Behavioral Economics Go to War: reviewing Behavioural Conflict, Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict

By Amy Zalman
Review of Behavioural Conflict, Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict, by Andrew Mackey and Steve Tatham

I cannot think of any books about warfare’s future that come across as hard-hitting, full of actionable pragmatism, and deeply humane all at the same time.  But Behavioral Conflict: Why Understanding People and their Motivations will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict is all three.  The authors, both career members of the British military, Major General Andres Mackey (Ret) and Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham (who I count as a friend, having met him in Ankara a few years ago), make their case by drawing on a combination of their own experience, case studies and close analysis of how communication actually factors in war.

Hard-hitting and pragmatic:  Mackey and Tatham are precise and lucid about what they mean by “behavior” and how to make use of it to gain advantage in conflict. They, and behavioral psychologist Lee Rowland, who adds a chapter on the science of influence, are not putting forth any of the following: A call for greater “cultural awareness,” a mushy program about how to change others’ attitudes, or a repeat of the last decade’s focus on consumer marketing as the key to public diplomacy.   They offer instead this thesis based on a simple chain of claims:

  • The world of human motivation and perception is inevitably complex.
  • It is more important to try to shape behavior than it is to change people’s attitudes.
  • Behavior shaping begins with a discrete grasp of the circumstances under which people already behave in ways that are desirable, and extends to efforts to replicate those or similar circumstances.  They cite the surprise of British doctors at sharp decrease in cigarette smoking, once it was outlawed in indoor locations.  People don’t smoke in places when they can’t,  and the remaining ways in which people can smoke—huddled in doorways on quickly snatched breaks—can quickly become stigmatized.  Yet, the authors argue, the West has spent far more time targeting message at enemies than engaging with the inevitable complexity of others’ environments. As a result,  “In the absence of a mechanism with which to embrace complexity, the West, we worry, has retreated to its ‘home base’  — exporting values and beliefs that it does understand to to environments that it does not in the hope that clarity will ensue.”
  • It is less important to consider what an individual might be motivated to do on behalf of their own interest, than it is to understand how individuals “make decisions based on the decisions of the group.”

This last is a subtle, but intriguing point.  Mackey and Tatham draw on the insights of behavioral economics, and the complexity science that underwrites that discipline, about how we are fundamentally social creatures.  Take the smoking example: once smoking becomes a serious social stigma, we are likely to act more on the basis of what we think others will think of us, and less on how much we still want that cigarette. This may not be true to a person, but at the group level, the pattern of change will be evident.

This all makes sense, but it may make more sense in the British context from which Mackey and Tatham write than the American one, obsessed as we are with individuality and the value of individual opinion.  If we do not believe that our own autonomy is compromised by group opinion, we may not be able to leverage the insight to develop behavior based communications programs.

Humane:  One of the bedrocks of Mackey’s and Tatham’s thesis is an absolute and compassionate acceptance of people’s reasoning, even in conflict and even when it confounds us or violates our values in profound ways.   Suicide bombers have baffled us in this way. It is difficult to  understand why someone would seek to destroy innocent lives, and their own in the process, unless they are either mad or evil.  Mackey and Tatham offer the example of Western soldiers who receive medals for heroism—on the face of it, the actions of a young man racing to dive onto a hand grenade to save comrades is irrational, self-destructive. But we understand and even reward it as rational inside our own calculus of courage and patriotism   So too, we might understand behavior that challenges moral sensibilities, by members of any group, whether ‘ours’ or ‘theirs.’

Indeed, Mackey and Tatham put the words us, our and we, they and them in quotations (‘us,’ ‘our’ ‘we’) throughout the entire book. At first it seems awkward, but the typographic commentary relentlessly reminds readers how our membership in this group or that, this nation or that, is a collective construction, even a rhetorical fiction. Membership thrives on the collective agreement to join in the same values, and to use the same symbols to refer to ourselves.  Membership can change though, which may be uncomfortable for those of us who like to think of ourselves as firmly in the ‘we’ category. But if we really want ‘them’ to join ‘us,’ we have to believe that behavior, and allegiance, is malleable.

All proceeds from the book go to Help for Heroes.


This article originally appeared at Amy’s blog, Strategic Narrative, and appears her with the permission of the author. 

Amy Zalman, Ph.D. is an expert on the function of narrative in policy, business and strategic communications. She currently heads new market development in the Cultural and Language-Enabled Analysis Division at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors, do not necessarily reflect the opinion of, and are published here to further the discourse on activities that understand, inform, and influence.