Violence Even When Everyone Wants Peace

When does behavior turn violent? Can simple conceptual models help us understand what turns behavior violent even when both sides prefer peaceful conflict resolution? Continuing an earlier discussion of how to model behavior, here’s one theoretical example of how such counterintuitive behavior might occur…

Humans seem unable to avoid violence; perhaps we can devise simple theoretical models that will shed light on the reasons. A critical practical issue concerns the effect of the type of conflict resolution strategy preferred by each actor on the resultant behavior: whether behavior will tend to be conciliatory or violent. Given, for example, an actor with strong ideological commitment operating in a challenging environment, how much impact would that actor’s default conflict resolution strategy have on its likely behavior? To what extent can the behavior of an actor that prefers solutions based on force (the red scenario, below) be expected to differ from that of an actor that prefers negotiated solutions? Even if an actor prefers peaceful methods, given strong faith in one’s own righteousness and severe pressure from the “environment” or “context,” is peaceful conflict resolution a realistic expectation?

The Violence Scenario (Red): Violence is such a self-evident outcome of a situation in which an actor prefers to use force, is self-righteous, and faces a political threat, that one is inclined to ask what circumstances could conceivably prevent violence. One way to approach this would be to consider how far from the extreme one would have to move to prevent violence.

The Peaceful True Believer Scenario (Dark Gray): In the dark gray (lower left) octant is the true believer, an actor convinced of its own righteousness. Such an actor is presumably not interested in compromise but nevertheless prefers a peaceful approach to managing discord.

Such an actor will stand out because of its dedication to its own ideology; this commitment to something others do not believe in at all or do not have such total faith in may well make them uneasy. The true believer thus risks being perceived as a threat even if it has no aggressive intent. The true believer’s singlemindedness, unusualness, and resistance to compromise (because, to the true believer, every challenge is a matter of good vs. evil) raises the likelihood of a forceful response. Thus:

H1 = The more one is a true believer, the more likely an opponent is to
mistakenly see the true believer as a threat.

A pitfall also exists concerning the true believer itself. Given total dedication to a particular worldview, alternatives seem unacceptable, making it likely that a true believer will take more risks to defend his position than an actor predisposed to analyze the situation and consider potential compromise positions. Thus:

H2 = The more one is a true believer, the more likely one is to respond to a challenge with a risk-taking attitude.

Combining these two hypotheses leads to the cycle of unintended violence illustrated below. The causal loop diagram (a technique from system dynamics) suggests that even if the true believer is extremely committed to peaceful conflict resolution whenever given that option, the true believer is nevertheless likely to be drawn into conflict because others will misperceive the true believer’s ideological commitment as a threat of such immediacy that it demands counteraction.

Therefore, a system containing even one true believer already has two separate reinforcing loops pushing the system toward violence, and these two dynamics interact, further intensifying the effect – all in the absence of any aggressive intent on any actor’s part! With true believers on each side, a competition is all the more likely to turn violent, even if both true believers intend to exercise self-restraint. Hence, as shown in the scenario evolution diagram below, one may anticipate that the Peaceful True Believer Scenario (dark gray) will evolve into the Violence Scenario (Red).

This is an example of how dynamics can make a situation dangerous even though the initial values suggest that no danger exists and even though no actor has evil intent. This theoretical argument suggests that the dice are, in this instance, loaded against peace. The diagram below illustrates the dynamic that is, according to the hypotheses discussed in this post, controlling behavior in the Peaceful True Believer (dark gray) scenario.

Research challenge:

  1. To what extent does reality support this theoretical argument, summarized by the graphic above, in various domains?
  2. Are there general lessons that apply across all domains of human behavior?
  3. What can be done in practice to counteract this dynamic pushing a system containing a true believer toward violence?

Conclusion. The methodological lesson here is that much more than a description of a situation is required to enable prediction of behavior. Obviously, a system containing an “evil” actor bent on violence will be likely to generate violent behavior. A system containing only well-intentioned actors but under severe stress may well also generate violence. But the system in this example appears, descriptively, destined for peace; nevertheless, a dangerous dynamic may well push the system toward violence—unless recognized in advance so its pressure can be mitigated. A scenario analysis model that appears static has been revealed to be deceptively dynamic: by using scenario analysis as an easy introduction to organizing a challenging topic and then integrating dynamics into the model, it is possible incrementally to construct a rich yet understandable model of reality. In the process, one counterintuitive route has been revealed by which a peaceful situation can, despite the best intentions of all actors, evolve into violence.


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