Cognitive Biases About Violence as a Negotiating Tactic

Interesting paper: Max Abrahms, “The Credibility Paradox: Violence as a Double-Edged Sword in International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly, 2013:

Abstract: Implicit in the rationalist literature on bargaining over the last half-century is the political utility of violence. Given our anarchical international system populated with egoistic actors, violence is thought to promote concessions by lending credibility to their threats. From the vantage of bargaining theory, then, empirical research on terrorism poses a puzzle. For non-state actors, terrorism signals a credible threat in comparison to less extreme tactical alternatives. In recent years, however, a spate of studies across disciplines and methodologies has nonetheless found that neither escalating to terrorism nor with terrorism encourages government concessions. In fact, perpetrating terrorist acts reportedly lowers the likelihood of government compliance, particularly as the civilian casualties rise. The apparent tendency for this extreme form of violence to impede concessions challenges the external validity of bargaining theory, as traditionally understood. In this study, I propose and test an important psychological refinement to the standard rationalist narrative. Via an experiment on a national sample of adults, I find evidence of a newfound cognitive heuristic undermining the coercive logic of escalation enshrined in bargaining theory. Due to this oversight, mainstream bargaining theory overestimates the political utility of violence, particularly as an instrument of coercion.

Posted on October 25, 2013 at 6:30 AM28 Comments


TheDoctor October 25, 2013 7:19 AM

Easy answer:
There are two forms of terrorism
– “grassroot” terrorism
– (foreign) state sponsored terrorism

The first are in most cases freedom fighters (for their people), and terrorists (for the oppressor). The wiser of this type fight against the leaders/police/military and at maximum agaist the economic base of the oppressor.

The latter fight against the population because this in itself as well as the (over)reaction of the state disrupts the fabric of the state they are attacking. So the real goal is not the frontline cause these terrorist are fighting for but the hidden cause of the sponsoring state to disrupt their enemy.

JimFive October 25, 2013 8:03 AM

There are two aspects to credibility: Ability, and Willingness.

In “normal” state-level negotiations the ability of the actors is presumed so the threats indicate willingness. However, terrorism (can we define this please) from non-state actors shows willingness but doesn’t show that they have the Ability to pose a credible, existential threat to the target state.

Texas October 25, 2013 8:05 AM

Re: “Violence as a Negotiating Tactic”

Is launching tomahawks from a naval ship, firing hellfire missiles by drones, or dropping JDAMs on apartment buildings, or bombers dropping ordinance down on targets including roads, bridges, electric, water, and sewage infrastructure considered “violence” to be included in this study? Or have those types/sources of “violence as a negotiating tactic” been excluded from the study?

It would seem that despite being highly detrimental to local populations, violence on that massive scale</a href> (as mentioned above) is highly effective both as a negotiating tactic and as a means to achieve objectives of dominance over an adversary and to use the threat of violence as leverage during negotiations with other parties, so I don’t know why it was left out of the study.

Fiona M October 25, 2013 8:50 AM

Texas: deplorable as those actions are, they are not a “negotiating tactic”. The violence you have mentioned is purely military, intended to kill enemy targets and deny the enemy materiel and personnel needed to conduct it’s own operations.

The fact that this tactic can and does lead to massive collateral damage and in many cases increased recruitment into militant or terrorist organizations (viz. Taliban) is a serious, but separate, problem.

atk October 25, 2013 9:50 AM

@Fiona M: ” they are not a “negotiating tactic”. The violence you have mentioned is purely military”

I must disagree.

A negotiating tactic is designed to get something you want, whether or not the person who provides that something wants to give it to you. Such tactics are generally attempts to convince the person that it is in their best interest to give you that something.

  • “For $500, you can have this brand new computer!”
  • “I’ll give you $1 if you eat a live fish.”
  • “I’ll be your best friend if you let me copy your homework.”
  • “I thought you weren’t like everyone else. I thought you were different.”

The above are all positive reinforcement. They attempt to demonstrate that the person’s life will be better if they do what you want. Let’s look at negative reinforcement.

  • “Fix this bug or we’ll take our business elsewhere.”
  • “I’m going to take away your favorite toy if you don’t behave.”
  • “That’s not nice! Don’t do that!”
  • “If you don’t shape up, you’ll be looking for a new job.”

These three examples are all threats. They are all perfectly valid as negotiating tactics. They attempt to demonstrate that the person’s life will be worse if they don’t do what you want. Let’s look at threats of violence.

  • “I’ll slap you across the face if you ever represent us to a customer like that, again.”
  • “Do that again and you’ll get a spanking.”
  • “If you call me that again, I’m gonna hurt you”
  • “Give us oil, or we’ll invade your country and take it ourselves”

We might not approve of threats of violence and there are often repercussions if the threatened person can prove the threat occurred. Disapproval doesn’t prevent them from being a negotiation tactic – the underlying message remains “your life will be better if you do what I want”. It’s only a small step to go from threat to actual violence.

