The possibility of political violence erupting on Nov. 4, 2020, the day after our next presidential election, is a horrible scenario. But it is not unprecedented in the U.S. Our nation has seen widespread political violence going back to class-based clashes in the late 1700s, racial and ethnic turmoil in the 1800s and 1900s, and anti-government violence in the 1970s and beyond.
Today, the U.S. is experiencing a sustained rise in hate speech, hate groups and hate-inspired violence. A 2019 study showed that 9 percent of both Republicans and Democrats say that violence is at least occasionally acceptable. However, when asked to imagine an electoral loss of the presidency in 2020, support for violence jumps to 18 percent for Democrats and 13 percent for Republicans — almost one-third of our citizens. This, combined with the well-documented increase in public rhetoric that condones violence and attacks the legitimacy of U.S. democratic institutions, sets us up for the worst-case.
How could this happen in America?
Research suggests slowly and then suddenly. One of the collateral benefits of the coronavirus pandemic is that it is teaching us all about the difference between linear and exponential change. Linear change is when we see a gradual rise in cases of the virus — or in hate crimes — over time, that is proportional to changes in some variables, like contact with strangers. This is how most of us think about change unfolding in our world: a straight, diagonal line. The good news about linear change is that you can see it coming.
Exponential change is different. This type of change typically shows little evidence of increase until it crosses some threshold, and then we see a sudden, runaway increase. In other words, nothing much seems to be changing until everything changes (as the curved line depicts.) This is, of course, what we have been seeing in our communities recently with the spread of the virus.
This is also how some types of catastrophic violence erupt. This scenario is sometimes seen in interpersonal conflicts between siblings, coworkers or romantic partners. It was also observed in the horrific outbreak of genocidal violence that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990s, where almost 1 million Rwandans were killed, many by their neighbors, over 100 days. This outburst erupted quite suddenly, but only after years of more gradual, low-level increases in interethnic hostilities between Tutsis and Hutus had been instigated and tolerated.
The big question is, of course, why? Why do some types of political tensions and violence increase slowly and incrementally — and therefore are much easier to anticipate and block — while others seem to jump to terrible levels suddenly, almost out of nowhere?
My colleagues and I have studied this in our conflict dynamics labs. In two studies — one conducted in the U.S. with adults and the other in Poland with high-school students — we found that one thing really matters when it comes to linear versus catastrophic escalation: complexity. That is, different levels of complexity in people’s experience of the world and in how they view their relationships. Both studies experimentally tested whether these differences affected if people would respond to provocations from others incrementally (responding in-kind to the actions of the other) or catastrophically (not responding at first until a threshold was crossed and then responding dramatically).
Both studies supported our predictions.
In one, people who tended to experience the world in more nuanced ways and were able to tolerate ambiguity more (higher complexity individuals — assessed as having a low need for closure), showed more proportional versus catastrophic escalation in response to provocation, compared to those who were intolerant of nuance and ambiguity (low complexity or high need for closure).
In the other study, students who were instructed to imagine an escalating conflict with a casual acquaintance (research has shown that cognitive representations of acquaintances tend to be more differentiated) chose behavioral responses of gradually increasing hostility more so than those envisioning conflict with a close friend (where more simplistic, global judgments of the other are more likely). When it came to their close friends, students responded in a relatively mild fashion to provocation until a critical threshold of antagonism was reached, at which point they began to respond with highly contentious behaviors.
These differences in individual and relational complexity have equally important implications for repairing damage from highly destructive conflicts. Once a conflict reaches extreme levels of intensity, decreasing the forces that drove it in the first place will often not reduce the tension to its original level, until another threshold is reached that represents a considerably lower level of conflict. We found this in another study on conflicts in close versus distant relations — the closer relations took much longer to de-escalate and repair. We also saw this in Rwanda, where it has taken decades of intervention including military actions, legislation, criminal tribunals, and local truth and reconciliation processes (the Gacaca courts), among other initiatives, to begin to reduce trauma, suspiciousness and interethnic hostility to pre-conflict levels.
The moral of this story is simple: get complicated now. The benefits of complexity for mitigating intergroup violence and promoting more constructive relations has been found in research that scales across levels — meaning that the degree of complexity in how we think, feel and act, whom we socialize, work, live and network with, and how we structure our homes, schools, workplaces and communities, have all been found to have significant implications for how we respond to conflict in our lives.
So, the sooner we complicate our lives, the better.
Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and whose next book, titled “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization,” will be released in 2021.