By Joseph Young
What makes an extremist extreme? It is a conventional wisdom in studies of political violence to assume that extreme preferences on a policy outcome equal a desire for extreme measures. Is this true? If a person is strongly against abortion, are they more likely to commit acts of violence to stop it than someone who is moderately against abortion?
Max Abrahms of Johns Hopkins challenges this common knowledge. He agrees that extreme tactics by dissident groups leads to an audience perception that the group has extreme beliefs. In his estimation, however, this can be quite counterproductive. For Abrahms, if elites wish to persuade their domestic audiences that a group cannot be negotiated with, extreme dissident tactics can actually harden the resolve of the targeted government. For example, Hamas is perceived by the Israelis as a group that is extreme in their preferences, because of their use of suicide attacks. Are they? Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is maybe the most emotive and divisive conflict on Earth, the answer to this question is hotly debated. Instead, let’s consider a group like the Army of God in the US. While some people question their groupness, their goal is clear: ending legalized abortion. A recent Gallup poll suggests that about 1 out of 5 Americans agrees with this position, a rough percentage has remained stable since 2004. In a separate question, about half the respondents considered themselves pro-life. We can all probably agree that Eric Rudolph bombing the Atlanta Olympics or Paul Hill gunning down an abortion provider (and his bodyguard) in Pensacola, Florida are extreme tactics. But are their positions extreme?
As I mentioned in a previous post, political scientists are warming to the use of experimental methods to unpack these kinds of questions. Abrahms uses a survey experiment in a forthcoming piece in International Studies Quarterly to take on this assumption central to many recent bargaining models of conflict (including ones that I borrow from). Begun by Schelling around 1960 and refined by Fearon and others in the mid 1990s, bargaining theory is arguably one of the most productive research programs in International Relations explaining everything from internal ethnic conflict to interstate war. One of the key points of this approach is that violence lends credibility to threats in an anarchic world filled with uncertainty and asymmetric information.
While Abrahms agrees that violence can increase the credibility of a threat, he claims it can also undermine the credibility of a group’s/individual’s claim that they will refrain from violence in the future, what he calls the Credibility Paradox. The reason (causal mechanism) that violence can be counterproductive for groups is what Abrahms calls the Correspondence of Means and Ends bias. In short, as the extremeness of a challenger’s means increase, so too do the perceived extremeness of his/her ends particularly in the minds of citizens of the target country.
To test this, Abrahms presents subjects with a simple story about a group. The group has a relatively moderate demand: release some of their confederates from prison. In exchange, the group promises to lay down their weapons. Each subject then was assigned to one of two conditions. The first condition (the control), the group captures some American hostages but does not hurt them. The second condition (the treatment) is nearly identical except the group kills the hostages. In sum, each scenario is the same as a group with moderate demands takes hostages. They differ based on the extremity of their tactics.
Comparing respondent’s scores between the treatment and control group, Abrahms finds respondents exposed to the more extreme tactics condition were:
- 20 percent more likely to rate the group’s preferences as the most extreme on a standard 7-point ordinal scale.
- 23 percent more likely to believe the group would not demobilize upon achieving its demand to free the imprisoned leaders.
Since the end goal was the same, Abrahms attributes this disconnect to the Correspondence of Means and Ends bias.
Abrahms recent research is ambitious as it challenges the hegemonic bargaining models of conflict that make these assumptions. It brings psychology back into the center of conflict studies a la Ted Gurr. It is also part of his larger attempt to show that terrorism is generally associated with failure.
As an end user of bargaining theory, I, of course, have a stake in the argument. The easiest criticism is that is a single experiment, and the results don’t generalize to other populations. Since this was a US sample, the experiment could be tapping into US post 9/11 perceptions of terrorism rather than larger empirical patterns across countries and time periods. Additionally, a casual look at many groups that use terrorism suggests that they have fairly extreme positions on the issues that drive their violence. Al-Qaeda would like to establish a global Caliphate where Sharia is the law of the land. This is far from moderate. Hamas would like all of the land from river (the Jordan) to sea (the Mediterranean), not exactly a compromising position. The LTTE wanted their own state, so did the PKK, ditto ETA. The Army of God is an exception, but on average it seems like many of these groups have objectively extreme demands. These goals shift, but it seems there is a positive relationship between tactics and demands. With that said, Max Abrahms is pushing the boundaries of the debate and inspires me to want to do work that casts doubt on his claims, something I can’t say about most recent research.