Human Rights Shaming, Compliance, and Nationalist Backlash

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Principal investigator:

Rochelle Terman

University of Chicago



Sample size: 1912

Field period: 03/27/2018-11/02/2018

In the last three decades, scholars and activists have argued that international “naming and shaming” can improve human rights conditions around the world. In addition to applying pressure from “above,” many argue that foreign shaming mobilizes domestic populations against their rights-violating governments. On the other hand, shaming could backfire by provoking a nationalist reaction. To date, however, the empirical literature has been unable to adjudicate between these two competing predictions. This study examines the effect of international human rights shaming on public opinion in the shamed country.

How does international human rights shaming affect public opinion in the shamed country? In addition to status quo ante, the study identifies two possible outcomes: (1) Compliance effects describe the tendency for individuals to report perceptions and attitudes that align with human rights advocates. (2) Backlash effects represent the inverse: shaming shifts public opinion in the opposite direction from the position advanced by advocates.

The main hypothesis is that international shaming exerts heterogeneous effects on public opinion in the shamed country.

H1: human rights criticism will drive compliance in Democrats but backlash in Republicans.
H2: foreign criticism to be less effective than identical criticism emanating from domestic sources.
H3: stigmatic shaming is more likely to backfire compared to reintegrative shaming.

Experimental Manipulations

There were 5 experimental conditions:

* Control: Participants read a vignette about an international advocacy group (HRAC) shaming multiple, unnamed countries for violations in the realm of criminal justice.

The 4 treatment groups read that HRAC is targeting the United States specifically:
* Treatment 1: HRAC is located in New York.
* Treatment 2: HRAC is located in Geneva.

Treatment 3 and 4 extend Treatment 2.
* Treatment 3: “stigmatic” shaming, singling out the US for denigrative criticism.
* Treatment 4: “reintegrative” shaming, praising the US and calling for international collaboration.


Participants rate their agreement with particular statements on a 5-point scale, regarding:
(1) perception of domestic human rights conditions,
(2) sentiments on nationalist superiority,
(3) support of international advocacy focused on U.S. rights abuses, and
(4) beliefs on the legitimacy of international law.

Participants are also asked whether they are willing to take actions (i.e. sign a petition, donate to HRAC) to support efforts to improve human rights in the U.S.

Summary of Results

Overall, I find no evidence to support the view that human rights criticism promotes pro-compliance mobilization among American citizens on average. On the other hand, criticism of the United States backfires on several dimensions.

On H1: contrary to expectations, shaming exerted backlash effects among both Republicans and Democrats. Democrats exposed to human rights shaming of the United States exhibited no significant change with regards to perceptions of human rights conditions or support of criminal justice reform. They did, however, withhold their support for international pressure targeting the United States (both a campaign and UN resolution).

In general, Republican participants exhibited more consistent backlash than their Democratic counterparts. Compared to those in the control group, Republicans who were exposed to foreign criticism of the United States reported higher nationalist sentiments and a more positive perception of domestic human rights conditions. They also expressed more hostility towards advocacy efforts, rejecting an international campaign focused on the U.S., and becoming less willing to donate to HRAC. Despite this, Republicans were more likely to agree that the U.S. government should reform the criminal justice system after exposure to foreign criticism. This was an unexpected finding.

H2 and H3 were not supported.