Individual Behavior in Conflict Environments


“Voices of Syria”

Funding: Harvard Law School (Program on Negotiations), Harvard Next Generation Grant and National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

Fight or Flight in Civil War? Evidence from Rebel-Controlled Syria (with Sam Whitt and Loubna Mrie) Under Review
Supplementary Appendix

Faced with prospects of a civil war escalating on their doorstep, ordinary people must decide whether to take up arms and join the fight, to stay in place and seek shelter in confines of the conflict zone, or to flee their homes in search of safer locations. Using original survey and experimental data from the ongoing conflict in Syria, we try to understand how people facing conflict make critical life-and-death decisions. Drawing on a range of hypotheses from the existing literature, we find compelling evidence that in-group ties and grievance motivations explain fight vs. flight decision-making at the individual level. Using well-balanced samples of over 300 Free Syrian Army and Islamist fighters, civilian non-combatants, and externally displaced refugees from actively contested regions of Syria, we observe that people with strong in-group bonds and out-group aversions are more likely to stay and fight. In contrast, refugees are far less revenge-seeking and more willing to negotiate for peace. Overall, our research suggests that heterogeneous preferences and motivations within subpopulations of civil war participants can create serious coordination problems with practical implications for conflict duration and outcomes.

Grievances and Role Differentiation in Civil War: Micro-Level Evidence from Syria (with Sam Whitt), Under Review 

Recent macro-level studies have revived interest in grievance-based explanations for civil war participation. Using original survey data from the ongoing conflict in Syria, we examine whether fighters, civilians, and refugees can be distinguished based on a number of proxies for personal, sectarian, and regime-based grievances at the micro-level. Based on a well-balanced sample of over 300 active rebel fighters, civilians from within the conflict zone, and externally displaced refugees, we observe that some proxies for grievances are elevated among active combatants. Our results speak to the plausible role of grievances in differentiating combatants from non-combatants during civil war. We also evaluate a potential psychological mechanism where grievances drive individuals to discount risks of fighting out of a desire for agency and empowerment on one hand and anger, hatred, and revenge-seeking on the other, and we find some evidence in favor of both.

Risk Tolerance during Conflict: Evidence from Aleppo, Syria (with Sam Whitt), Under Review, Supplementary Appendix

We examine risk preferences among rebel combatants and civilians in Aleppo Syria using a variation of the Eckel-Grossman Risk Game. Field work in Syria was conducted in 2013 with a total 232 participants to include both Syrian civilians and active rebel fighters. Compared to Syrians in other locations, people in rebel-held territory of Aleppo are significantly more risk tolerant. We consider plausible explanations for elevated risk preferences in Aleppo based on self-selection, adaptive learning, future prospects, grievances, and social solidarity. We find that risk tolerance is most clearly mediated by optimist wishful thinking about the present and future. This suggests that a strong sense of self-efficacy may explain higher propensity for risk-taking. Overall, our results speak to plausible sorting mechanisms during conflict where risk averse individuals self-select out of conflict, while highly risk tolerant individuals are more prone to discount the inherent dangers of remaining in conflict zones.

Altruism and Violence (with Sam Whitt and Rick Wilson) Under Review

Our research examines in-group and inter-group social norms between civilians and combatants using behavioral experiments. We examine how conflict affects a basic norm of altruism toward identifiable in-groups and out-groups during a period of ongoing violence.

Mentioned English: Vice News, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, NPR, The Atlantic, American Interest, Council on Foreign Relations, The Baltimore Sun, U-T San Diego, ArmyTimes, NavyTimes, Voice of America, HKS PolicyCast, CBC/Radio-Canada (Canada), Harvard Gazzette, Political Violence at a Glance blog, The Duck of Minerva blog, Syria in Crises blog and Syria Comment blog; Russian: Novaya Gazeta, Vedomosti ; Kurdish: Awene

Interview about the project in Harvard Gazette.
Podcast about the project- Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast
Podcast about the project- Harvard Davis Center


November 2014 Summary Statistics for Ex-Fighters in Turkey and Syria

August 2014 Summary Statistics for Islamists in Syria

April 2014 Summary Statistics for Ex-Fighters in Turkey

February 2014 Summary Statistics for Civilians in Syria and Refugees in Turkey

February 2014 Summary Statistics for Aleppo and Idlib

Other Papers

“Understanding the changing tactics of so-called Islamic State”, NATO Review, 15 April, 2016

“The Motivation of Syrian Islamist Fighters” (with Sam Whitt and Loubna Mrie), CTC
Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol.7, Nom.10 (October 2014) pp.13-15

A Glimpse into the Minds of Four Foreign Fighters in Syria” (with Sam Whitt), CTC
Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol.7, Nom.6 (June 2014) pp.6-7

“What Do Syria’s Rebels Want From The West?” , Syria in Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 07 April 2014

“Crisis in Ukraine”

From the Maidan to the Military: Mobilizing Civilians for Counter-Insurgency in Eastern Ukraine (with Sam Whitt), R&R British Journal of Political ScienceSupplementary Appendix 

In the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan protests, the Ukrainian government initiated a widespread campaign to mobilize young men for military service to counter separatist movements in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine amid escalating tensions with Russia. In July 2014, we survey young men who were volunteering to join the Ukrainian military’s counter-insurgency efforts and compare them to other young men who live in the same community but had not volunteered. We find strong linkages between prior Euromaidan activism and military mobilization. A heightened sense of self-efficacy, risk tolerance, and support for violence helps explain the transition to increasingly higher cost, higher risk forms of collective action.

Reports :

August 2014 : Summary Statistics for Civilians and Fighters