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Ben Jones, associate professor of management and strategy, was among those delivering his research findings during the Nov. 16-17 Conflict and Cooperation Conference, sponsored by the Kellogg School.

Killer statistics: violence rarely forces democratic change

At Kellogg Conflict and Cooperation Conference, Prof. Ben Jones explores effects of political assassinations

By Aubrey Henretty

11/20/2007 -

 If political assassinations are as old as politics, so are stories of bungled assassination attempts. During his Nov. 16 presentation at the Conflict and Cooperation Conference, Kellogg School Associate Professor Ben Jones recounted one of his favorites.

In 1939, he said, a German vigilante hatched a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a local beer hall where the dictator was scheduled to speak. Before Hitler arrived, the man carefully hollowed out a pillar in the main room, planted a bomb inside and timed it to explode during Hitler’s speech. Much to the vigilante’s disappointment, stormy weather forced Hitler to leave earlier than planned — a mere 13 minutes before the bomb went off. “The bomb kills a lot of people, but it doesn’t kill Hitler,” said Jones, a member of the Kellogg Management and Strategy Department.

What would have happened if that barroom bomb had ended the life and reign of the 20th Century’s most notorious genocidal dictator? Did the failed attempt alone alter the course of history? In his paper, “Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions of War(PDF) (co-authored with Ben Olken of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Jones explores these and other questions through intensive statistical analysis.

The Conflict and Cooperation Conference, held Nov. 16 and 17 at the James L. Allen Center, was sponsored by the Kellogg School’s Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship. “Today’s business leaders operate in a global marketplace where knowledge of international affairs is vital for prudent decisions. They move fluidly between careers in business and politics and take a great interest in policymaking,” said conference organizer Sandeep Baliga, an associate professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School. “One focus we have at Kellogg is to prepare students for a future at this heady and exciting intersection of global politics and business. The Conflict and Cooperation Conference brings together key knowledge leaders in academia who will train the next generation of global decision makers.”

Jones and co-author Olken scoured the archives of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post from 1875 to 2004 to unearth attempts on the lives of “primary national leaders” and to study the effects, if any, on the nations that lost (or nearly lost) their leaders.

“The idea of the paper was not to collect data just on successful assassinations, but also on failed attempts, and to use the misses as [experimental] controls for the hits,” said Jones.

While the vigilante who almost killed Hitler may have gone down in history — had he succeeded — as the man who restored democracy in Germany, Jones and Olken’s findings suggest his chances would have been slim. “If you could guarantee success, results suggest a 13 percent probability of a democratic transition with the assassination of an autocrat,” Jones said. “But 75 percent of attempts fail.” Thus, the real probability of a transition to democracy for anyone planning to assassinate a dictator would be closer to 3 percent.

Jones and Olken also found that “successful assassination leads to an intensification of small-scale conflicts relative to failed assassination attempts,” while successful attempts may help bring “large-scale conflicts already in progress” to an end.

The two-day conference included several papers delivered by distinguished scholars from Northwestern and other universities. Presenters included Matthew Jackson of Stanford University (“Strategic Militarization, Deterrence and War between Nations”), Tomas Sjöström of Rutgers University (“Signalling and Communication in Games of Chicken,” co-authored with the Kellogg School’s Baliga) and Harvard University’s Richard Zeckhauser (“Betrayal Aversion,” co-authored with Iris Bohnet, Fiona Greig and Benedikt Herrmann).