Why pathways toward violence are hard to shift, and what we can do to help
Have you ever left your house in the morning for an early appointment—a doctor’s visit, say—and found yourself, 20 minutes later, outside your office building instead? You’ve made that commute so many times, your body just took you there without your brain really noticing.
We do this on a collective level, too. We develop rituals and continue doing them, sometimes long after they cease to make sense or bring us benefit.
Violent conflict, too, is habit-forming. Last year, for the study Pathways for Peace, we took a long look at how violent conflict emerges, and continues, and how some societies manage to exit it, often against great odds. We used the analogy of a pathway to show how societies move through situations of varying risk as they navigate competing pressures toward violent conflict, or peace. The pathways are not linear; most societies tend to follow more circuitous routes, and many get caught up in vicious or virtuous cycles that cause them to revisit ground already traversed.
Sudden shifts in a society’s pathway are rare. Peace brings a certain inertia with it, and most societies avoid violence most of the time. Peaceful resolution of conflict is a habit: the longer and more intensely a society forges a path away from violence, the harder it is for spoilers to derail that progress.
Likewise, once violence takes root, it often gains momentum. Throughout history, certain societies have been particularly vulnerable to violence (Fearon and Laitin 2013), often experiencing cycles of violence interspersed with periods of relative peace (Jones, Elgin-Cossart and Esberg 2012).
How does violence become a habit?
The short answer is because the root causes of violence are not sufficiently addressed. Studies across numerous countries have consistently shown that repeated bouts of violence have to do with underlying institutional or structural factors that remain unaddressed, rather than with immediate shocks (Min et al. 2017). High levels of aid dependence, or heavy reliance on natural resources, create incentives for conflict because of the potential gains from capturing access to rents, and because they tend to be volatile (Blattman and Miguel 2010; Collier and Hoeffler 2004; OECD 2016). Deep-seated inequalities in access to basic needs such as land, livelihoods, services, or security feed grievances that can fuel violence, especially as they persist over time.
But underlying causes aren’t the whole story. Violence creates a momentum of its own as people reorient their behavior toward the expectation that conflict will continue. Institutions are reconfigured to react or pre-empt violence—military spending increases, security forces expand, certain regions and sectors are neglected as attention and budget goes to addressing more immediate threats. The costs of responding to the enormous human need created by violence—displacement, broken infrastructure, closing schools and hospitals in high-risk areas—can throw institutions into prolonged crisis mode, leaving little energy or budget for the longer-term investments that are needed to break the cycle of violence.
Once violence takes hold, people start to profit from it. War economies and illicit trafficking tend to thrive in conflict-affected areas, creating incentives for armed groups to keep fighting. Background research prepared for the Pathways for Peace study shows that while the presence of trafficking networks rarely starts a war, it does tend to prolong and intensify war (Comolli 2017).
External actors may step in, with financing or direct intervention, to escalate the conflict. As the report shows, a growing number of conflicts today are internationalized, making them more resistant to peaceful resolution.
Finally, violence often relaxes social norms, altering the incentives for different actors to avoid it. Acts that may have previously been viewed as unacceptable—targeting civilians, or using sexual violence as a weapon—become normalized, if not accepted. In my home country, the United States, the 2012 massacre in Newtown, CT, is commonly regarded as a turning point. Prior to that, killing children was largely regarded as the abomination that it is. But there are days when US society appears to have relaxed that conviction. Once violence has become normalized within a society, it is harder to stop.
Once a society gets hooked into a vicious cycle, the number and character of interventions is more limited, but not as limited as often thought. In these delicate moments, certain measures can make things worse. For example, heavy-handed security responses can further entrench perceptions of injustice. If these are led by international actors, they can end up undermining the very legitimacy needed for state institutions to rebuild confidence for longer-term peace. Likewise, halting development activities when a security situation deteriorates can leave people without any way to meet their most basic needs during the stress of violent conflict. Armed groups can exploit the resulting vacuum.
The good news is that countries can, and have, exited cycles of violence. As always, earlier is better. Countries that take decisive steps to address sources of grievances—harnessing the power of youth, tackling institutional reform, or investing in historically underserved regions—can avoid cycles of violence.