The simple dynamics of violence

There’s simple, as in Occam’s Razor, and there’s simple, as in village idiot.

There’s a noble tradition in economics of using simple thought experiments to illuminate important dynamics. Sometimes things go wrong, though, like this (from a blog I usually like):

… suppose that you have the choice of providing gruesome rhetoric that will increase the probability of a killing spree but will also increase the probability of the passage of Universal Health Insurance. Suppose using the Arizona case as a baseline we say that the average killing spree causes the death of 6 people. Then if your rhetoric is at least 6/22,000 = 1/3667 times as likely to produce a the passage of universal health insurance as it is to induce a killing spree then you saved lives by engaging in fiery rhetoric.

Here’s the apparent mental model behind this reasoning:

Linear ViolenceIt’s linear: use violent rhetoric, get the job done. There are two problems with this simple model. First, the sign of the relationships is ambiguous. I tend to suspect that anyone who needs to use violent rhetoric is probably a fanatic, who shouldn’t be making policy in the first place. Setting that aside, the bigger problem is that violence isn’t linear. Like potato chips, you can never have just one excessive outburst. Violent rhetoric escalates, and sometimes crosses into real violence. This is the classic escalation archetype:

Violence EscalationIn the escalation archetype, two sides struggle to maintain an advantage over each other. This creates two inner negative feedback loops, which together create a positive feedback loop (a figure-8 around the two negative loops). It’s interesting to note that, so far, the use of violent rhetoric is fairly one-sided – the escalation is happening within the political right (candidates vying for attention?) more than between left and right.

There are many other positive feedbacks involved in the process, which exacerbate the direct escalation of language. Here are some speculative examples:

Violence Other LoopsThe positive feedbacks around violent rhetoric create a societal trap, from which it may be difficult to extricate ourselves. If there’s a general systems insight about vicious cycles, it’s that the best policy is prevention – just don’t start down that road (if you doubt this, play the dollar auction or smoke some crack). Politicians who engage in violent rhetoric, or other races to the bottom of the intellectual barrel, risk starting a very destructive spiral:

violence Social

The bad news is that there’s no easy remedy for this behavior. Purveyors of violent rhetoric and their supporters need to self-reflect on the harm they do to society. The good news is that if public support for violent words and images reverses, the positive loops will help to repair the damage, and take us closer to a model of rational discourse for problem solving.

About that, there is at least a bit of wisdom in the article:

… if you genuinely care about the shooting death of six people then you ought to really, really care about endorsing wrong public policies which will result in the premature death of vastly more people. Hence you should devote yourself to actually discovering the right answers to these questions, rather than than coming up with ad hoc rhetoric – violent or polite – in support of the policy you happend to have been attracted to first.

Ben Franklin, systems thinker

I find that many great thinkers are systems thinkers, even if they don’t use the lingo of feedback. Here’s a great example, in which Ben Franklin anticipates the American revolution, describing forces that could bring it about:


London, May 15, 1771.


I have received your favour of the 27th of February, with the journal of the House of Representatives, and copies of the late oppressive prosecutions in the Admiralty Court, which I shall, as you direct, communicate to Mr. Bollan, and consult with him on the most advantageous use to be made of them for the interest of the province.

I think one may clearly see, in the system of customs [import taxes] to be exacted in America by act of Parliament, the seeds sown of a total disunion of the two countries, though, as yet, that event may be at a considerable distance. The course and natural progress seems to be, first, the appointment of needy men as officers, for others do not care to leave England; then, their necessities make them rapacious, their office makes them proud and insolent, their insolence and rapacity make them odious, and, being conscious that they are hated, they become malicious; their malice urges them to a continual abuse of the inhabitants in their letters to administration, representing them as disaffected and rebellious, and (to encourage the use of severity) as weak, divided, timid, and cowardly. Government believes all; thinks it necessary to support and countenance its officers; their quarrelling with the people is deemed a mark and consequence of their fidelity; they are therefore more highly rewarded, and this makes their conduct still more insolent and provoking.

The resentment of the people will, at times and on particular incidents, burst into outrages and violence upon such officers, and this naturally draws down severity and acts of further oppression from hence. The more the people are dissatisfied, the more rigor will be thought necessary; severe punishments will be inflicted to terrify; rights and privileges will be abolished; greater force will then be required to secure execution and submission; the expense will become enormous; it will then be thought proper, by fresh exactions, to make the people defray it; thence, the British nation and government will become odious, the subjection to it will be deemed no longer tolerable; war ensues, and the bloody struggle will end in absolute slavery to America, or ruin to Britain by the loss of her colonies; the latter most probable, from America’s growing strength and magnitude.


I do not pretend to the gift of prophecy. History shows, that, by these steps, great empires have crumbled heretofore; and the late transactions we have so much cause to complain of show, that we are in the same train, and that, without a greater share of prudence and wisdom, than we have seen both sides to be possessed of, we shall probably come to the same conclusion….

With great esteem and respect, I have the honour to be, &c.


This translates readily into a rich causal loop diagram (click the image to enlarge):

Franklin anticipates the revolution

My CLD here is basically a direct translation of the letter. That makes it sound a little more like a cycle of events, and less like interaction of quantities that can vary, than I would like. I think it could be refined somewhat by aggregating related concepts and rearranging a few links. For example, war is really just an escalation of violence, so one could simplify by treating the level of violence more generically.

The interesting thing about this diagram is that it’s all positive loops. Presumably the “prudence and wisdom” that Franklin noted would have created negative loops that would have stabilized the situation. What were they?

I bet a lot of the same dynamics are in the DOD Afghanistan counterinsurgency diagram.

Thanks to Dan Proctor for the original letter & idea.

The Vensim CLD is here if you want to play: franklin.mdl