The appeal of fictional conflict

Robert Wiblin asks why stories celebrate conflict rather than compromise:

As I was watching the film Avatar and the cinemagoers around me were cheering on the Na’vi heroes in their fight against human invaders, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would actually want to live alongside such an uncompromising society…it is hardly an isolated case. In our stories we love idealistic heroes to fight for what they believe in against all odds…

We could tell stories of the countless political compromises reached through well-functioning democratic institutions. We could tell the stories of all the terrible wars that never happened because of careful diplomacy. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off. These are the everyday tales which make modern society so great to live in. But will any such movie gross a billion dollars in the near future? I suspect not.

Incidentally, the one line I still remember from Avatar:

They’re not going to give up their home — they’re not gonna make a deal. For what? Lite beer and shopping channel? There’s nothing we have that they want.

Nothing at all…oh, except control over the destruction of everything they care about. You’re right, you really have no bargaining power. As Rob elaborates further, the premise of the extreme conflict was so flimsy, one must infer that it was pretty important to have an extreme conflict.

Rob guesses the popularity of such stubborn warring in our stories is to do with what we subconsciously want our tastes to say about us. When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.

I think he might be roughly right. But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?

I think because there is no point in demonstrating that you will compromise. As a default, everyone can be expected to compromise, because it’s the rational thing to do at the time. However it’s often good to look like you won’t easily compromise, so that other people will try to win you over with better deals. Celebrating ruthless adherence to idealistic principles is a way of advertising that you are insane, for the purpose of improving your bargaining position. If you somehow convince me that you’re the kind of person who would die fighting for their magic tree, I’ll probably try to come up with a pretty appealing deal for you before I even bring up my interest in checking out the deposits under any trees you have.

Of course the whole point of being a bloody-minded idealist is lost if you keep it a secret. So you probably won’t do that. Which means just not going out of your way to celebrate uncompromising fights to the death is a credible signal of willingness to compromise.

9 responses to “The appeal of fictional conflict

  1. We could tell the story of the merchant who buys low and sells high, leaving everyone they deal with a little better off.

    You know, It’s A Wonderful Life comes pretty close to this…

  2. Mitchell Porter

    “But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate?”

    Compromise isn’t what parties to a dispute really want; they want victory. Compromise is just the least worst outcome that is actually an option. So fiction about victories is showing people what they want and fiction about compromises is showing people what they have. It’s only people who have appointed themselves as maximizers of the general welfare who get excited about achieving a compromise. :-)

    I never saw Avatar, but surely the appeal of the film largely has to do with the audience’s sense that they (the audience) live in a world of exploitative corporate militarism, and would rather live in a world of freedom and simplicity. So cheering on the Na’vi is also about taking a stand against the boredom, compromise, complicity, and regimentation of their own lives – the sense that they personally are part of a dystopian system which steals from distant lands and runs on obedience to a plutocratic hierarchy.

  3. Hmm I don’t think it is about bargaining really. Rather we signal unwillingness to compromise not because we expect a deal but because we want to show that we never have to compromise. And who can afford this total lack of care for compromise? The rich, the powerful, the high-status.

    Of course, your usage of ‘compromise’ is not what most people would think in the context of conflict in fiction. People don’t think the ‘1 percent’ make compromises, even as by your definition of ‘compromise’ they do.

    The technical strategic consequences of signaling I think are lost on us when in Far mode. We are not trying to use fiction to signal how we would in fact deal in Near deal situations.

    “But why wouldn’t finding good deals and balancing compromises well be ideals we would want to celebrate? When there are no costs to yourself, why aren’t you itching to go all out and celebrate the most extravagant tales of successful trading and extreme sagas of mutually beneficial political compromise?”

    Because that brings less benefit than signaling that you are the sort of person who (appears to) never have to compromise. Celebrating compromise shows you’re smart perhaps, but more that you are weird and possibly you have had a long experience of not getting what you want.

  4. “When we don’t pay the costs of fictional war, we may as well stand up for principles as strongly as possible.”

    There’s something right about this, and a little scary when considered alongside the present US saber-rattling. Insofar as present-day wars have effectively become fictional for the typical voting American, making decisions about war comes awfully close to the question: “How would we want noble protagonists to behave?” That is quite far from the question “What is our rational strategy?”

    In general, choosing leaders in the US is much more about deciding which signals you want to associate with, and less about who will exercise wiser leadership. It’s at the point that politicians are rewarded for sticking to an absurd position rather than “flip-flopping” to a wiser one.

    Over the millenia, humans have received many benefits from the “signal one thing, do another” strategy – for example, signaling aggression in order to negotiate a favorable compromise. I suppose you can call it hypocrisy. It’s not the strategy of the classic hero with whom we want to identify. Noble heroes *act* as they signal. (Aside: Could Odysseus, the author of famously brilliant deceit, ever become a US president in this political climate?)

    All this has the effect that the public will force sabre-rattling (possibly wise compromise prelude) to be followed by actual sabre-swinging (possibly catastrophic), because no leader dares to be anything but the hero who won’t compromise his principles.

  5. Good point Katja, I hadn’t thought of that.

    Three other factors I’m thinking are at work are:

    1) Conflict is an easier thing to grasp than gains made through compromise. More of the audience can readily understand how the combative heroes are (seemingly) going to make real change by conflict, rather than how they would make real change by beneficial deal-making.

    2) Rather than seeing compromise as the generally best way to just get what you want, it’s somewhat seen as “giving in”, something low-return and compromising to principles.

    3) Fictions often set up protagonists and then pile virtues on them by showing them succeeding and being noble in unusually difficult situations. Running through a battlefield while destroying the enemy mothership and rescuing a friend is more difficult than wise deal-making (probably in an absolute sense, but the low perception of the skills required for the latter heightens this perception).

  6. Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Why Not Compromise?

  7. I’ve just been watching Star Trek: TNG, and it’s all about compromise. Sure, sometimes they have to stand and fight, but usually it’s about staying calm under pressure, looking for ways to defuse and resolve conflict.

    It was a pretty popular show, I think, so that’s one counterexample.

    Maybe compromise works better in longer formats like a TV series, than in one-offs like movies.

  8. You and Robin’s phrasing is somewhat troubling to me because it implies that enjoying things such as fictional conflict is a choice people make in order to accomplish a goal, even if that choice is subconscious. I don’t think that’s how the subconscious works.

    Rather, I think people are programmed by evolution to care about certain things and enjoy certain things as an end in themselves. People enjoy fictional conflict because evolution wired their brains to, full stop. They aren’t subconsciously thinking “I want to signal X about myself, so I should enjoy this.” It’s true that the likely reason evolution programmed them to enjoy certain things was for signalling traits, but that has no bearing on the person’s internal mental state in the present. People are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers.

    Saying “Conflict fiction isn’t about enjoyment, it’s about signalling” sounds much more wordly and cynical than saying “We evolved to enjoy conflict fiction for signalling purposes.” The first sentence implies that you have some special knowledge about people’s internal workings, while the second is just a statement about abstract impersonal statistical process. However, the second sentence is much more accurate.

    @Benquo
    I’ve noticed other “heroic mediator” stories as well. “Dr Who” has a lot of episodes like that, where the Doctor has to defuse a conflict between two warring factions. Stories about mediators are popular, even if they aren’t quite as popular as zero-sum stories.

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