Counterintuitive, Episode 2: Wind of No Change – Power, Communication, and the Race to Stand Still

The second episode of my podcast, Counterintuitive, is online! If you’re up to it, join me for journeys into stories that are not what they seem to be. Episodes examine unusual events from a broad spectrum that will surprise you and then make you think. Because there’s always a layer beneath. You can find new episodes on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, YouTube, or SoundCloud. Below, you’ll find the transcript of the first episode with some reference / further reading hyperlinks.




This is Counterintuitive, the critical thinking podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. My name is Daniel Bojar and here we explore the hidden effects governing our world as well as the science behind them. For our narrative today, we’ll rely heavily on a fascinating political science paper by James R. Hollyer and B. Peter Rosendorff, which I’ll link to in the show notes if you want to learn more. Because there’s always a layer beneath.


What is power? Is it being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want? If so, then how do you communicate this power? Everyone can claim that they’re powerful, and it can be hard to distinguish bold from boisterous. This episode is about communication. More specifically, about communication which doesn’t need words but actions. The pen is mightier than the sword, but that doesn’t mean the sword has a blunt edge.

To begin our story, we need to travel both in space and time. We are in 1989 Libya, in North Africa. More precise, it’s May 16th 1989. Muammar al-Gaddafi, ‘Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution’, decides to ratify a United Nations convention in the name of Libya. In the years leading to this event, economic stagnation increased domestic opposition against Gaddafi. The change from the Libyan Arab Republic, established in 1969 via a coup d’état by Gaddafi, to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1977 and its continuing path to socialism antagonized Islamic fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Several assassination attempts followed and were repelled. In turn, the government retaliated. In 1989, several mosques were raided to root out supposed centers of resistance. External pressure compounded Gaddafi’s situation. In April 1986, Operation El Dorado Canyon bombed Libya in a United States-led retaliation for the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin with American casualties in the same year. This was preceded by economic sanctions against Libya in January 1986 by the US under President Ronald Reagan which were extended in 1989 by President George H. W. Bush. This pressure further incentivized the leadership of Libya to employ violence to bring domestic forces under control. The regime led by Gaddafi has been heavily criticized for its repressive tactics, making use of arbitrary arrests, torture as well as public executions, and has been labelled a dictatorship. The death penalty was revived in the late 1970s, peaceful dissent was criminalized, and the systematic torture that was employed was deemed to be a ‘crime against humanity’ by the outside world. The UN convention Gaddafi ratified in 1989? The United Nations Convention against Torture.

Coming into effect in 1987, the United Nations Convention against Torture, abbreviated as UNCAT, defined torture as the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, for the purpose of information gathering or intimidation. It explicitly banned torture, and no special circumstances, for instance war or acts of terrorism, were permitted as exceptions to this rule. This was combined with a requirement to take effective measures which prevented torture by any other party in controlled territory. In this context, a nation signing and ratifying the UNCAT surely has the noble intention to stop and prevent torture. When Libya under Gaddafi ratified the UNCAT in 1989, it therefore surely must have had the intention to backtrack on its rampant human rights violations of the 1970s and 80s, and progress into a brighter future. Yet no such thing happened in Libya. Widespread torture remained a prevalent tool in the hands of security forces and blissfully continued into the 1990s, among other violations of human rights such as arbitrary mass arrests or executions without a proper trial. The stance of a government which killed around 1300 prisoners in the infamous Abu Salim prison massacre in June 1996, seven years after signing the UNCAT, was evidently not one leaning toward the upholding of human rights. So why ratify the UNCAT, if you don’t intend to honor its stipulations? If you’re an authoritarian regime, why restrict yourself with a convention that labels your daily proceedings as illegal?

The ratification of the UNCAT by Libya might be initially seen as a quirk of history, maybe one of the many eccentricities of Gaddafi, in line with his extravagant clothing and seemingly arbitrary phobias. That is, until you notice that the 55 authoritarian countries which acceded to the UNCAT until 1996 exhibited higher levels of torture than the 74 authoritarian regimes which, at this point, hadn’t yet acceded to the UNCAT. In fact, the probability of an authoritarian regime signing the UNCAT is positively correlated with the torture intensity employed under this regime. That is, paradoxically, the worse a country tortured its opposition, the more likely it was to sign a treaty proposing to outlaw torture altogether.

