Using fictitious country names in hypothetical scenarios is widespread in experimental international relations research. We survey sixty-four peer-reviewed articles to find that it is justified by reference to necessary “neutralization” compared to real-world scenarios. However, this neutralization effect has not been independently tested. Indeed, psychology and toponymy scholarship suggest that names entail implicit cues that can inadvertently bias survey results. We use a survey experiment to test neutralization and naming effects. We find not only limited evidence for neutralization, but also little evidence for systematic naming effects. Instead, we find that respondents were often more willing to support using force against fictitious countries than even adversarial real-world countries. Real-world associations may provide a “deterrent” effect not captured by hypothetical scenarios with fictitious country names. In turn, fictionalization may decrease the stakes as experienced by respondents. Researchers should therefore carefully explain rationales for and expected effects of fictitious country names, and test their fictitious names independently.
In Table 2 below you can see that respondents were more willing to use military force against “Celesta,” “Drakhar,” or “Minalo” than they were either a friendly real country (Canada) or a hostile one (Iran).
The research here focuses on survey responses, not serious game play. However the findings may have some interesting implications for strategic-level wargames using fictional country names, which may be more prone to escalation than similar games using real countries.
Interestingly, the authors also suggest that the more “real” a country sounds, the less fictionalization effects are evident:
Our results suggest that the more clearly fictitious a country name, the easier to condone attacking it—fictionality and its perceived costlessness can therefore embolden respondents to provide more aggressive responses.
These results point to the relevance of perceived realistic-ness: the more “real” a country name sounds to respondents, the weaker the fictionalization effect. In particular, there seems to be a deterrent effect associated with realistic-ness, for example, of being able to imagine more easily the consequences associated with attacking Iran, especially bar any additional information that “fills out” the scenario.
The explanation they suggest for this is deterrence: respondents are better able to imagine the costs of an attack when the survey question asks about a real country rather than a fictional one. However, there may also be an empathy factor here—it’s easier to imagine killing and maiming actual Iranians or Canadians than it is “Minalans,” “Brakharis,” or “Celestians.”
In professional wargames, it is sometime necessary to use fictionalized countries, usually because of political sensitivities. In experimental games there may also be a desire to exert better control of key variables than is possible using a real-life settings. Both reasons apply, for example, to a recent series of NATO experimental wargames that examined Intermediate Force Capabilities in a fictional conflict between the Illyrian Federal Republic and Hypatia (the latter backed by Organization for Collective Security).
If Majnemer and Meibauer’s findings do indeed expand beyond international relations survey research to wargaming, there are several implications. One is the need to provide game participants with a rich and realistic fictional environment and to work hard to promote narrative engagement. Another is the need to caveat experimental findings, especially as they relate to use-of-force decisions but possibly other things as well, such as risk aversion or casualty sensitivity more broadly.