This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) about domestic politics helps us understand variation in the likelihood of international conflict. I focused particularly on whether the spread of democracy explains Europe’s transformation from one of the most violent parts of the world to one of the most peaceful and how the the fear of coups and rebellion in Sub-Saharan Africa helps explain why there have been so few interstate wars there.
I closed out the portion focusing on the democratic peace by discussing how territorial disagreements both promote war and inhibit democracy, thereby creating a spurious correlation between joint democracy and peace (see this recent post of mine).
To help the students see how the nature of the threat a state faces might be related to the constraints placed on the government, which is a key part of that argument, I asked them to play the part of an opposition party that was being asked to allow the government to delay elections in each of two related scenarios.
The correct answer, as a relatively slim majority (?!) of them guessed, was the second scenario. I had expected this to be more straightforward. Among those who offered an explanation for their answer (which many did, though none was required), the correct answer was a clear favorite, and the reasoning was generally well in line with my expectations. But for some reason, a substantial minority still went with the first scenario, for reasons that are not clear to me. Perhaps they were just guessing at random?
At any rate, my hope was that by getting them to more or less reveal through their own behavior a core part of an argument that implies that the correlation between joint democracy and peace is spurious, I might have convinced some of them that there’s something to the alternative argument. I don’t how many of them connected those dots, and I’m fairly sure that no matter how many times I talk about correlation not necessarily implying causation, a good chunk of them will continue to draw invalid inferences when the conclusions fit their priors, but I think some of them got something out of this activity.