My book project examines the influence of national humiliation on international conflict preferences and how national humiliation becomes politically relevant and spreads socially. Politicians and scholars often link national humiliation to military conflict, yet the psychological mechanisms underlying this link (its microfoundations) are under-theorized and untested. Can emotions, like humiliation, actually affect international bargaining? If so, through what mechanisms does humiliation operate?
To understand the influences of national humiliation on foreign policy preferences, I draw from experimental psychology and neuroscience to theorize that national humiliation makes individuals more supportive of hostile foreign policies by decreasing their sensitivity to the costs of these policies. I find support for this theory using both survey and lab experiments that exploit the carryover effects of humiliation on unrelated decisions to isolate its effects on conflict preferences. These experiments are the first to distinguish support among the mechanisms through which humiliation influences conflict preferences.
To examine whether these dynamics occur as predicted outside of the lab, I use supervised machine learning to measure expressions of national humiliation and support for costly, hostile foreign policies in a large (more than 1.6 billion posts), representative data set of Chinese social media posts. I find that posts invoking national humiliation are more likely to support using military force, maintaining disputed territorial claims, and raising trade barriers. I show that previous days’ posts about national humiliation increase posts advocating hostile foreign policy options on subsequent days. The working paper for the article version of this chapter is available here.
Contrary to previous accounts that have tended to emphasize the role of traumatic events in the creation of national humiliation narratives, I argue that these events provide neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation of narrative construction. Instead, narratives of national humiliation enter political discourse when a political group can blame its opponents for the event constructed as humiliating while escaping blame itself. Further, political groups propagate these narratives when they desire to inspire sacrifice on behalf of the nation. I find that my theory better accounts for Chinese and Indian political group behavior over the 20th century than alternatives that emphasize the importance of humiliating events, legitimacy crises, and international bargaining dynamics.