billswift April 9, 2010 6:56 AM

Off-topic – anyone know what the problem is with the internet this AM? I am in Maryland, and can get here and The Atlantic blogs, but can’t load OB in England or Amazon, HN, or LW from California.

Mike B April 9, 2010 7:00 AM

So does Trial By Ordeal. In a society where the costs of fact finding are high, but belief in an omniscient, active deity are strong, the priestly class can use the Ordeal for defendants to reliably self-declare their guilt or innocence. Basically no guilty party will ever willingly want to perform an ordeal and the ordeal procedures were flexible enough for the priests to decide the outcome. The theory is borne out by the fact that where records were kept, those undertaking the ordeal were exonerated better than 85% of the time.

I love studies like these that show that seemingly irrational beliefs and practices can have strong rational bases.

Marcus April 9, 2010 7:46 AM

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ where one chapter explained the origins of family feuds, honor killings and a general rather high aggressiveness against outsiders in nomadic societies (compared to agrarian societies): it was harder (at the time) to steal a whole field of corn than to steal a sheep or a cow. So in order to keep other people from stealing your animals you had to convince them that you HAD to be respected. Because even though the chance of them getting caught by you was small the price that they would have to pay IF they were caught by you would be very high.

BF Skinner April 9, 2010 7:54 AM

@Marcus “): it was harder (at the time) to steal a whole field of corn than to steal a sheep or a cow”

yeah…took the development of advanced civilization, financial markets based on derivitives and invention of the concept of debt bondage for that.

Geoff April 9, 2010 8:02 AM

Adolf Hitler was “wicked”? My, someone should have sent him to stand in the naughty corner.

A cornerstone of this argument appears to be that gentlement duelled to protect their honour, a key part of which was a reputation for paying bills on time. Yet at the time they were talking about, paying bills on time was not linked to honour. Many a 18th/19th century merchant went bankrupt while owed a fortune by members of the gentry, or was killed or beaten while trying to collect. Failure to pay was punished then, as now, with refusal to extend more credit, though perhaps with more success now than then.

Henning Makholm April 9, 2010 9:42 AM

From the paper:

“… Moreover, even wicked people like Adolf Hitler have opposed dueling (Combs 1997). Both facts suggest that something other than innate human depravity drives dueling behavior.”

That’s the best/worst reductio ad hitlerium I’ve seen in a long time.

It appears to follow from the same reasoning that a global tyranny cannot be innately evil, provided only that the tyrants happen to Jews.

Jim A. April 9, 2010 9:55 AM

Marcus: Which is largely why agricultural societies developed warfare. It takes organized action by a large number of people to steal large amounts of grain.

paul April 9, 2010 9:57 AM


The situation they model is one where debtors and lenders (in the “personal” credit market) are of the same class. Which of course was true only in limited places and times. Mostly, as you point out, the ability to run up debts acted as a tax by the aristocracy on the merchant class. The other thing is that the model only works when the probability of survival isn’t just 50% in aggregate but very close to 50% for most potential duellists. Otherwise — as historical fiction and nonfiction tend to report — you get people who can lie with impunity or accuse others ditto. Which of course would lead them to support the continuation of a system based on duels, just as investment bankers now support the continuation of one based on credit-rating organizations.

Brandioch Conner April 9, 2010 10:18 AM

Epic failure.

“Moreover, even wicked people like Adolf Hitler have opposed dueling (Combs 1997). Both facts suggest that something other than innate human depravity drives dueling behavior.”

Because if Hitler opposed it that means it isn’t evil because Hitler was evil and supported all evil things.

Do you really need to continue reading past that point?

kangaroo April 9, 2010 10:31 AM

So, what is the equivalent for mid-level drug dealers? The conditions they describe as leading to dueling sound an awful lot like the conditions under which mid-level drug dealers worked — at least until the last ten years when “liar loans” started giving them easier credit to formal markets.

Is there a dueling equivalent? Or is this just a “Just So” story?

Brad Conte April 9, 2010 11:25 AM

From the article:

Dueling was illegal in most jurisdictions so duels were usually conducted in secret.
Data is therefore sparse. Our best guess, however, is that the chance of surviving
a duel was roughly 50 percent.

No kidding.

I suppose this is their way of saying that having two fatal injuries was as likely as having no fatal injuries, or that they were both rare. But that isn’t very explanatory.

mcb April 9, 2010 12:43 PM

@ Jim A.

“…agricultural societies developed warfare. It takes organized action by a large number of people to steal large amounts of grain.”

More precisely, agricultural societies developed armies. Ironically, surplus food makes an army possible, and surplus food makes an army necessary.

HJohn April 9, 2010 2:24 PM

@Brandioch Conner: Because if Hitler opposed it that means it isn’t evil because Hitler was evil and supported all evil things. Do you really need to continue reading past that point?

That’s what I was thinking.

Hitler also never smoked and was faithful to his wife, whereas Churchill smoked pipes and drank tons of whiskey, and Roosevelnt smoked and had mistresses. So I guess adultery and nicotine are now virtues and being sober and faithful are evil.

