Think You Are A Rational Decision Maker? How We Get Swept Away With The Mob And What This Tells Us About Conflict
It’s hard to think of a justification for violence or actions which are motivated by prejudice or stereotypes. I’m not going to provide one, but I am going to offer an explanation about why groups behave in ways that appear irrational.
The Rwandan genocide is a good example of this. Over 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed by the ruling Hutus. The carnage was particularly gruesome and was sparked by the killing of the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana. The Hutus blamed Tutsi rebels.
The two groups of Rwandans are the same people. The Belgian colonialists who ruled Rwanda prior to independence, created the two groups and emphasised their differences, giving preference to the Tutsis. These groups began to oppose each other which prevented them from uniting and diverting their attention to overthrowing the Belgians. Why then, would they wage such an horrific war against each other?
What do we mean by “rational”?
Being rational is about how you form your opinions and the motivation for your actions. A rational person analyses fact and views the world around them based on those. Emotions are not supposed to be part of that formula. Phobias, for example, are not rational.
Economists view it slightly differently. They think a rational person acts in accordance with their preference. It’s why I buy an expensive lunch from my favourite sushi place even though I have a fridge full of food at home. Somebody reading this might think that’s wasteful. Others might see how much I love sushi as a perfectly acceptable reason to waste food and money. In short, this may explain why everyone’s interpretation of rational behaviour differs.
What Is Conflict?
Conflict is borne out of perception. It’s the perceived or real threat that another person or group of people will deny you access to a resource. It’s linked to survival and in basic terms, we fear whatever prevents us from fulfilling our needs. Those could include self-esteem, emotional or intellectual needs or those lower down in the Maslow hierarchy. It could also threaten your physical integrity, access to shelter and food.
Conflict can take many forms. It can range from inter-ethnic wars to disagreements between departments in an office. The principles are by and large, the same.
Lawyers pride themselves on taking the emotion out of a conflict and transforming it into a highly rational, structured and logical dispute based on the law. The defence will do exactly the same and yet, both sides will argue the other’s arguments are wrong. The use of rationality and a failure to diverge from it often prevent negotiation even when the costs escalate out of control. Positions can therefore divide parties into sides that must win at all costs.
Humans are incredibly social beings. We need to feel that we are accepted, loved and belong and we thrive on friendship. Existing in groups is a feature of most societies and has many advantages. Safety in numbers, access to mates, intimacy and increased cooperation means more chances of a successful hunt. Although we might have evolved from our hunter gatherer days, we still rely on each other to fulfill a lot of our needs.
There are also huge disadvantages. What if, I am not accepted? I may be cast out of the group for certain behaviours. It’s what happens to lionesses if they mate with lions who are not part of their pride. Meercats are vicious towards females who become pregnant because only the queen may bear offspring.
What this means is that group cohesion relies on common aims, goals, behaviours, attitudes and language.
It creates an “us” that we belong to and a “them” that we need protection from. Clearly, not all outsider groups are seen as a threat and we see this in foreign affairs all the time and in office culture. We all need allies.
Toxic Group Dynamics
Leaders of any group know that to retain power, they need to maintain group cohesion. Members need to know that they can rely on the leader to ensure that outsider groups don’t prevent them from accessing the resources they need to fulfil their needs.
Take Boris Johnson for example. He is appealing to the supporters by saying clearly, the UK will leave the EU at any cost on 31st October. To show that he is a strong and capable leader, his message is that Europe (the outsider group) will bow down to our demands. Moreover, if you are worried about Labour gaining power (which you may be if you are a right-wing supporter), he’ll also defeat Corbyn.
This is a classic way to unify a group. Create a perceived threat (Europe), rally a group’s members together in a way that emphasises common goals and desires and project an image of strength. It’s a technique that has worked in several contexts in the past and the present.
A group allows positive behavioural traits such as loyalty, cooperation and sharing, and encourages negative common attitudes and behaviours.
Aggression may be acceptable towards outsider group members. History has also shown, as in the Rwandan example, that it can be acceptable to dehumanise them. In that conflict, anti-Tutsi leaders spread propaganda which depicted them as sub-human in some way such as comparing them to rodents or cockroaches, for example.
This can quickly change to violence being perpetrated against them which is not only accepted but encouraged. In the case of extremist groups, this can also help to integrate the group. De-humanising the other group makes such behaviour acceptable. Even if violence towards members of the in group is not permitted.
A leader is dependent on support from the group. Their concern is in maintaining it and so the decisions they make are mostly about making sure the group is united. It isn’t the most logical or rational decision; it is the most popular and pleasing decision to the group that often succeeds. We see this in company boards meetings, when conformity might override rationality.
The core ideas of this post were taken from Charles Webel & Charles Fisher, “The Group Psychology of War and Peace” (2013) Peace Review, 25:2, 177-186
What This Tells Us About Conflict
- Trying to understand another person’s perspective is as important as understanding group dynamics. Which group do they belong to which prevents them from changing their position?
- Parties often get to a point when changing their mind will also involve breaking away from their group. How can you make this easier for them? What incentives can you give them to do this?
- Your logic is sometimes not the same as the other person’s, especially when encouraged by the group.
- Our tendency to dehumanise the other side escalate conflict. Do you think the other person or group is stupid? Pathetic? Irrational?
I’d love to hear your views ! Let me know what you think by leaving a comment!