The Psychology of Maximum Submission With Minimum Force

Much can be learned about a conflict between nations from observing the psychology and biology of conflicts between individuals. Netta Ahituv in conversation with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.

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Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on prospect theory.
Daniel Kahneman received the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his work on prospect theory.

“During World War II we were in France. The strongest feeling I retain from that period is the helplessness. I was a young boy, but my older sister could have joined the French Resistance without this adding to the danger that threatened us anyway. Still, it never occurred to anyone in the family that she would do so. In retrospect, it turned out I was the only one who had noticed that we hadn’t thought of resisting because we felt like hunted rabbits. Since 1967, I haven’t shaken off the connection between the occupation and my experiences as a boy in France.”

That memory is recalled by psychologist Prof. Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, in a conversation about the psychological components of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He notes that control over people is most effective when it achieves maximum submission and helplessness with the minimum of force. “There is a biological background to this,” he observes. “In the animal world we find such phenomena in groups in many species, including primates, where control is effected primarily by means of intimidation and is sparing in the use of actual violence. It’s true that an alpha male attains his status through a series of battles, but afterward it is sufficient for him merely to deter, to only appear dangerous, to demonstrate strength and a controlled use of force in order to maintain his status.”

And from biological law to our specific local example: “We find this also in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s true that at the moment Israel is busy repulsing a wave of terror, but nevertheless the most impressive fact is that Israel has been ruling another people for almost 50 years and yet living in relative tranquillity for most of that time. The ordinary Israeli, who lives beyond the fence, can believe that the conflict is manageable.

“The Israel Defense Forces,” he continues, “has developed the psychology of deterrence among the Palestinians to the level of an art. The army is able to achieve intimidation without being dragged into situations of mass killing, and to create a feeling of helplessness among most of the Palestinians, most of the time; a feeling similar to the one my family and I experienced in France during World War II.”

Does this apply also to nonviolent resistance, such as that practiced by Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King?

“It seems that intimidation with the minimum of killing is an effective means against nonviolent resistance. The successes of nonviolent resistance are achieved when they induce the ruler to resort to cruel actions that shock the world’s conscience. An examination of the nonviolent liberation movements throughout modern history throws up this pattern time and again. Nonviolent liberation movements generally achieved victory in the wake of massacres or abuse perpetrated by the oppressors against nonviolent protesters. That was the case in India, South Africa and Ireland, and was even seen recently in the film ‘Selma,’ which shows how the police sicced dogs on nonviolent demonstrators in a demonstration for the civil rights of blacks in the United States. Such events shock the world and change everything, but so far Israel has succeeded in averting an event of that magnitude.”

Cognitive and emotional components

Kahneman lists a range of psychological phenomena that manifest themselves in conflicts between nations, and in order to simplify, divides them into cognitive and emotional components. “Cognitively,” he says, “what stands out is the radical difference between the way we interpret our own behavior and our explanation of the adversary’s behavior. In a national conflict, as in a spousal conflict, each of the adversaries sees himself as responding to the other’s provocations and believes that the other’s behavior reflects negative eternal traits, which he always possessed. Neither of the adversaries imagines that the other also sees himself as responding and not initiating.”

He cites the Israeli explanation for the Palestinians’ behavior as an example. “It is easy for the Israelis to explain the Palestinian attacks as a manifestation of eternal hatred,” Kahneman says. “It is far more difficult to understand that the hatred is explained, at least in part, as a response to the protracted occupation and its concomitant abuse. The prevailing misconception is to think that if eternal hatred is sufficient as an explanation, then what we do to the Palestinians in the territories makes no difference. Their attitude toward us is not affected by our actions.”

Palestinians stand in line at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, waiting to cross into Jerusalem in August 2010. Credit: Reuters

A similar explanation applies to Israel’s perception of the attitude in Europe. “It is easy to attribute the European reservations about Israel entirely to anti-Semitism,” Kahneman says. “It is far harder to view them, at least in part, as opposition to a policy that deviates from the norms of advanced nations. If they are anti-Semites, it makes no different what we do – their attitude toward us will be the same. Ignoring our contribution to the other side’s behavior is neither an attempt at self-justification nor merely propaganda; it is a general psychological phenomenon that appears in every conflict. Without denying that there is indeed both hatred and anti-Semitism, we need to understand that ignoring the occupation frees Israel from the responsibility it bears.”

The second phenomenon to which Kahneman refers is the lack of any wish to understand the other side. “It’s amazing how similar this element is in disputes between individuals and between nations. In both instances, each side hears only itself and takes very little interest in what the other side is feeling and thinking.”

Identified with weakness

Among the emotional factors, Kahneman notes the natural inclination of people to divide the world into two groups – us and all the rest. “The propensity to differentiate the ‘us’ group from ‘them’ can be based on a shared birthday, eye color or other traits, however superficial. Psychological experiments find that people who have the same birthday are willing to share with one another and trust each other, whereas they discriminate against those who do not share the date. Biology prepares us to distinguish between ourselves and the other. Biology also makes us suspicious and aggressive in our relations with strangers. In a conflict situation, it is natural to exploit superior force to impose our will on the adversary. In the type of thinking that is controlled by associations and emotions, making concessions is identified with weakness.”

There are numerous players in national conflicts – the public, elected officials, the army. To whom are you attributing these psychological traits?

“To everyone. To citizens and their leaders – and that is where the problem lies. The principal hope in a national conflict is that the leaders will overcome the simplistic thinking that stems from the phenomena we have described. In Israel’s history, a clear example of the thinking that is needed is Yitzhak Rabin and his statement that “peace is only made with enemies.” Regrettably, I see no room for hope that the pressure to end the conflict with a compromise will come from below, from the people. It must come from above, from the leadership.”

This last statement could discourage those who wish to end the conflict, make the peace camp despair.

“Indeed, but it’s the truth. It’s unlikely that a large, popular movement will arise that advocates far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. By the same token, it’s equally improbable that an active majority will arise among the Palestinians in favor of making concessions to Israel. Leaders are needed on both sides who will be perceived by their people as being strong enough to make concessions.

“It does not follow from this that the peace organizations are superfluous or wasting their time – it is important to maintain the flame of the idea of peace, to sustain that idea within the public and, generally, to provide a different voice without expecting everyone to be convinced. The importance of moderate voices will manifest itself when a leader arises who is willing to strive for peace. Thanks to the voices of peace, it will be easier for him to wield influence and bring about change.”

Prof. Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel laureate in Economic Sciences (2002). He is Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a Fellow of the Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Rationality. He is the author of the best-selling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

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