I lost count of how many consecutive posts of yours I’ve agreed with, but its’ scary. (j/k)

Have a nice weekend.

Jackson April 9, 2010 3:13 PM

That was about the biggest waste of time my whole day, apart from even writing this comment.


David April 9, 2010 4:12 PM

Thank you, Geoff and Paul, for pointing out the historical inaccuracy of the model. Paul, you pointed out the fact that some people were better duellists than others. Let’s apply this to the model the authors created. In that case, you should never lend money to anybody who’s been in a lot of duels; i.e., is really honorable. After all, they can stiff the lender freely, since the only way to collect is to duel.

I haven’t seen a lamer mathematical model around here since the one about zombie takeovers.

Anon April 9, 2010 4:49 PM

It seems like the mechanism they’re describing is just any social norm: If you don’t follow the norm (by dueling), you’re punished (not allowed to loan or borrow). If you don’t punish violators (if you loan to non-duelers), you’re punished (not allowed to loan or borrow). Dueling is just an extreme example.

(Extreme because the punishment itself is costly (the challenger might die) and the borrower being punished has to agree to it (accept the challenge), but none of that has much to do with the paper’s argument.)

The general logic would apply equally well to any norm, not just dueling. Like the norm of wearing clothes in public: you’re punished for streaking, and the folks who are responsible for enforcing the rule (police, business owners) would be punished if they didn’t enforce. It applies to norms that don’t make sense just as well as to norms that do make sense.

And the details of the paper’s explanation don’t even make much sense as applied to historical dueling. As Geoff said, there was no obvious link between recorded duels and loans, and there were in fact other ways than dueling to manage credit risks and get people to pay their loans back.

So the general form of the paper’s argument is trivial, and the details of it are wrong. Beh.

Flabob April 9, 2010 5:47 PM

They lost me at the Hitler thing and then I read the comments and I’m glad to see I’m not alone.

Harry April 9, 2010 7:44 PM

I’m (almost) impressed that the authors managed to write such a long article based on a mere corrolation. I wonder if they had a bet on?

Russell Coker April 10, 2010 4:04 AM

Marcus: Agriculture was driven by the need to support larger populations on a given area of land. A higher population density forces people to adapt to become less aggressive, even in modern times it seems that the most “polite” societies are those with the highest population density.

Jim A: Once agricultural societies developed there was more benefit in specialisation in various types of production (EG specialist animal trainers and tool manufacturers) which led to chief type positions. The chiefs then had the authority to declare war. Stealing food from farms is difficult even with more modern warfare, a technique used in the Napoleonic wars and the US civil war was to burn fields to deny the opponent access to food – destruction is much easier than theft.

Geoff points out a failing of the dueling situation when applied outside it’s scope (the aristocracy). But that WAS the point. The aristocracy has always wanted something for nothing (both historically and in the present). They believe that they are inherently superior to “commoners” because their ancestors were better than average at killing people. So any social system they could develop that would allow them to rip off commoners would be a good thing.

David: The article claims that some parts of the dueling practice were designed to give a more random outcome. One aspect that comes to mind is the tradition that the recipient of a challenge gets to choose the weapon, so when challenged by an expert swordsman one would choose pistols. Even in recent times most people are unable to shoot accurately with a pistol (there have been a few police vs criminal shootouts in confined spaces that end up with no-one getting hurt) and flint-lock pistols were much worse. Sword fights can easily end up with a draw when both participants die (you can fight for minutes after receiving a fatal injury).

Obviously not all duels were caused by the possibility of monetary gain. But there is still the issue of social status.

When I was at school there was a sort of dueling culture in place. It wasn’t about money it was about social status. If you refused to accept a challenge then that caused you to fall behind the challenger in the social rankings. Those who were at the lower ranks were regarded as good targets for bullying. While fights were often spontaneous there were arranged fights that occurred hours later or maybe the next day.

Clive Robinson April 10, 2010 9:12 AM

Dueling is an odd tradition and still carries on today in some parts of the world.

In the UK the (supposadly) last duel fought was in Kirkcody in the Kingdom of Fife just north of Edinburgh.

It was between a merchant and a somewhat reptilian banker. The good news is the banker who caused the duel to happen died but the merchant was tried for his murder (but was aquited and had his good name restored).

Kirkcody is also once the home of one Adam Smith (ask an economist if you don’t know who he is).

It is also the home of one Mr G.Brown who has just thrown down a duel to others in the name of a General Election, where he hopes to get re-elected (ie keep his seat) and that his party get a clear majority so he can carry on being Prime Minister of the UK.

Anyway back to dueling it had some very odd rules, a lot of which where dreamed up by the French and their out of date notion of “courtly behaviour” by Knights and nobles etc.

First of all a chalenge had to be issued correctly, and should only be by a peer of the person being chalanged. Thus the lower class riff raff could not chalenge a member of a higher class to a duel unless through a second who was of the same class.

