Business As Usual-2: Boys Will Be Boys

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This is the second in the business as usual” series--this one examining the notion that conflict --even war-- is inevitable, conflicts are typically win-lose, and compromise is a "dirty word." We examine a Pew poll which illustrates assumptions about compromise among US liberals and conservatives, and find out that while liberals say they believe in compromise more than conservatives do, this is not backed up by other attitudes very well. These assumptions lead to what Guy and I call "the cynicism cap" which is preventing us from even exploring ways of working together more effectively.  Breaking this cap is essential to effective conflict learning--and conflict resolution, as we'll be exploring more as time goes on. 

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Full Transcript 

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess with the second video in the Business As Usual series. This one we’re calling “Boys Will Be Boys -- It’s Human Nature.” Many people assume that boys fight. I know my boys did and I didn’t constantly try to break up their fights. I thought that they were inevitable, and it was important to let them learn how to resolve their conflicts on their own.

Adults fight too. We assume that men do it more than women, and probably that’s true, although the data show that plenty of women also engage in conflict and war. The assumption is often made that fighting and even war is inevitable – it’s just human nature.

Now scientists have determined that’s not true. I remember back in the 70s, I believe, there was something called the “Scoville Report” that debunks the notion that war is human nature scientifically. But that is still something that is widely believed. It is one of a number of reasons, I think, that we spend so much money on our military and so little money on peacebuilding. Many people assume that the only way to prevent war is through military deterrence and that won’t always work. So you need to be sure that you are prepared for the real thing.

Figure 1: Pew Research Center Compromise Poll - Click Figure to Enlarge

Similarly, many people believe that the world is made up of winners and losers – it’s a competitive place and you better be prepared to win. So you have to be strong, you have to know how to fight well, and you have to be very competitive. Otherwise you’re going to end up on the bottom of the heap.

Consistent with that is the notion that conflicts are zero-sum or win-lose. This is typically discussed metaphorically in terms of a pie --the more pieces of a pie one side gets, the less there will be for the other side. So the goal in zero-sum situations is to get as much as you can for yourself, leaving as little as you can for the other side.
This leads to the notion that compromise is a dirty word. We heard this over and over again from John Boehner-- the Republican Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives for most of Obama’s second term. Boehner made a no compromise pledge which is quoted here at the bottom of the screen. He said “We’re going to do everything – and I mean everything we can do – to kill it [meaning of Obama's agenda], to stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”

The video shown to the right (available here) has Boehner trying to explain the difference between “compromise,” which is a word he says he rejects, and “common ground.” He said he was going to try to find common ground with Obama. Well of course, they very seldom succeeded in doing that, because they were engaged in what conflict resolvers refer to as “positional bargaining” – my side or in your side. Well, the only way to come to an agreement if you are engaging in positional bargaining is compromise. And if compromise is a dirty word, then you have to start focusing on interests and try to find a way to meet both sides’ interests at the same time. I can’t think of any times when the Republicans and Democrats did that in the last four years with Obama.

This is being played out even more in the 2016 presidential debate. Has anyone heard Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz talk about compromise? They don’t! They have an agenda; they know they are right; and by gosh they’re going to fight for what they believe! So we are seeing the no-compromise- game being played out even more in the US presidential election. There’s no talk like there was in the early Obama administration of the US being a purple country as opposed to a red country or a blue country. (That means Republican and Democrat for folks who aren’t familiar with those terms.) We’re not talking about bringing people together anymore. We’re talking about having our side win and the other side be demolished.

The Pew Research Center in June 2004 did an interesting study (See Figure 1) where they asked consistent liberals and conservatives what they thought of compromise. About 34% of consistent conservatives and consistent liberal people thought compromise was good--which they measured by asking them how often they thought their side should win as opposed to how often they thought the other side should win. About 34% of both thought they should split 50-50--that the Dems should win 50% of the time and the Republicans should win 50% of the time. But 66% thought that their side should win more often than the other side. And the consistently liberal and consistently conservative folks thought their side should win a lot more often than the other side.

Figure 2: Pew Research Center Compromise Poll - Click Figure to Enlarge

People who are consistently liberal—which they measured by answering 10/10 different questions in a  liberal way -- said Obama should get his way 2/3 of the time and the conservative should get their way 1/3 of the time and 16% of them thought of by Obama should win 90% of the time or more. In other words never compromise! People who answered the questions consistently conservatively were exactly reversed. They thought Republicans should win 60% of the time, and Democrats should only win 34% of the time. But 22% of consistent conservatives thought that Republicans should win 90 or more percent or more of the time.

When Pew asked people what they thought their elected officials should do (See Figure 2), only 32% of conservatives wanted their officials to make compromises, and 63% wanted their officials to stick to their positions. This is fundamentally different from consistent liberals. 82% of them wanted their officials to compromise and only 14% wanted them to stick to their positions.

But that’s not actually what liberals and conservatives advocate when they’re asked whether Democrats or Republicans should win more or less. So in reality, conservatives are strongly anti-compromise and the best you can say about liberals is that they’re ambivalent.

This leads to a high degree of cynicism. The assumption that nothing can be done -- that enemies are enemies and they should be overpowered, isolated, or ignored. This is especially true when enemies are spoilers – in other words people who are trying to stop compromise from happening. They particularly need to be overpowered, isolated, or ignored. Now I should be clear that that’s not what Guy and I think! But that is what many other people think--even peacebuilders often think that the only way to deal with spoilers is to overpower them, isolate them, I should say humiliate them too, or ignore them.

This is another recipe for staying in an intractable conflicts! One of the goals of this project is the breaking what we call the cynicism cap or the cynicism barrier. All of these assumptions keep us from exploring new ways of getting beyond stalemate, new ways of getting beyond of the refusal to compromise. We firmly believe that there are ways to do this. We want to accelerate the learning curve whereby peacebuilding professionals, ourselves, and ordinary citizens figure out better ways of breaking the cynicism cap, of disproving the notion that boys will be boys war, is inevitable, the only way to fight is to win. We have to change those attitudes. And were going to be exploring ways to do that.

Referenced Resources

Pew Research Center, "U.S. Politics and Policy. Section 4: Political Compr9omise and Divisive Policy Debates."  June 10, 2014. Accessed Feb. 2016 at

Photo Credits: 

Slide 2:  Boys. By Alslinn Ritchie. Permission: CC-BY-SA 2.0
Slide 3: Winners and Losers. Obtained from:  Attribution:  By MOVbandUK MOVband MOTIVATION. Creative Commons:  Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0:​.
Slide 4: Pie.  By Evan-Amos (Own work). Permission: CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Slide 6: Trump. By Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.  Sanders:. Permission: by: Gage Skidmore. cc-by-sa2.0 . Cruz: Permission: by: Gage Skidmore Permission: cc-by-sa2.0.