a wealth of research on attitude change suggesting that a more elaborate type of thinking can elicit lasting attitude change less resistant to persuasion, while focusing on superficial things like the characteristics of the speaker will lead to only temporary attitude change (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Maybe we, as the American public, should consciously engage in a more elaborate processing of issues that are central to the well-being of our country. Maybe we should dare to eliminate or at least blunt framing effects when it comes to such pertinent issues like whether or not we should go to war in Iraq or whether or not we should intervene in Syria.

Borrelli, S. A., & Lockerbie, B. (2008). Framing Effects on Public Opinion During Prewar and Major Combat Phases of the U.S. Wars with Iraq. Social Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), 89(2), 502-522.
Harmon, M., & Muenchen, R. (2009). Semantic Framing in the Build-Up to the Iraq War: Fox versus CNN and other U. S. broadcast news programs. ETC: A Review Of General Semantics, 66(1), 12-26.

Petty, R.E.,& Cacioppo,J.T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123-162.