Each participant had to have a “second” who had a number of duties one of which was to stand in for the challenged should they abscond. Royals where always considered to be untouchable (Godhead) so they had an ordinary mortal to stand in their place known as “The King’s Champion”.

Now there was the choice of weapons and the only rule was that you had to be capable of killing your opponent with it with a single blow or action. Thus swords, spears, maces, war hammers, and all sorts of other grissly weapons where acceptable. However it had to be either a weapon of personal combat or one that required skill, so hand thrown bombs and shotguns where not acceptable. Oh and they had to be available as a “matched pair”.

Now there was an interesting rule about what should happen with the likes of “one shot” weapons of skill. If the chalenger fired and missed or only inflicted a very minor wound then it was upto the chalenged to decide if the dual should continue, thus they could chose to “spare the chalenger” but not the other way around.

There where also complicated rules as to “when honour had been satisfied” in the case when a wound was inflicted or the combatants had not the energy to carry on (we see this still in sports like boxing where “the towel is thrown in”).

There where also “reason rules” as to how duals could be avoided. Direct chalenges that where “pressed” could never be avoided, however chalenges through seconds could be settled by the seconds.

Thus chalanges that came about through hearsay (tale telling) could be resolved amicably.

However if a direct chalenge was issued the chalenged could ask the person chalenging to send their second to speak to their second. Thus effectivly invoking the “reason rules”.

One reason for this is a Gentelman never spoke about or considerd money, and in many cases never ever saw it let alone carried it. It was a mater for a “man servants” or “tradesmen”. Which is one of the reasons what we now call “business cards” came about through “calling cards” that is you could present your card (or ask for anothers) and ask that the man servents meet.

Now somewhat oddly a lot of the rules about duels also applied to matters of the “heart”. It was not considered seamly for a man to directly aproach a maiden, and absolutly unacceptable for a maiden to aproach a man. There where ways to resolve this “officialy” through “seconds” or secretaries, or “unofficialy” through man servents and ladies in waiting etc that we would now call “the best man” and “the maid of honour” (she was supposed to protect her ladies chastity amongst other things).

Thus the rule about why a maid of honour or best man should not only be not married but “chaste” as well. In the case of a “runnaway” bride or groom, the second had to stand in instead…

Although dueling was effectivly illegal over two hundred years ago in Britain, the attendant social behaviour managed to survive into the last century where WWI gave it the mortal blow and it mostly had died out before WWII.

Back in the last century I looked into dueling and it’s effects on social behaviour out of interest, but my mind grows dim with the ins and outs of it. If you want to know more there are a couple of books on dueling etiquet and as they are long long out of copyright you might find them on Google books.

Oh and appart from the invention of lino Kirkcody has another claim to fame, the last man to stand in the dock at the Old Baily Magistrates Court was from there.

Finaly the Muslim faith actually has laws against dueling and honour killings specificaly because it was so rife at the time.

John Campbell April 10, 2010 5:07 PM

Duelling struck me, years ago, as a means of providing a check-and-balance against corruption at an individual level.

Granted, I may have been influenced by Piper’s Lone Star Planet but it struck me that, barring gang-like threats, this would be a useful mechanism.

paul April 10, 2010 8:40 PM

“Duelling struck me, years ago, as a means of providing a check-and-balance against corruption at an individual level.”

Only works if even the dishonorable people are honorable about duels. Otherwise it will be a simple matter for a corrupt official to convince a particularly good duellist to become annoyed with anyone who might make a convincing challenge.

One interesting interpretation of the paper is that duelling tends to get used not only in subscultures where there isn’t access to efficient monetary credit markets, but also other kinds of market, such as the market in criminal enforcement (see the cattle-rustling mentions above). What this suggests, btw, is that duels should either be very popular or entirely absent in a Doctorow-style esteem economy.

spongeworthy April 11, 2010 10:15 AM

Of course, this goes back to the day when “honor” meant something, before modern “free-market capitalism” denigrated it to being just another cheap ingredient for generating free cash flow. Get back to me when you find out the current market price of honor as appied to those of such captains of industry as Jimmy Cayce, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, etc., etc., etc.

John Waters April 12, 2010 11:59 AM

From Sahih Muslim:

Book 041, Number 6899:

Ahnaf b. Qais reported on the authority of Abu Bakra that Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: When two Muslims confront each other with their swords, both the slayer and the slain are doomed to Hell-Fire.

henry eight July 4, 2010 2:24 PM

Having grown up with the custom of duelling in the Western American form, I can speak authoritatively to the efficacy of dueling. Personally, I set my pistol aside years ago; this was a consequence of finding that I was too ready to draw on an asshole. For dueling to be socially effective, those who are armed must also be surrounded by others who are armed and willing to moderate each others’ behaviors. If you carry arms, you are under an obligation to behave with polite respect to everyone you encounter.
In the U.S. Army in Iraq, I had more than one occasion to attend to the behavior of Yankee soldiers who had not grown up with the aquaintance of proper conduct. I’ll leave it at that.

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