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Think Ahead: Cost Discounting and External Validity in Foreign Policy Survey Experiments

  • R. Joseph Huddleston (a1)


This paper considers the implications of construal level theory in the context of survey experiments probing foreign policy opinion formation. Psychology research demonstrates that people discount the long-term consequences of decisions, thinking about distal or hypothetical events more abstractly than immediate scenarios. I argue that this tendency introduces a bias into survey experiments on foreign policy opinion. Respondents reasoning about an impending military engagement are likelier to consider its costs than are those reasoning in the abstract hypothetical environment. I provide evidence of this bias by replicating a common audience costs experimental design and introducing a prompt to consider casualties. I find that priming respondents to articulate their expectations about casualties in a foreign intervention reduces support and dampens the experimental effect, thereby cutting the estimated absolute audience cost substantially. This result suggests a gap between how survey respondents approach hypothetical and real situations of military intervention.



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I would like to thank Nicholas Weller for his tireless help, extensive brainstorming, and numerous read-throughs in developing this project. I also appreciate the helpful comments from Patrick James, Youssef Chouhoud, Tom Jamieson, and all the participants in the University of Southern California's Center for International Studies’ working paper series. I also greatly appreciate the grant provided by USC-CIS to carry out the experiment. The data, code, and any additional materials required to replicate all analyses in this article are available at the Journal of Experimental Political Science Dataverse within the Harvard Dataverse Network, at: doi: 10.7910/DVN/5KM8VO. I had no conflicts of interest in the creation of this article.



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Think Ahead: Cost Discounting and External Validity in Foreign Policy Survey Experiments

  • R. Joseph Huddleston (a1)


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