Now, you might judge this to be a good development, as we take out the worst offenders by prohibiting them to torture. This enthusiasm may be dampened a bit once you consider that, in the year 2000, the average state had ratified about 80 percent of all human rights treaties and yet 35 percent of all states were known to have violated at least one of their ratified human rights treaties. So, the ratification of a treaty didn’t necessarily result in complying with its stipulations (especially for authoritarian regimes) and in fact many of these countries, such as Libya, continued to torture. On another note, you might happily think that the authoritarian regimes which ratified the UNCAT and similar human rights treaties were shoveling their own grave by giving their opponents more legitimacy to challenge their oppressive rule. Disappointingly, authoritarian regimes which ratified the UNCAT early on clung to power longer than those who didn’t. To make matters even worse, for just about everyone, the level of torture in authoritarian countries not acceding to the UNCAT increased. So to sum up, we have torturing, authoritarian regimes which are happy to sign the UNCAT, constantly violate it afterwards and nonetheless have a longer tenure. Why would someone relying on illegal means prohibited by the treaty come around to sign such a treaty in the first place, if they don’t have the slightest intention to uphold it? And could there be any link between this behavior and the longer lifespan of these governments?

All this behavior of authoritarian regimes seems strangely confusing. And that is exactly the point. Intuition would lead you down a different path. Intuition would lead you to assume that countries which enter into a treaty, aim to comply with its regulations. It’s the disparity between reality and your expectations derived from intuition that is causing the confusion. Counterintuitive. To make sense of our story today, we will employ game theory. Game theory is a wide-ranging field of scientific inquiry, covering interactions between and decisions by rational decision makers and was originally proposed, as so many things, by the Hungarian polymath John von Neumann. Modern game theory was developed from the 1950s onward, with major contributions from John Nash, the subject of the movie A Beautiful Mind, and continues to find ample applications in fields such as economics, psychology or political science. One important distinction in game theory is between cooperative and non-cooperative games. In a cooperative game, the group of players faces an external threat and interactions have to be evaluated under the aspect of fairness (how much did everyone contribute and how much should everyone receive in turn). In contrast, in a non-cooperative game, the players are in opposition to each other and the goal is for each one to be as clever as possible and achieve their respective goal irrespective of the other players’ goals. In our situation, we face a non-cooperative game with the authoritarian regime and the domestic opposition, for instance in the form of rebels, pitted against each other. So instead of working together and trying to achieve a fair outcome, the players in this game only want to achieve their individual agenda.

If we want to further analyze non-cooperative games, we can separate them into finite and infinite games. Motivational speaker and author Simon Sinek specializes in the distinction between finite and infinite games, if you want to learn more about them. In finite games, the objectives (as well as the players) are known and can be accomplished. Most classic games, such as chess or poker, are considered to be finite games. The rules are known, the winning conditions are known, and the number as well as identity of the players is known. In contrast to this, the objective in infinite games is to be able to continue playing the game, without fixed or known rules and without clear conditions sufficient for winning the game. Ideally, infinite games are meant to be played indefinitely and players drop out of the game when they lack the resources or the will to continue. Staying in power (both as a regime or as a business) or fighting for survival are classic examples of infinite games, as both aim to continue the game. There is a concept in evolutionary theory, known as the Red Queen hypothesis, which is based on a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: ‘it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’. While typically describing evolutionary arms races, the Red Queen hypothesis is also a succinct summary of infinite games. Cooperative / non-cooperative and finite / infinite are just two of the many ways you can characterize situations with game theory but they are the only distinctions we’ll focus on today. Following all this, we can classify our UNCAT situation as a non-cooperative, infinite game in which the players have an interest in prolonging the game and to signal their commitment to hang on to opposing players.

Signaling is indeed a key word here, as the game theory concept we’ll use here as a potential explanation for the confusing behavior regarding the UNCAT, is commonly referred to as costly signaling (also known as the handicap principle). Ironically, what costly signaling revolves around is honesty. You might be surprised of an association between authoritarian regimes and honesty, yet even they have a vested interest in conveying their stance or message in an honest manner. Specifically, they want to establish an honest communication channel with one of their opposing players, the domestic adversaries, to communicate their intentions. To clearly demonstrate that you mean what you say, you have to incur costs. If it costs you dearly to make your point, people will take you a lot more seriously.

