An Experimental Investigation of the Rally Around the Flag Effect

Download data and study materials from OSF

Principal investigator:

Doug Kriner

Boston University



Sample size: 5069

Field period: 9/25/2011-12/14/2011

Prior scholarship paints contrasting portraits of democratic publics in times of crisis. Perhaps the dominant view emphasizes citizens' general reticence to pay the costs of war. As such, political leaders should possess strong domestic political incentives to exhaust all diplomatic alternatives before resorting to the use of force. However, other studies demonstrating a rally around the flag effect suggest that democratic leaders are less constrained than commonly supposed, and may even reap political rewards for aggressive action in foreign theaters. To gain greater insight into the complex domestic political incentives leaders face in times of crisis, we investigate the forces governing democratic citizens' crisis opinion formation through a series of survey experiments conducted in both the United States and United Kingdom. Consistent with recent literatures emphasizing how cognitive biases, emotion, and neurobiological responses can produce an innate preference for aggression, we find citizens routinely preferring a military to a diplomatic response to a crisis. In many cases this preference persists, even if diplomacy would have produced similar policy benefits at an arguably lower cost. We conclude that in certain contexts democratic publics will often fail to check the aggressive impulses of their leaders, and instead will incentivize suboptimal policy outcomes.

This project examines how the public evaluates political leaders' responses to international crises. Specifically, it seeks to answer whether democratic citizens prefer a military to a diplomatic response to a crisis scenario. The analysis then examines the extent to which this preference is robust to the reaction of other political elites to the president (or, in a follow-up study, British Prime Minister's) and to the number of casualties sustained in any military action.

Experimental Manipulations
The TESS component of the project was a two stage experiment. In the first stage, all subjects are presented with a hypothetical scenario in which African rebels have captured an American merchant ship in the Red Sea. Subjects are then randomly assigned to one of four treatment groups. They are informed either that the president has decided to use force or to negotiate in an attempt to secure the hostages' release. They are also informed that members of Congress from both parties either support or oppose the president's course of action.
Subjects are then asked whether they support or oppose the president's handling of the crisis.
In the second stage, subjects learn about the outcome of the president's action. In the negotiation treatments, subjects learn that all hostages are released, though the time it takes to secure their release is varied. In the use of force treatments, all subjects learn that the use of force succeeded in freeing the hostages; however, the number of military casualties varies across treatments (0, 5, or 14).

The dependent variable is support for the president's handling of the crisis.

Summary of Results
In the TESS experiment, we found that Americans were more supportive of the president's crisis management when he responded with force than when he attempted to negotiate. This result held regardless of whether or not Congress supported or opposed the president's approach. Moreover, support for an aggressive president remained robust, even in the face of considerable casualties. A follow-up experiment revealed similar opinion dynamics in the United Kingdom. Finally, a second follow-up experiment with a modified design conducted in the United States showed similar dynamics even in a parallel scenario where the hostages were UN observers and not Americans.


D. Kriner and G.K. Wilson. "De-Incentivizing Diplomacy: When Democratic Publics Prefer Aggression to Negotiation." Working Paper.