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He Hit Me First

July 26, 2006


In a very interesting op-ed piece, Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert discusses the psychology behind retribution [“He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t,” The New York Times, 24 July 2006]. In a world where “getting even” seems to be a national pasttime, Gilbert points out that “the problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently.” In other words, “getting even” is a mathematical, if not ethical, impossibility.

In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine. After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first. That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

Since Tom Barnett and I have written about horizontal scenarios and path dependencies — i.e., all actions have consequences that trigger other events — I found Gilbert’s discussion very interesting. Gilbert notes:

Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

Talk about a chicken & egg debate! Gilbert demonstrates how this principle works by citing a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas:

Pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them. The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

How does this phenomenon inform us about resilience? The most important lesson is that a resilient organization must have a mechanism that can break this cause & effect cycle. Most often this mechanism is a detached analyst (i.e., someone or some group that can make recommendations from outside the cause & effect paradigm). One organization that did this successfully was Royal Dutch Shell. By using scenario-based planning, it was able to break out of the cause & effect cycle very effectively. The reason a detached analyst is required is simple. According to Gilbert:

What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

A detached analyst isn’t concerned primarily with private thoughts but observable actions and knowable facts. Good consultants aren’t just smart, they are good story tellers. They can explain why things are happening (or why things must happen) in a way that someone caught in the cause & effect cycle can understand and, therefore, respond appropriately. “Consultants” don’t have to come from outside an organization (Peter Swartz’ scenario generation group was part of the Shell organization), but they must be independent. Gilbert notes that finding groups locked in the cause & effect cycle is easy:

Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.

The problem is that detached analysts whose recommendations those engaged in the cause & effect cycle are willing to implement are rarer than hen’s teeth. In an event conducted a few years ago by the Naval War College, participants (who were serving or retired diplomats from around the world) were required to deal with a nuclear weapon by Pakistan against a perceived massive land attack by India. Both the Indian and Pakistani diplomats insisted that their country would never be the first to launch a nuclear weapon, but reluctantly agreed to take part in the event. Once the scenario forced the nuclear attack, no individual or group of diplomats could persuade the Indian diplomat from launching a retaliatory strike. Everyone knew the consequences of such an exchange, but no one was able to stop it. Participants indicated it was a very sobering experience. It also demonstrates that the current international system is not as resilient as it could be.


Gilbert notes that other experiments have shown that any tit-for-tat exchange, even if participants are trying to be proportional in their responses, never are. For example, in a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, they found a pattern of escalation was inevitable.

Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind. Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Resilient organizations cannot afford to be caught up in this vicious circle. The reason that Tom and I promote standards-based development and rule sets in general is because they help mitigate behavior. The World Trade Organization, for example, was established so that a dispassionate group could rule on impassioned trade disputes. Even that doesn’t work all the time. The collapsed Doha Round of talks is clear evidence of that. Everyone recognizes that their collapse is a shameful failure and that the consequences are not likely to be beneficial — but that doesn’t seem to matter. The reason, of course, is that “all politics is local.” Gilbert concludes on the pessimistic note that old hatreds and intolerance still play a large role on the global stage.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs. None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew. Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations.

I’m not ready to throw up my hands in despair and will continue to promote Development-in-a-Box™ and its standards-based flexible framework approach. Development-in-a-Box is one of the detached analytic tools (with its standards and rule sets) that can be used to help break cause & effect cycles. The importance of Gilbert’s observations is that they help us understand why the road to a better life for billions of people is so hard.

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