Does Violence Successfully Deter More Violence?

The consequences of military defeat are hard to predict. On one hand, under the right circumstances it seems feasible that a defeated group will disavow any future violence against their aggressors. On the other hand, from the perspective of the defeated group it’s easy to see how feelings of vengeance can make violence against the aggressors an important long-term goal.

new study by a pair of Israeli psychologists helps shed some light on what can moderate responses to defeat. They began their experiment by having Israeli participants read a paragraph about the Second Lebanon War. One group was given a paragraph that implied Israel was defeated, a second group was given a paragraph that implied Israel was the victor, and a third group was given a control paragraph that described procedures of the Israeli army.

Participants then read a paragraph that was either about the military force of Hamas, which was described as weak (“weak accomplice” condition), or the military force of Iran, which was described as strong (“strong accomplice” condition). Participants were then asked how Israel should respond to threats posed by Hamas or Iran.

The researchers found that being defeated made people more likely to support future aggression, but only against a weak ally. They went on speculate about what it means for violence as a deterrence strategy.

The results of the current research add to a growing literature suggesting that the logic of deterrence needs to be questioned (e.g., Haushofer et al., 2010). It seems that, ironically, defeat does not lower an adversary’s motivation for violence but may increase it and draw into the conflict third parties toward which aggression was displaced.

Could these psychological tendencies be influencing American support for various policies? It’s hard to say. The drone war could certainly fit into the category of aggression against “weak accomplices,” but the targets of that war aren’t all that different from those who “defeated” us.

Another idea is that the findings could provide an explanation for the development of civilian-targeted terrorism. The idea of attacking civilians seems commonplace to us, but at some point it was an innovative idea, and the desire to attack a “weak accomplice” could have helped drive its formation.
Ein-Dor, T., & Hirschberger, G. (2012). Sore Losers: On Perceptions of Defeat and Displaced Retaliation Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612457957

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