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The behavioral science behind post-election violence

The behavioral science behind post-election violence
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As tension builds while election officials continue to count votes, law enforcement officials around the country prepare for post-election civil unrest. Earlier this year, I predicted that the coronavirus wouldn’t cause widespread chaos in the U.S. But the election might; focus on how we resolve counting ballots and the rhetoric of political and civic leaders. 

I’ve spent my career studying violence, terrorism and coercion. What I’ve found is that violence typically occurs when violence is feasible, when people are motivated and when a leader benefits from violence occurring. 

Here’s a simple way to think about violence: Like a fire, violence requires three components — fuel, oxygen and heat. Dry grass alone, for example, does not create a wildfire, but requires a spark. In the U.S. right now, we have all three. 

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Fuel: Feelings of anger and hopelessness have been brewing for months. The “fuel” of political violence grows when the innate human need for self-preservation for self and kin struggles. We live in a world of scarcity. Violence is, at its core, an economic problem. By “economic,” I don’t mean that players are seeking monetary gains; I mean that organized violence results from a market in which individuals predictably pursue their self-interests in conditions of scarcity. Disenfranchised people who see the election outcome as literally threatening their survival or the survival of their families – whether because of the effects on unemployment, stock markets or changing social norms – provide the fuel of violence. 

The “oxygen” of political violence is the feasibility or possibility of violence. People must have the ability to engage in violent acts. If the state is all-controlling, like North Korea or Cuba during Fidel Castro’s reign, violence cannot break out, although coercion squeezes the lungs of the masses. In a democracy like the U.S., however, violent acts can and do occur. The oxygen of possibility abounds. 

Thirdly, violence requires a spark — often in the form of a charismatic leader, an “entrepreneur of violence,” in economic terms, who can speak to the aggrieved people in all of their forms of desire for greed, power and grievance. This leader could be a political leader, the leader of a civil rights group, a foreign political leader, a nationalist or even a cultural icon. In 1968, immediately after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam,” an indictment of the slow pace of the civil rights movement, at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island. During the performance, she ad-libbed a line in the middle of the song: “I ain’t about to be nonviolent, honey,” and the crowd erupted in applause. 

It is important to emphasize that angry people, alone, don’t cause violence, and that violence is not always bad. Perhaps Nina Simone was right, at that time and that place. As a scholar of violence, I was recently asked if I would ever resort to violence, and my first thought was enfranchisement. If people believe they are a part of a system and have a voice to bring about change from the inside, then they might protest but ultimately fight peacefully for change. If disenfranchised – hopeless – then expect rocks thrown through windows.

Violence lies along a spectrum of human actions and human choices — a continuum of possible decisions made by individuals within competitive markets, by individuals confronting scarcity of time, wealth, information and freedom. People compete against each other and against the state — this is the nature of the human condition. We will not end violence, but we can work hard to better understand why some protests remain peaceful and others erupt violently. 

Ultimately, viewing violence within the framework of economics and the science of human behavior also offers some reassurance: “market” power will not remain up for grabs for long. As the election results are resolved and elected leaders assume their positions, any post-election violence will likely resolve as well.  

Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D. is the author of “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism.” He teaches economic science and national security at Georgetown University and is the creator of Dozer and GOST.