Why do we fight?
Science can help to understand and address crime and conflict
If you want to quiz a South African social scientist, ask them what explains our high crime rate. You won’t find a shortage of answers. There is only one issue: we have no idea which of them are actually true.
Take poverty. If poverty is indeed the biggest reason for crime, as many will argue, then we would expect the highest crime rates in the poorest areas. And that is not the case: the poorest areas in South Africa, the former homelands, do not report the highest murder rates, for example. Inequality, your smart social scientist friend might say, is the answer. Sure, that is possible, but then the most unequal towns must have the highest crime rates, no? That is also not true: in the Western Cape, the highest Ginis are found in places like Hermanus, Knysna, or Stellenbosch, not the places with the highest rates of crime. Not so simple.
There are, of course, other explanations. A popular one is the unreliable police force or the inefficient criminal justice system. In 2020, Edwin Cameron, former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, wrote in the South African Crime Quarterly:
The crime surge in democratic South Africa was directly linked to the collapse of institutional capacity in the police – particularly, the crime detection and follow up services – and the collapse of competence in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA)
In her book, Can We Be Safe?, Ziyanda Stuurman also attributes South Africa’s high crime rate to a dysfunctional criminal justice system and calls for its complete overhaul.
But a declining police service is more likely to explain time trends than variation across the country: growth rather than levels. To get at the large spatial variation (even within neighbourhoods), other factors are surely needed: drug and alcohol abuse, gangsterism, and a history of weapon ownership, to name a few possibilities. And it is also important to keep in mind that causes will vary depending on the type of crime: it is unlikely that farm murders and gender violence and car hijackings would all be explained by the same thing.
Given the enormity of the problem, and its complexity, it is somewhat surprising that it has not received more attention from social scientists. Try googling ‘the origins of crime in South Africa’ and you’d be left frustrated. More importantly: what you do find is often more about the consequences than causes. And even if it is about causes, it is almost always making causal claims without causal support.
That is why a book like Why We Fight, Chris Blattman’s new must-read, is so refreshing. Blattman is a professor of economics at UChicago and is interested in the causes of conflict. His aim is to find a more systematic way of understanding why humans engage in conflict when the costs of it almost always seem to outweigh the benefits.
Finding a more systematic way of analysing conflict is important, he explains, because of selection bias: if we were to only analyse the conflicts that erupt into violence, for example, we are likely to arrive at a standard list of causes: poor leadership, historical injustices, severe poverty, angry young men, cheap weapons, and cataclysmic events. Yet these factors are often also present in conflict cases that do not escalate to violence! This makes them poor predictors.
So how can we think more scientifically about conflict? Blattman proposes a typology of five causes. The first is unchecked interests. The high costs of violence and, in its most extreme form, war, is the main reason for peace, but sometimes those that carry the costs are not the ones making the decisions. Unchecked rulers who stand to gain but do not pay the costs are the most likely reasons for escalating conflict.
Blattman’s second reason is intangible incentives. Maybe conflict in and of itself has value to certain groups, perhaps because of the promise of reward in the afterlife.
The third reason is uncertainty. As poker players know, sometimes you have to call another player’s bluff, even if it comes at a cost to you. The same is true of conflict.
The fourth reason is a commitment problem. If your enemy is likely to gain in strength, it is better to engage in conflict now while he is still weak. Even if both of you want to avoid war, there is nothing that your enemy can say or do that can credibly ensure peace in the future.
The final reason is misperceptions. As Blattman, explains, we are overconfident creatures. We also expect that our enemies think the same way we do and that they always have the worst intentions. Our biases push us to make misguided decisions.
Blattman’s typology might not bring an immediate answer to South Africa’s crime conundrum. But his experiments – from Colombian cartels to Chicago gangs, from English soccer hooligans to Liberian rebels – may help us to think more systematically about the types of intervention that can make a difference.
And that more scientific approach is exactly what we need more of. More money, more police, more guns, and more prisons are unlikely to solve the problem. Quite the opposite. The alternative of just pouring money at the problem is almost never easier, but given the enormous economic, social and psychological burden of crime on our society, perhaps it is time to invest in a new strategy.
An edited version of this post appeared (in Afrikaans) in Rapport on 11 September 2022. Photo by Maxime Gilbert on Unsplash.
Violence is a necessary evil, in asset-oriented cultures, since future risk must be mitigated now.
Thanks for sharing this.
I'm particularly interested in conflict and do some conflict facilitation work using the Lewis Deep Democracy method, based on process-oriented psychology. The theory we work with states that conflict often results from resistance to a position that doesn't get heard and so it grows and grows. It shows up in sarcastic jokes and gossip at first, but later progresses to strikes and all out war/separation. To me, this seems like a deeper explanation of cause rather than the factors that enable violence shared above.
I think the South African experience of violence inflicted by the apartheid government has a huge role to play in conditioning people to accept a lower standard of human-human interaction, and the trauma of those days still plays out in people's psychologies and interpersonal relationships - also being passed onto to younger generations if you look at Indigenous people's in Canada's work on intergenerational trauma.
Violence happens because we don't invest in healing - at least one of the puzzle pieces in the complex story.