Peace Agreement, Intractable Conflict, Escalation Trajectory: A Psychological Laboratory Experiment

Authored by: Francis A. Beer, Grant P. Sinclair, Alice F. Healy, et al

Categories: Conflict Prevention
Sub-Categories: Peace Accords
Region: No Region
Year: 1995
Citation: Beer, Francis A., Grant P. Sinclair, Alice F. Healy, and Lyle E. Bourne, Jr. "Peace Agreement, Intractable Conflict, Escalation Trajectory: A Psychological Laboratory Experiment." International Studies Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1995): 297-312.

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Psychological theory suggests that international events influence foreign policy action choices through differential cognitive schemata held by political actors. The actions and schemata are, in turn, affected by underlying actor attributes. In this tradition, the present study administered a mixture of peaceful and conflictual priming cues, testing for a "peace treaty" effect. A sample of laboratory subjects was primed with a vignette describing the signing of a peace treaty between fictional warring nations. Control subjects were given no prime. Next, all subjects were given a news flash that indicated continuing conflictual action between the countries. Subjects were then asked to specify a reactive foreign policy action choice from an inventory of possible conflictual acts. Subjects were again given a news flash that indicated continuing conflictual action between the two countries. After this event, subjects made another action choice. This procedure was repeated another three times. Contrary to the initial hypothesis, the presence or absence of an initial peace treaty made little overall difference in subjects' action choices. There was, however, an important gender-differentiated peace treaty effect in the pattern of a cross-over interaction. When confronted with subsequent violence, women and men reacted differently, depending on whether or not they had read of a prior peace treaty. Women without the prior treaty and men with it were most conflictual; women with the treaty and men without it were most cooperative. The experiment further illuminated a complex dynamic of action and reaction, including an important "reciprocity" effect, with subordinate "forgiveness" and "boundary" effects. Continuing intransigent conflict produced a gradual conflictual escalation. Subjects were relatively slow to anger; they tended to reciprocate conflict at a discount. After several conflict events, however, subjects fully returned what they received. But they stayed within the limits of the interaction; they gave back no more. The research also replicated a previously obtained "personality" effect; subjects with dominant personality traits made more conflictual choices than subjects with submissive personality traits. We conclude that different decisionmakers and publics must take account of varying levels and sequences of international cooperation and conflict, of the psychologies of the multiple actors, and of their own complex psychological dynamics in the fragmented environment of the emerging post-Cold War world.