Norms and Attitudes in the Midst of Civil War: Experimental and Survey Evidence from Syria

Guest post by Vera Mironova and Sam Whitt

How do individuals adapt to the dangers of life in the midst of ongoing violence and civil war? From August through December 2013, we conducted an original experiment and survey inside Syria, which sheds light on the effects of violence on altruistic self-sacrifice and tolerance for risk-taking. Using cluster sampling methods, we asked 200 respondents (including approximately 80 civilians inside Aleppo and Idlib, Syria, 70 active rebel fighters with the Free Syrian army, and 50 refugees) to complete a series of behavioral experiments (dictator and risk games) followed by an extensive survey. The sample was small because of the risks to the interviewer and participants, but even with a small sample several trends are remarkable.

First, despite crushing poverty and urgent basic needs for food, water, shelter, and medical care, most subjects willingly donated their entire endowment (500 Syrian pounds or about $5) to anonymous in-group recipients (defined as other residents of Aleppo, Idlib, or inside a Turkish border refugee camp). This indicates an exceptionally high degree of in-group altruism. These norms of altruism, however, do not apply to “out-groups.” Most subjects showed virtually no empathy toward people living under Assad-controlled territory and/or Assad loyalists. Donations to Free Syrian Army rebel fighters are much more heterogeneous, suggesting that not Syrians’ attitudes are mixed as to whether rebel fighters constitute an in-group. Indeed, support for the Free Syrian Army fractionalized in the immediate aftermath of our study.

Second, our survey indicates a wide range of attitudes regarding a broad range of issues including international military intervention, support for rebel groups and rebel group goals, willingness to pursue negotiated settlements for peace, and prospects for Syrian unity after the war. Strikingly, civilians are divided on support for rebel factions and would prefer a negotiated settlement, while rebel fighters insist on victory and vengeance against Assad and his forces. Indeed, revenge is the primary motivation given for joining rebel groups. This indicates a potential source of conflict between civilians and the rebel groups who claim to be fighting on their behalf.



These and other preliminary survey results are available from our website, where we detail the many other findings yielded from our study. We are currently collecting additional data from other regions of Syria and seeking cross-border comparisons in refugee camps to further substantiate preliminary observations from the field. [1]

You might be asking whether undertaking a research study in the midst of an ongoing conflict is worth the risks. Certainly it is a risky enterprise, but the knowledge obtained is both valuable and novel. It is valuable because our study, though conducted in far-from-ideal research conditions, could help inform how norms and attitudes are affected by violence in the short-term. It is novel because at present, much of our theoretical understanding of individual responses to violence is informed by sparse and often post-hoc evidence on a case-by-case basis. Although there is growing interest in the long-term effects of violence on social norms and preferences, little is known about individual behavior and attitudes as conflict is unfolding in real time. Paired with other data, our research could address a number of questions, including how norms evolve over time, whether they recalibrate to pre-war baselines once conflict is resolved, or whether violence creates more permanent, enduring, grisly legacies. Answers to these questions may help inform which policy interventions may be more accepted and therefore effective, while shedding light on policy responses that may be doomed to fail.

Vera Mironova PhD candidate in the Political Science Department at University of Maryland

Sam Whitt is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at High Point University.

[1] This research received IRB approval on August 16, 2013 and data collection is ongoing inside Syria and among refugee populations abroad in Turkey and Lebanon.

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