Domestic violence produces significantly higher costs to society than murders and civil wars, at least in low and middle income countries. That’s the powerful finding revealed by James Fearon and Anke Hoeffler’s new study. The reason? There’s much more violence directed at women and children behind closed doors than any other form of violence.
This depressing fact got me thinking. Can bargaining theory tell us anything about why this type of violence continues and why the incidence is so high? Perhaps. Bargaining theory tells us that there should be a compromise settlement between two parties that would leave them both better off than fighting. This is especially true when the costs and risks of violence are high. If this is true, why aren’t more agreements reached between partners in violent relationships?
A settlement between such partners would likely include some trade-off between peace on the one hand, and control over household decisions (i.e., power) on the other. One partner (usually the woman) would trade control for peace.
According to the theory, bargaining can fail for at least two reasons: (1) one or both sides has private information about their strength or resolve and incentives to withhold or misrepresent this information, or (2) the two sides cannot enforce any agreement over time.
Information problems could help explain why violence breaks out in the first place. Let’s assume that a couple disagrees over the distribution of power and control in the household. One side wants significant control over all decisions in the household and the other is unwilling to give it. If both sides knew exactly what the other side was willing to do to gain his or her desired share of control, violence could be avoided. The side willing to fight hardest for household control would gain a share commensurate with that effort.
The problem, at least in the early stages of conflict, is that neither side knows just how hard the other is willing to fight for control. One side (usually the man) has private information about whether he will actually use violence (i.e., whether he is a “brutal” or “non-brutal” type). The other side (usually the woman) has private information about whether she will tolerate abuse, and how much she is willing to tolerate before she leaves the home (i.e., is she “proactive” or “not”). Revealing this information in the absence of violence is difficult. Those seeking control have incentives to claim that they will “turn violent” – even if they know they will not – in order to gain a greater share of power. Similarly, those seeking peace have an incentive to claim that they will “immediately leave” should abuse occur, even if they know they will stay.
Domestic violence, therefore, could be a way for “brutal” men to provide hard evidence that they will inflict pain and therefore deserve more control as a result. It is also a way for them to determine if they are facing a “proactive” partner – one who will leave at the first sign of abuse, or a “passive” one who is willing to stay.
This information problem, however, should disappear as soon as the private information about type has been revealed. Once it is clear that one side is “abusive” and the other “passive,” a deal should be made that allows both parties to avoid additional violence. Why isn’t a control-for-peace agreement reached at this point?
The answer could have something to do with commitment/enforcement problems.
One of the main problems with domestic violence is that it is difficult for the victim to enforce the peace over time. Even if she relinquishes all power and control in the household, there is little she can do to prevent additional violence. There are likely three reasons for this. First, unless she physically strong and equally willing to use violence, she cannot credibly threaten to punish her abuser should he revert back to violence. Second, threatening to leave the relationship is unlikely to deter future violence because the victim has already revealed that she is unwilling to depart. Finally, no credible third party exists to help enforce the peace for the weaker side, especially in low and middle income countries. The police and judicial system could serve this role by arresting and punishing the abuser, but arrest and prosecution often does not occur, making this punishment less than effective as well. The result? Abusers are likely to figure out that continued abuse will go unpunished even if they already gained compliance from their partner. There is little need to change their behavior as long as they face little risk and cost for aggression.
So what might bargaining theory tell us about domestic violence? It tells us that domestic violence may be so prevalent due to enforcement issues. As long as a huge asymmetry of physical and economic power continues to exist between men and women in most of the world, and as long as police forces are unwilling or unable to intervene, domestic violence will continue.
Bargaining theory, however, also offers insights about how to reduce domestic violence. First, make it financially easy for women to leave these conflict situations. Domestic violence would significantly decline if women walked away from these relationships at the first sign of abuse. A safe haven plus job training and other assistance would offer women an alternative to staying in a position of weakness. Second, invest in effective policing. For women who are unwilling or unable to remove themselves from violence, active police intervention would help. Domestic violence occurs for lots of different reasons, some of which have deep psychological roots. But it continues because the perpetrator knows the risks and costs are low. If countries could make it easier for the victim to leave and promise to arrest and prosecute perpetrators, the costs and risks of domestic violence would increase, and its incidence would decline.