DOVES VERSUS HAWKS: New analysis of the fundamentals of conflict behaviour

Conflicts might be less intense in societies that are more heterogeneous for ethnic or cultural reasons. That is one of the conclusions of research by Sidartha Gordon and Alessandro Riboni, published in the December 2015 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study explores the likely outcomes in conflicts where the opposing sides take contrasting approaches: one absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause – the ''hawk'' – and the other more ''dovish'' and open to doubts and the advice of political or religious leaders. It shows that dovish attitudes – an ''appeasement'' strategy – can moderate the escalation of violence in a conflict, though often at a cost to the doves.

The researchers note that many of the conflicts observed in the real world concern ideological issues, such as religion and the left/right divide on economic issues. When individuals hold different views about what policy is best, compromise is more difficult to achieve. Consequently, individuals may start a conflict so as to impose their preferred policy on others.

As the philosopher Karl Popper argued in his 1963 book, conflicts are less violent when individuals entertain the possibility that they might be wrong and that their opponents may be right. But why is it so difficult to observe this attitude – and would individuals doubt more or less when facing hawkish opponents?

To answer these questions, the new study presents a theoretical model of conflict between two opponents. The researchers suppose that one is ''dogmatic'': he knows what policy is best for him and does not entertain the possibility that he might be wrong; while the other is uncertain of what is best for him. To know more, the second opponent naively relies on the information provided by an ''adviser'' – for example, a party leader or a religious preacher.

The study shows that when facing a dogmatic opponent, the party leader has strong incentives to manipulate information and induce dovish attitudes in his ''advisee''. The adviser will induce his advisee to believe that his opponent may be right even when all the evidence indicates that the policy preferred by the opponent is far from ideal. In this case, dovish attitudes moderate the escalation of violence in the conflict, but the non-dogmatic opponent often loses in the conflict.

Dovish attitudes against a dogmatic opponent constitute a sort of appeasement strategy. Such attitudes are more likely to be observed in contexts where it is more difficult to uncover what policy is best and when the two opponents are more different. The research suggests that for this reason, conflicts might be less intense in societies that are more heterogeneous for ethnic or cultural reasons.

The appeasement strategy is not always the best approach to take. There can be hawkish attitudes in conflicts when the costs of the fight are not fully borne by the party leader. In this case, neither opponent doubts whether their preferred policy is best, although all available information suggests otherwise.

In this case, conflicts are violent because both opponents are highly motivated to exert high effort. Moreover, the hawkish opponent disregards evidence that may induce him to change his opinion and dogmatism is reinforced.

''Doubts and Dogmatism in Conflict Behaviour'' by Sidartha Gordon and Alessandro Riboni is published in the December 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Sidartha Gordon is at the Université Paris-Dauphine. Alessandro Riboni is at the Ecole Polytechnique.