Bryan Caplan  

Fight, Flight, Submission: War and Rhetorical Asymmetry

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My sons and I read some sad stories together.  Most recently, we shared Maus, Art Spiegelman's transcendent graphic novel about how his father survived Holocaust.  In the process, I've noticed something: My sons' preferred response to evil is always "fighting back" - no matter how futile this strategy appears.  In every story, they're looking for the villain's weakness.  It's almost as if they believe in a cosmic law that "There's always a way to physically defeat your enemy." 

I don't think my sons are alone.  In fact, their attitude strikes me as deeply ingrained in human nature.  We like the idea of meeting violence with violence, and feel a strong urge to deny the possibility that submission or flight are our best options in an imperfect world.  In what Robin Hanson calls "near mode," of course, individuals almost always choose submission or flight in the face of physical violence.  But in "far mode" - when we read a story, discuss history, or debate foreign policy - humans have a strong bias in favor of the strategy that sounds good: "Charge!"

Think about it this way: Humans experience what Cass Sunstein calls a "rhetorical asymmetry" between fight, flight, and submission.  If you tell a group engulfed in a conflict to fight with all their might, you can usually expect a friendly response.  But if you tell them to run away or surrender, they'll probably get angry at you or call you a "traitor."  And being right is no excuse!

COMMENTS (6 to date)
John Jenkins writes:

So, this is a long way of saying some people will talk but not back it up? Am I missing your point here?

Austin Alexander writes:

Hearing you tell this story at the silver diner last night it reminded me of the post on libido and war.

greenish writes:

By your account, pacifism is a "second-best" solution. The ideal would be to meet unjustified violence with careful, precise, and effective violence to neutralize the threat. Rather than quarreling with the rightness of the ideal itself, you quarrel with the possibility of reaching it. If you're right, this is disappointing, and it would be uncomfortable to acknowledge even without any bias towards extreme solutions and/or carnage.

Shane writes:

I heard once that literature is about conflict, even if it is just conflict in one's heart or non-violent conflicts between friends or lovers. So a story involving the attack of a malevolent enemy and the sensible retreat or surrender of the protagonist might be irritating or boring.

Why? Perhaps there is an evolutionary reason for this. In a state of prehistoric nature individuals would need to deter attack by showing their willingness to fight back and to take revenge for injuries. In modern times, with our justice systems and police, this instinct is partly unnecessary. But I imagine we inherit those vengeful attributes from our ancestors from a much less stable age.

I am a very peaceful person by nature, always quick to avoid violence where possible. But I still thoroughly enjoy violent action films and music. And I appreciate the sense of crude justice that comes from vengeful violence in such movies.

Hasdrubal writes:

Dave Grossman discusses this in his book "On Killing." However, in addition to the fight, flight and surrender options, there is a third option: Display.

His thesis is that the vast majority of intraspecies conflict is resolved through display and submission rather than potentially harmful fighting. Even throughout the history of war, display and submission has been a major factor, like the Rebel Yell of the civil war, fixing bayonets and samurai armor. Even with the massive casualties of Civil War battles, the cast majority (on the order of 90%) of soldiers never fired their weapons at enemy troops, they either intentionally missed or just faked firing.

I think you can apply this display behavior to the national level as well. A standing army provides a method of displaying aggression and preventing actual hostilities. Think of the times we've sent carrier groups to Asia or the Mediterranean sea, not to fight but to throw up our national hackles and warn others who might want to fight with us.

Tracy W writes:

Well the fight/display option is a good one at school, where running away is often impossible and submission is horrible but you can generally do enough damage to persuade the bully not to bother. It's only when there is a real inequality of weapons that fight/display is a definitely bad option. And it would be dangerous to assume an unaddressable inequality too soon.

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