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Is War Inevitable?

  • Joe DeCapua

Syria Rebels

Syria Rebels

Throughout human history, war has taken countless lives, cost untold sums of money and brought great cities to ruin. But despite the long list of conflicts from ancient times to modern day, psychologists say war is not inevitable.


Much research has focused on the causes of war and how to deal with its aftermath. But three political psychologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say a better understanding of the psychological roots of war “can increase the likelihood of avoiding violence as a way to resolve conflicts with others.”

Bernhard Leidner, Linda Tropp and Brian Lickel present their views in the peace psychology issue of American Psychologist.

Leidner, lead author, said “Mostly psychology, when it comes to war, focuses obviously on human tendencies to be aggressive, to be violent. So, it’s a lot of focus generally on the more negative end – problematic side – but not as much focus on either the positive side or how to actually prevent those problems in the first place.”

Research shows, he said, that those who tend to “glorify their country” – a kind of nationalism – are more likely to choose a violent solution.

“It’s not everything that you think about your country that has bad impacts. It’s usually only this aspect of glorifying your country. That you perceive other countries as more threatening. That you are more likely to be aggressive to them. On the other hand, if you’re just committed to your country in a more healthy way then you actually do not show these tendencies.”

How do you know if someone is glorifying their country? Leidner says just ask a few questions.

“How much do you think that your country would be superior to other countries? That’s one aspect. Basically thinking that my country is a more moral country -- a better country – more successful country in whatever domain. And also how much do you believe criticism of your own country is allowed? People sometimes believe that criticism of your own country is actually being disloyal to your country. This kind of unconditional loyalty,” he said.

The authors said that conflict and violence allow some people to “address psychological needs for identity, safety, security and power.” They said non-violence has received much less media attention.

“Even if you look at normal human interactions, most of them are non-violent. It’s just that the violent interactions stand out so much that often times we also just get this wrong idea of this is like how we are, although that’s not quite true,” said Leidner.

Leidner added that it’s important for political leaders to explain there may be different paths to crisis resolution – conflict on the one hand, and diplomacy on the other. He says when polls are taken asking people whether they prefer a violent or diplomatic solution – instead of just asking whether they favor an attack or not – there is great support for diplomacy.

“There are examples like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, whose rhetoric was very cooperative. And by that he also step by step changed the view of citizens in his country that it’s better to cooperate and live together in peace.”

Mr. Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Leidner compares that with rhetoric heard in the U.S. after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks. He says it became harsher toward Muslim-Americans as time went on.

“Since all these attitudes and behavioral tendencies of people are very malleable, obviously the media and also politicians can actually gear them in a good or bad way, so to speak.”

Leidner and his co-authors said leaders should place more emphasis on increasing empathy and understanding of others. They write, “It is our contention that psychology can and should be applied to promote peace, not war.
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