Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Majnemer and Meibauer: Fictitious country names affect experimental results

Jacklyn Majnemer (MIT) and Gustav Meibauer (Radboud University Nijmegen) have published a very interesting article in International Studies Quarterly, 7, 1 (March 2023) exploring whether fictitious country names in survey vignettes affect experimental results. The answer: yes they do.

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).

An unclassified NATO STO SAS wargame in 2022. You’ll note the Illyrian Federal Republic operations orders (OP IRKALLAN FREEDOM), in a conflict that seems rather reminiscent of a real one in some ways, but set in the northern Aegean.

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.

4 responses to “Majnemer and Meibauer: Fictitious country names affect experimental results

  1. Tracy Johnson 26/01/2023 at 2:04 am

    It also falls back to the old Larry Leadhead cartoon. “Little lead soldiers don’t leave behind little lead widows and orphans.” When you use an Imagi-Nation, you distance yourself from reality. To interpret Kit Barry, one does not have empathy for dead Celestians (or their widows and orphans). But one would have some if say … San Diego were nuked in a game.

    There was an old cold war science fiction story. The Soviet Union accidently nuked one of our cities. It also happened one of the President’s children was attending college there The Soviets didn’t know this. In a tit-for-tat, the Soviets offered one of their cities of similar size for us to nuke in return. The President asked his advisors where the Soviet Premier’s kid was … You get the rest of the story.

  2. Kit Barry 19/01/2023 at 4:51 pm

    “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.””

    …How much of the solution to this is in Tom Mouat’s migrants card deck? Explicitly humanising the abstract “threat”. More science required to see if the fictional name itself is not the problem, but the lack of humanising context.

    Migrant cards

  3. Joe Saur 16/01/2023 at 2:35 pm

    For hobby wargamers, I would say that we all do it to some extent or another, and then enjoy creating our own armies. In the real world, however, I would suggest that part of the Russian difficulties in Ukraine have to do with a failure to take into consideration many of the non-military side effects and second- or third-order diplomatic, informational, and economic (D, I & E) implications of their actions, and that can sometimes be seen as a result of not looking at the real country, but at the model/avatar/cartoon of the country that one has been planning against. Just a thought. Some examples might include the German belief that the British would have to sue for peace in ’39, the Japanese belief that we would not respond to Pearl Harbor, and Hussain’s belief that he could stop Desert Storm. Just a thought.

  4. Tracy Johnson 15/01/2023 at 2:38 pm

    This comes as a pleasant surprise to my group the Society of Daisy, where we use what we call “Imagi-Nations” for our campaigns. Unfortunately set in the 18th centrury, country names like the “Principality of Saxe-Burlap” run by Princess Trixie and the “Levitzer Rabbinate Empire” where only goyim are allowed to crew ships in its navy may not lend itself to “neutralization”.

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