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Breaking Bad? How Survey Experiments Prime Americans for War Crimes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 November 2020


What affects Americans’ sensitivity to international laws and norms on the use of force? A wealth of recent IR literature tackles this question through experimental surveys using fictional scenarios and treatments to explore precisely when Americans would approve of government policies that would violate the laws of war. We test whether such survey experiments may themselves be affecting public sensitivity to these norms—or even Americans’ understanding of the content of the norms themselves. We show that being invited to express a preference regarding war crimes in survey settings has a negative impact on Americans’ understanding of US legal and ethical obligations in war and that reporting previous findings can inflate support for war crimes. We conclude with suggestions for future experimental survey design in international relations and international law.

© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

We are grateful to the participants in University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Approaches and Methods workshop in February 2020 and at the ISA International Security Studies Section Conference panel on Nuclear Norms in October 2019, to a number of anonymous reviewers, and to generous banks of written comments by Jeff Kaplow and Kevin Young. All flaws and errors are our own.


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Carpenter et al. Dataset