Among animals, it’s advantageous for females to select males with a high evolutionary fitness to procreate. Yet, as animals are unable to directly read each other’s genetic code and evaluate their evolutionary fitness, they have to signal their eligibility for mating. In theory, it would be best for all males to signal maximal fitness (or at least a very high fitness). However, in this scenario it would be impossible for the female to differentiate and perform a good mate selection. This is where costly signaling comes into play, as males incur costs to honestly signal their evolutionary fitness. In the case of the peacock, a more elaborate and longer feathered tail is supposed to signal a higher fitness. As these tails don’t have a clear function, are costly to generate and to maintain (metabolically speaking) as well as potentially dangerous (by attracting predators), it might seem preferable for the peacock to not invest too much into his tail at all. Darwin himself wrote to the botanist Asa Gray ‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!’, as he was shocked by the wastefulness of invested energy. Yet, as the theory goes, the signaling works not despite but exactly because of the incurred costs. By conspicuously demonstrating its achievement of still being alive despite the handicap, the male peacock honestly showcases his evolutionary fitness. This honesty is maintained as ‘liars’ with a low evolutionary fitness could not cash in the check their tail feathers wrote and, more often than not, would meet their demise before they could impress the females. In costly signaling, oftentimes an obvious disadvantage is intentionally displayed to emphasize the honesty of the signal.

Now we return to Libya and authoritarian governments. The message these repressive governments want to convey to their domestic opposition is not that they intend to cease torturing (made evident by their actions after signing the convention) but rather that they intend to stay in power, no matter what. This message is made authentic by the costs they incur in signing the convention. The actual costs would be mainly realized when the current regime is ousted, because then it could be prosecuted under international law for violating the signed UNCAT. By ostentatiously signing a UN treaty and immediately violating it, regimes such as the one headed by Gaddafi display their strong determination and also their strength in general. They signal the sword by displaying the pen. Change without change. The issue of displaying strength can be easily seen in the situation of weak authoritarian countries. Fearing a revolution (and subsequent prosecution for the violation of the UNCAT), they’re less likely to sign the treaty, to avoid eventual prosecution. As a consequence, they don’t signal their determination to the opposition and, if compared to their strong brethren, they even signal their weakness to their domestic opposition. Empirically, domestic resistance against these weak repressors, who didn’t sign the UNCAT, increased (as well as the intensity of torture to control the insurgents). Through the act of costly signaling, the strong regimes had an opportunity to differentiate themselves from weak regimes. For this, they needed costly signaling, as the mere utterance couldn’t be differentiated from lying. And indeed, despite the fact that torture continued to be employed, resistance in authoritarian countries which signed the UNCAT on average decreased after signing the convention. As a corollary of this demonstration of determination (together with the fact that these regimes were stable and strong), the authoritarian regimes signing the UNCAT, on average, clung longer to power than those who didn’t sign.

Of course, it would be utterly simplistic to reduce an immensely complex geopolitical situation to a single phenomenon. I don’t claim that ‘this explains everything’. But it would be just as naïve to assume that it contributes nothing to the situation and its outcome as a whole. Investigating these aspects and dissecting their mechanism with tools such as game theory and other theoretical frameworks allows us to peek behind the curtain and understand our surroundings a little bit better. At this point, it also seems worthwhile to point out that correlation is not the same as causation and all causative explanations solely relying on correlation have to be taken with more than just a grain of salt. It’s extremely difficult to quantify the impact of this specific mechanism on the overall outcome and its repercussions. Yet at the same time, the presence of this effect can hardly be doubted and since every real-world scenario is an incredibly complex amalgam of different mechanisms and effects, it would be foolish not to follow up on leads which may help us to get a better grasp of our reality. If we disdain every attempt at zooming in on certain aspects as ‘reductionism’, we forbid ourselves every kind of progress, which so crucially relies on incrementalism and being able to probe certain aspects of a phenomenon for their relevance. No matter how large the specific impact of costly signaling through the UNCAT was, for Muammar al-Gaddafi signing this treaty had a positive outcome. His absolute reign (including widespread torture) in Libya continued for 22 years after signing the UNCAT, making him the longest-ruling Arab leader with 42 years as the leader of Libya.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this instalment of Counterintuitive! If you did, join me next time where we’ll talk about school classes and the annoying fact that airplanes are always overcrowded when you fly. You can find references and further reading for this episode in the show notes. If you like Counterintuitive, please recommend it to your friends and give it a 5-star rating on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps. A new episode will be uploaded every two weeks. My name is Daniel Bojar and you’ve listened to Counterintuitive, the critical thinking podcast about things which are not what they seem to be. You can follow me on Twitter at @daniel_bojar or on my website, where you will find articles about more counterintuitive phenomena. Until next time!

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