Bryan Caplan

The CNN Model of Violent Conflict

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Self-Parody: Pessimistic Bias ... Important Data on Access to Co...

Why do countries and groups within countries engage in large-scale violent conflict? Social scientists' knee-jerk impulse is to look for objective conflict of interest: It's about land, oil, or whatever. But if you watch a standard news channel like CNN, you get a very different explanation: Groups are fighting because they hate each other.

My considered view is that the CNN model fits the facts of the modern world far better than objective conflict of interest stories do. Almost every country and group would do better materially if they just settled their differences and got on with their lives. In fact, most of the time losing groups could unilaterally better their situation by abjectly surrendering. I've opposed the Iraq War from the start, but I still think Iraq would be doing great if the people of Iraq just abjectly accepted American domination. (Ask the Germans or the Japanese. Once you stop fighting, it's clear sailing).

Now if you say that the cause of war is simply mutual hatred, many economists will demand an explanation. "Why do these groups hate each other?" It's easy to point to various unpleasant incidents. The problem with this approach is that objectively big grievances often lead to no hatred at all. Is Germany worried that Israel's going to seek nuclear revenge for the Holocaust?

Ed Glaeser's paper "The Political Economy of Hate" makes my point well:

But the fact that demagogues form hatred by telling tales of past crimes shouldn’t fool us into thinking that the level of hatred is actually a function of past injustice. Group-level hatred has often formed against the most victimized (and innocent) groups in history, such as American Blacks in 1876 or German Jews in 1933. Likewise, when members of a group perpetrate vast atrocities, people often fail to hate them. The decades after 1945 have not witnessed widespread anti-German or anti-Japanese hysteria. Hatred may increase with the true level of past crimes, but the elasticity appears to be quite small.
I'm not normally one to praise the media. But when I compare the CNN story about a random violent conflict to the kind of story you get from social scientists, I've got to give credit where credit is due. At least in the modern world, the media's simplistic atheoretical approach fits the facts.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Gary Rogers writes:

I could make a case for this being an extension of the anti-foreign bias you describe in your book. There is a natural bias against foreigners, but when you add a little bit of political manipulation and an atrocity or two it turns into full fledged hate. That is why it concerns me so much when I see this used by both parties as a standard political tool.

liberty writes:

"Almost every country and group would do better materially if they just settled their differences and got on with their lives. "

The countries may, but what about the leaders? I am thinking in particular about tribal conflicts, war lords, petty dictators.

And there is the prisoner's dilemma angle: if both sides cooperate, the leaders may be better off than if they both engage in war with each other; but if one can successfully exploit the other without starting a full-fledged war, he does best of all.

Acad Ronin writes:

I attack you not because I hate you but rather, I hate you because I have attacked you. Having lived next door to you all my life, having attended your family celebrations as you attended mine, now that I got greedy and took the opportunity to grab your property, I need to hate you to reconcile my actions with my beliefs. Having violated every norm of friendship and civilized behavior, I need to declare you outside those norms. (I believe the formal term for this is cognitive dissonance.)

X writes:

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WHen chimpanzee troops get over 40 members, the troops split to form two new ones. If the two do not move far enough away from each other, one will end up wiping out the other. Why? Because they are members of a different troop.

Understand this: these two troops are made up of members who used to be in one troop and fed, hunted, gathered, and fought together, and mated with each other. But once they were separated, they became enemies to the death.

This kind of xenophobia is an inheritance from our ape ancestors. It has nothing to do with economics or even, fundamentally racism -- though technically, it is a type of racism/xenophobia, since the new chimpanzee troop is now considered an Other. It takes extraordinary circumstances, like a unifying religion or the emergence of a market economy to get people is groups larger than 150 to get along with each other at all.

The social scientists are wrong. They need to read some primatology and social mammal etholgy.

John Fast writes:

1. I'd like to recommend Isaac Asimov's review of _1984_ (which can be found in _Asimov on Science Fiction_, along with plenty of other excellent articles) in which he points out that it's unnecessary to falsify documents or even provide evidence in order to rouse up hatred of Country X.