  • “I’ll stop hitting you if you apologize”
  • “If you want the invasion to end, give us all the oil we want.”

Even if not stated, use of violence typically has purpose. Violence, especially on a large scale, is often not used for violence’s sake, but the person using it wants something. The wanting person still, implicitly or explicitly, is trying to convince the other that their life will be better if whatever is wanted is delivered.

(I’ve seen threads like this go way off the deep end by misconstruing the intentions of the person writing a post like mine. Let me be clear: I do not approve of the use of violence to get what you want except in the sense of self defense.)

Andrew October 25, 2013 10:16 AM

@atk – you missed a level…

Object lesson:
Stop poluting our childrens minds or we will continue to pilot planes into your cities.
Do not attempt to develop a nuke or you will get what Iraq got.

Not sure where this fits into your scheme of things but several players on the world scene are behaving like the Mafia used to when they wanted to let people know they were unhappy and the would do a “cowboy” killing. The idea was to kill whoever was pissing them off and ideally kill or maim a good number of bystanders as a warning to others that they were a power to be scared of.

atk October 25, 2013 10:25 AM

@Andrew: grin

I’d put those examples into “threats of violence”, with the caveat that you bring up the dimension of credibility.

  • Do I really have a brand new laptop to sell you?
  • Do I really have authority and willingness to take our business elsewhere?
  • Do you think I’m capable of actually invading and causing you damage (is my military better than yours? will they obey my orders?)?
  • Do you think I’ll actually stop killing your people, or do you think it’s an extermination attempt?

atk October 25, 2013 10:30 AM

@Andrew: Oops. On re-read, your first example was “use of violence” not “threat of violence.” “I’ll stop doing this bad thing to you if you’ll do what I want.”

John Campbell October 25, 2013 1:04 PM

I think it was Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus, who said:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”.

It was later clarified that, when you’ve run out of other options, like wasting too much time on diplomacy, waving the sword ONLY at the last moment, you’ve lost credibility.

Diplomacy, as has been observed by Mr Scott, seems to extend crises.

Also… how do you negotiate with someone who doesn’t agree with you on what is “honorable”???

Bob Robertson October 25, 2013 3:09 PM

With every edict by government being backed with the threat of overwhelming violence, it’s no surprise that for governments violence (and threat of violence) is their first resort.

It’s a habit. Give me what I want or I kill you. Maybe I kill you anyway, and your little dog, too.

hoodathunkit October 25, 2013 6:06 PM

I’ve rarely read such drivel as atk’s posting.

. . . yet it was Clauswitz who wrote “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”, later amending that (due to misinterpretations) to “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means.”

Violence is a part —and always has been— of the spectrum in policy, politics, and negotiation. The quoted paper is interesting because Abrahms finds non-linearity in the effects of violence.

Alan Bostick October 25, 2013 6:29 PM

Lest we get distracted by the weasel-word “terrorism,” it’s worth noting that the same argument can be made about “strategic bombing,” e.g. by the Luftwaffe over Britain, the RAF and USAAF over Germany, the USAAF over Japan, and the USAF over North Vietnam. It’s supposed to break the will of the civilian population; instead it galvanizes public anger and strengthens their will to fight further.

noseyparkerunit October 25, 2013 10:00 PM

I’ve been arguing that if one goes to a sex therapist or if one doesn’t but uses it as a form of medical therapy to avoid the need for Viagra, then that is part of one’s medical privacy. Could anyone logging into your computer or otherwise tracking you about your porn watching be held liable for violation of the medical privacy law. I got tired of my accounts being hacked and asked my endocrinologist to prescribe Viagra and she said she also wanted to do a testosterone test. Personally I preferred porn rather than medicine but I dont’ really have any choice. They won’t quit the hacking into and bothering me when I watch porn. I’m looking for someone to fund a full scale investigation into those who have hacked into my computer. Incidentally, I’m a fan of Ben Franklin. At age 22, (I was shy and a late bloomer) I decided to take Ben Franklin’s advice and have consistently seen older women. So there’s no question of illlegal porn. Why do they do this? Porn was just reported to be lower sexual assaults where it is most watched.

I suspect my hacker to be at a government agency and is trying to cover up his actions because every now and then he tries to stop me from telling people about my computer continuing to get hacked. Any advice?

Moderator October 26, 2013 3:27 AM

Well, that was dramatically off-topic. Though at least it was shorter than your epic off-topic post about porn as “Bruce” on the other thread. I understand this is very important to you, but you’ve shared enough here. You may not discuss porn, or your personal sexual history, or anything even remotely related to porn or your personal sexual history on this blog again.

atk October 26, 2013 7:44 AM

@Henry J Bean: Would you care to provide argument against my post? Or are are your insults truly evidence that you are devoid of actual argument?

