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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1998

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THE PSYCHOLOGICAL
BASES OF WAR
by Robert A. Hinde

PART I
 ·  Introduction
 ·  Levels of ComplexityPART II
 ·  Individual Aggression
 ·  Aggression Between GroupsPART III
 ·  Institutionalized War
 ·  Conclusion

REFERENCES

 ABOUT ROBERT A. HINDE

 

INTRODUCTION

Psychology today includes studies of processes within individuals, where relations with neurophysiology are being established; studies of the behavior of individuals in isolation or when interacting with machines; and studies of individuals in groups. Research has been concerned primarily with questions of causation and development, therein differing from research on behavior carried out by biologists, who have been interested also in questions of the biological function and evolution of behavior.

Most of the psychological research relevant to war has been concerned not with the causes of war as such but with its conduct — for instance, with the selection of military personnel, the behavior of soldiers in and out of battle, the maintenance of morale, the performance of human operators in charge of war machines, and the design of such machines to optimize performance. Developments in psychology permitted increased sophistication in the selection of personnel in World War II, especially in officer selection; and the increasing complexity of war machines requires designs compatible with human capabilities, so that considerable psychological research has been devoted to such topics as the vigilance of radar operators and other aspects of human performance. For these purposes psychology has employed both experimental approaches in appropriately controlled but contrived situations, and "field" data from real-life situations. Such studies have had strictly specified practical objectives, but they have had some impact on psychological theorizing: there have been, for instance, notable advances in control theory stemming from military research, and in theories of habituation and memory from the work on human performance.

Since the monumental studies of war summarized by Quincy Wright (1965), considerable efforts have been made to establish links between psychology and other disciplines. In forging those links, psychologists have become increasingly interested in principles drawn from biology, but are rightly distrustful of analogies between the behavior of particular animal species and particular human practices: there are so many animal species, and so many human cultures, that analogies to back up any thesis are always available. The resemblances of conflicts between ant colonies and international war are entirely superficial, and even the inter-group conflicts of chimpanzees lack all the defining features (see below) of international war

More importantly, the last fifty years have seen intense efforts to link advances in endocrine and neurophysiology with individual functioning (e.g., Damasio, 1994), to relate the behavior of individuals to their social situation and group membership (Turner et al., 1994), and to incorporate the insights of sociology and anthropology on the role of culture (Hinde, 1987,1997). It is with such issues that this essay is primarily concerned, because they throw light not on the causes of particular wars, but on how it is that individuals are prepared to accept the horrors of war.

A linguistic point is first necessary. In everyday speech we speak of one individual behaving aggressively to another, and we use exactly the same words when speaking of two nations, each with a population of many million individuals. The factors that increase the likelihood of aggression between individuals are not the same as those that increase the likelihood of war between states; the processes are quite dissimilar. Again, some ascribe the propensity to harm other individuals to assertiveness and even associate it with creativity (Lorenz, 1966; Mansfield, 1991). This is simply wrong: an assertive salesman does not hit his clients, and the motivational bases of assertiveness have little in common with those of aggressiveness, though they may contribute to aggressive acts. To say that, without man's aggressive capabilities, "humans would never have been able to build cathedrals, fight disease, or devise scientific theories" (Mansfield, 1991) is absurd.

To anticipate the argument made here, in order to understand any aspect of human social behavior it is necessary both to distinguish successive levels of complexity — physiological/psychological processes within individuals, individual behavior, interactions, relationships, groups, and societies — and to come to terms with the relations between them. Each of these levels affects and is affected by those adjacent to it, and each also affects and is affected by the socio-cultural structure of beliefs, norms, values, and institutions with their constituent roles. Thus, in the present context, an aggressive interaction between two individuals, group aggression, and the societal phenomena of war can be described in similar words, but they differ in many respects. For instance, group aggression may involve individual aggressive propensities but also issues of group dynamics irrelevant to the behavior of individuals; and war involves issues of group dynamics but must be seen also as an institution with its constituent roles. This paper therefore discusses three examples of aggression to illustrate the continuum from individual aggression through group, religious, and ethnic conflicts to international war.

 

LEVELS OF COMPLEXITY

In order to discuss these three paradigmatic cases of individual aggression, intergroup aggression, and international war, a digression explicating both the distinctions between successive levels of social complexity and the relations between them is first necessary.

The first two levels are the province of individual psychology/physiology — processes within individuals (which could, of course, be further subdivided into intracellular, cellular, organic, and so on) and individual behavior.

Moving to social psychology, an interaction is defined as involving at least two individuals and lasting only a brief span of time. During an interaction the behavior of each individual is influenced by his/her own goals and by the norms and values held, by perceptions of those of the other, and by the context. Each participant seeks to understand the goals and strategies of the other and to realize his/her own so far as possible.

In terms of the behavior involved, a relationship involves a series of interactions between two individuals, each interaction being influenced by past ones and, often, by expectations of further interactions in the future. Thus a brief conversation between two strangers would constitute an interaction, but next time they met they would be influenced by the first interaction, and start to have a relationship. Of course, behavior is not all: relationships continue in the absence of interactions and involve wishes, emotions, judgments, and so on.

Each relationship is usually nested within a network of other relationships. These may constitute a psychological group, namely one whose members define themselves and are defined as a group and see themselves as interdependent, and whose interactions are mediated, at least to some extent, by rules and norms more or less characteristic of the group (see below).

An individual may belong to several groups. A collection of groups whose membership may or may not overlap, but whose members recognize the groups as constituents in a larger unit, constitute a society. Group processes may operate to augment the cohesiveness of the society.

Three points about these levels of complexity must be emphasized.

  • First, each level has properties that are not relevant to the level below. Thus a relationship may involve one or many types of interaction — a property not relevant at the interaction level. And a group may be structureless, centrifocal, hierarchical, and so on — properties not relevant to the relationships within it.

  • Second, we tend to use different explanatory concepts at each level. We might see nationalism as a factor in aggression at the societal level, sibling rivalry at the relationship level, and acquisitiveness at the individual level.


Professor Robert A. of Cambridge University, the distinguished author of numerous books and articles in the field of psychology, earned a Ph.D. at Oxford University in 1950. He presented a somewhat extended version of this paper at the TISS-sponsored Study of War Conference in June 1997 at Wheaton, IL.
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