2. I think there are several major reasons which, taken together, explain the vast majority of group hatred and conflict. I completely agree with "liberty" and "Acad Ronin" that conflict (or any other policy) may benefit leaders/rulers at the expense of the public good. As long as people are conditioned to believe/obey the State, that will work. Call it "trickle-down" or "top-down" hatred.

3. Of course, Bryan, you've pointed out how policies may be popular with the public even when those policies are harmful -- and even when leaders know better. That's "grassroots" or "bottom-up" hatred.

4. IMO "social scientists" won't be able to explain group hatred until they can explain individual hatred. Most social scientists -- even most psychologists -- can't explain individual hatreds very well. (I like the Jungian approach myself, for explanations, and the Cognitive-Behavioral approach for cures.)

5. Speaking of individual hatreds, X, what is your area-that-needs-improvement? You seem to have an extreme, irrational, phobic reaction towards Professor Caplan. I say this because the points in your post don't really seem to make much sense. That is, you make assertions and criticisms/complaints, but don't offer any evidence that you're right, at least that I can see. Yes, he makes a lot of sweeping generalizations. Care to provide any counterexamples? :-D

FC writes:

Israelis and Arabs both think CNN has no idea what's going on in the Middle East, and they are both correct.

The more you learn about that part of the world (or any part of the world), the harder it becomes to separate motivations.

Zubon writes:

Almost every country and group would do better materially if they just settled their differences and got on with their lives. In fact, most of the time losing groups could unilaterally better their situation by abjectly surrendering.

I am open to the argument that there are people and cultures that value things other than material prosperity. I recall recent discussion of "honor-based" cultures, although I have not read enough to know how valuable that discussion has been.

I am very much with Bryan: don't play negative-sum games. But someone with a radically different value system might not see it as negative-sum. Humans are not elves, Klingons, or Cylons, but foreign cultures can be really foreign.

Jon writes:

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Barkley Rosser writes:

Troy Camplin,

And the bonobo chimps act far less aggressively or destructively. We are not the descendants of either. They are both our cousins. We do not know how our actual ape ancestors behaved, but they presumably had the potential for being like either regular (nasty) or bonobo chimpanzees.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Ethnic wars are generally done for rent-seeking, but it seems to be more palatable when the fighters think they are doing it for reasons of perceived past injustices rather than present rent-seeking.

Leaders typically encourage hatred in their fighters to help dehumanize the opponents and ease the psychological barriers to murder - regardless of the primary motivation for war.

Lary writes:

Put me down with those who believe that leaders ride old grievances when they so choose. E.g., if it were convenient for Israeli leaders to treat Germany as an enemy, it couldn't be too surprising if they were able to get the country to go along.

In Iraq, it took the deliberately provocative bombing of the Samara mosque to get the sectarian cleansing going full swing.

Yes, we are descended from a common ancestor to both chimps and bonobos. Bonobos are peaceful because they engage in trade -- though in their case, the currency is usually sex. There is a great deal of ethological evidence that human behavior is closer to chimpanzee behavior than it is to bonobo behavior, though it does seem like trade is the best way to make up more bonobo-like. But we do default to more chimp-like behavior pretty easily.

My point is that we should look to other species for a better understanding of our own actions. Many of the claims made about our behaviors are quickly seen as silly when you do.

John Fast writes:

I'll throw another packet of incense onto the fire by speculating that a lot of conflicts occur because the opposing sides don't share a Schelling point. As David Friedman pointed out,

In order for a Schelling point to provide a peaceful resolution to a conflict of interest, both parties must conceptualize the alternatives in similar ways&emdash;similar enough so that they can agree about which possible outcomes are unique, and thus attractive as potential Schelling points. So one interesting implication of the argument is that violent conflict is especially likely to occur on the boundary between cultures, where people with very different ways of viewing the world interact.

We know there are good game-theoretic and evolutionary reasons for having a psychological disposition to be willing to fight even when it isn't worth the short-run cost. Unfortunately this doesn't work when the other side doesn't recognize your Schelling point.

This also points out why the preferred strategy of "Cooperate once, then tit-for-tat" can't work in such situations.

poetryman69 writes:

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