Explaining Support for Human Rights Actions: Experimentally Studying Accountability, Democracy, and Authoritarianism

Brianna DeMuth ’23

Student: Brianna DeMuth ’23
Research Mentor: Nicholas Dietrich (OWU Data Analytics Program)

When foreign countries commit human rights abuses, other countries can respond with different political strategies in the hope that the country changes their behavior. However, action is costly and public opinion for intervention can vary from person to person. Our study looked at the relationship between support for action, type of government, and how people want to be governed — either freely or more controlled. We call this authoritarianism and found that support for action generally went down in people with more authoritarian views.

How do authoritarian attitudes affect support for international action against human rights abuses? Does the status of democracy and patterns of repression create thresholds of opposition for accountability? In this study, we investigated how people come to conclusions about human rights violators to gauge public support for accountability against foreign countries. Public opinion is the cornerstone of activism, and research into global leadership is characterized by patterns of crises and conflict resolution. In terror management theory, society develops a deep homeostatic understanding of life which is prone to political extremism, especially when danger is apparent. To test this, we conducted an online survey through Amazon Mechanical Turk to determine whether support for actions against human rights violators changes with democracy and autocracy, repetition of repression, and degree of personal authoritarianism. We define personal authoritarianism as a scaled representation of how people see centralized power and want to be governed, and ultimately how they govern themselves and others. We found no significant relationship between support and the regime of the target country, or number of violations committed, but found an interaction between personal authoritarianism and support for action. International audiences generally support action regardless of regime or repetition. However, as personal authoritarianism increases, support for action decreases especially with democratic leadership. The exception was peacekeeping action, where strong personal authoritarians were more likely to support peacekeeping in the presence of authoritarian leadership.