Kyle Rose October 26, 2013 11:57 AM

@atk: I think most people understand the difference between violence as self-defense and violence as aggression on a gut level. This, unfortunately, is inconvenient for the State, which uses the threat of violence to achieve almost every end it has. Thus, they have tried to redefine self-defense to include things like preemption, the individual moral equivalent of which would be you shooting your neighbor because you heard he had a gun and there is some evidence of past aggressive behavior on his part.

Being clear on exactly what is self-defense (e.g., using violence to prevent evidently imminent violence or to stop violence occurring in progress) and what is not (e.g., violence in reaction to words) is part of the battle against aggression. Better security perimeters enable one to move more cases of self-defense from the stop-ongoing category to the prevent-imminent category, all while avoiding the problem of implementing preemption as a substitute for self-defense.

Canuckistan Bob October 27, 2013 12:52 PM

In the real world, violence tends to have little to do with bargaining– there is a word for fools who think otherwise: losers. That was the whole thing in Vietnam, right? If we up the violence a little here, and threaten a little more violence there, we can negotiate a better deal? How’d that work out?

Israel did not occupy the Sinai or the Golan Heights or the West Bank as a bargaining tactic, for example, which is one of many reasons why Middle East Peace talks tend to be futile, when conducted on the basis of “bargaining.”

Terrorists do not conduct violence in the hopes of bargaining, they hope to provoke an overreaction. It almost always works, too. (A “war of civilizations” is precisely what al-Qaeda sought with 911, and they got it in spades.)

In fact, about the only historical case of successfully using threats of violence in bargaining I can think of is Hitler at Munich. Not really a model one should emulate, considering how it all worked out in the long run.

atk October 27, 2013 2:07 PM

You can cherry pick times where bargaining tactics fail, but that doesn’t make them any less bargaining tactics. I can cherry pick times where those same tactics were successful.

You can attribute a bargaining tactic that worked for one goal as a failure because it failed at another goal.

You can claim that a particular tactic doesn’t work because someone doesn’t want to bargain. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a bargaining tactic. It just changes the outcome of bargaining.

You can present a definitiion of terrorist that does not cover all for whom the term was applied, and ise this straw man to whatever claim you wish. That does not make your claims true.

Examples of use of violence or threats of violence to get what one wants, successfully:

  • the schoolyard bully who steals lunch money every day, who proposed the deal so thzt s/he might have your money
  • the robber who threatends ‘your money or your life’ and who runs off with your money either way, who also proposed a deal so that s/he might have your money
  • Operation Desert Storm, which kicked Iraq out of Kuwait, for the part of the negotitaion that was ‘oraq must exit kuwait’
  • the elderly woman who points a gun at the home invader and shouts, ‘get outta here or I’ll shoot!’, thereby proposing a deal that will get the intruder immediately out of her home.

I’m sure you can come up with other examples once you start to realize that negotiation doesn’t have to succeed to be negotiation.

n October 28, 2013 3:52 AM

bombing… supposed to break the will of the civilian population; instead it galvanizes public anger and strengthens their will to fight further.
I as at neither Nagasaki not Hiroshima, but…

n October 28, 2013 3:59 AM

shooting your neighbor because you heard he had a gun and there is some evidence of past aggressive behavior on his part.
Statistical chance and consequences… Drunken drivers usually don’t crash into things or persons.
But ‘heard was a drunken driver’ isn’t strong enough evidence.

n October 28, 2013 4:09 AM

Popular culture, and perhaps truth, says that punishment officially limited to incarceration also includes unofficially sanctioned violence.
‘Privatized’ southern US prisons have worse reputation.
But some government punishment/threat is monetary fine.

n October 28, 2013 4:13 AM

‘get outta here or I’ll shoot!’
whereupon, home invader’s buddy shoots woman in back and invaders have illicitly procured another sale item.

atk October 28, 2013 9:28 AM

@n: While perhaps interesting points, what does any of that have to do with violence being a negotiating tactic? Or the differences between terrorism and warfare as negotiating tactics and their results?

Yoav October 29, 2013 10:51 AM

I think that it depends on the presistence of the threat.

Originally, people would react negatively to violence, and would be less willing to give concessions.

But, as time goes on and the violence continues, people would start changing their opinions.

Harry Johnston November 5, 2013 7:45 PM

The short version: violence, and terrorism in particular, may convince people you’re a serious threat, but it can also make them doubt that you are willing to bargain in good faith. As a layman, this hardly seems surprising. The details of how this fits into formalized bargaining theory, which makes up most of the paper, are likely only of interest to the specialists. 🙂

The application to military conflict, and in particular to military action in the presence of terrorism, may be of more interest. Drone attacks, for example, might be fruitfully examined in this way – although, as seen in the previous comments, there’s some inherent ambiguity over whether any given attacks are intended and/or seen as a negotiating tactic as opposed to a genuine attempt to reduce the enemy’s capabilities.

It might also be mentioned that the concept of rules of warfare likely exists largely for this reason; the behaviour of a military force directly affects the chances of success of future negotiations.

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