When the confrontation is one-on-one, the prospects are especially optimistic that violence can be avoided, Randall Collins says:
We are accumulating a significant amount of data on such situations, and two patterns stand out.
First: The audience has an important effect. Public fights rarely get very far without audience support. Most angry arguments stay at the level of bluster and insult, unless the audience shows that it wants them to fight. The audience that cheers and urges them on will almost always get a prolonged fight. A neutral or uneasy audience, standing at a distance, usually results in a brief fight without much damage. And when an audience (or part of it) tries to intervene, it is almost always successful in stopping a fight. This pattern is shown in my comparison of fight incidents with different audience reactions (Collins 2008); in British research using CCTV videos of fights in pubs (Levine et al. 2011); and studies of what network relationships result in successful third-party interventions (Phillips and Cooney 2005).
There are limits to this pattern. It applies to arguments and fights in public, but not to domestic violence, which often takes place without much of an audience. (But there is ongoing research here, too, investigating the effects of indoor audiences that may be present.) Since domestic violence is a considerable portion of small-scale violence, that is a serious limitation on our optimistic news. On the other hand, the following point applies both to domestic and public violence:
Second: Small-scale conflict and violence peters out when the emotional field is in equilibrium. That means: when both sides are showing the same amount of emotional energy, the same degree of bodily agitation, the same emotional intensity. This equilibrating effect can take place at any level of intensity, as long as both sides are evenly matched. Research on mobile phone videos of street fights (Jackson-Jacobs) shows that even in the case of fights that have already started (and where the audience is distant and neutral) tend to wind down after both sides have thrown a few blows. On the whole, evenly matched fights do not do very much damage; the high level of adrenaline arousal makes fighters sloppy and incompetent, and Jackson-Jacobs’s videos show the fighters who have thrown a few wild punches tend to let their swings carry themselves out of range, where the fight devolves into threats, and eventually into mutual disengagement. After all, in an honor fight, it is showing one’s willingness to fight that counts, not the result.
Let me conclude with a favorite photograph. It was taken in Jerusalem during the height of the second Intifada, and it shows an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian political leader locked in angry conflict.
The news story tells there was no violence at this flash point of sacred territories that day. The angry confrontation wound down and ended. How?
The photo shows the two men exactly mirroring each other. Reading the facial expression of emotions using Ekman’s methods, we see them displaying anger, and in an identical manner: both have the hard, staring eyes, the clenched eyebrows with the vertical line between them, the square, shouting mouth. As is characteristic of angry talk, both are vocalizing at the same time, not listening to what the other has to say. Their faces, like their bodies, are tensed like muscles about to strike. But they do not strike.
They are in equilibrium at a high level of intensity. From similar incidents observed over a few moments of time, we can surmise that they eventually become tired of the situation. No one else in the crowd is taking up their level of intensity; they are doing all the audience’s work for it. It is boring to say the same thing over and over again, getting no intelligible response. They will deescalate, going down the scale of emotional intensity simultaneously, keeping in equilibrium step by step.
They will become bored. And in situations of conflict, boredom is the pathway to peace.