3 profound psychological reasons why humans wage wars?

Pinker argues that throughout human history, conflicts have been shaped by evolutionary pressures that favored aggression for survival. 

8 mins read
Psychological reasons why humans wage wars?

Wars have existed since the beginning of the human species on Earth but have varied extensively at each phase of history.

Psychologists now agree that wars and conflicts have shaped human behaviour like nothing else.

There is nothing as permanent in human history as war, and human beings find it unthinkable to live in peace together.

Visually speaking, we think humans wage wars because they want more of what they already have, but it would be an underestimation to limit ourselves to it. Here, we shed light on some profound Psychological reasons why humans wage wars.

military tank
Human behavior during wars have fascinated psychologists for centuries, understanding which is crucial for making the world peaceful.

Warfare, An Evolutionary Perspective

According to renowned psychologist Steven Pinker, the propensity for warfare in humans has deep evolutionary roots. In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” 

Pinker argues that throughout human history, conflicts have been shaped by evolutionary pressures that favored aggression for survival. 

Early humans needed to show the required force to defend what was theirs. Wars became more organized once humans started agriculture, thousands of years ago.

early humans doing agriculture
Wars became more organized once humans started agriculture, thousands of years ago.

When humans began creating larger social groups, they had to protect larger groups, which required more force and hence, the individual conflicts turned into organized wars.

In his article titled “The Evolutionary Anthropology of war, “Luke Glowacki said the roots of warfare extend deeper than the origin of the human species.

Luke claims that conflict has integrated profound traits in human beings, such as courage, risk-taking, parochial altruism, patriarchy and xenophobia.

Us VS Them

Identity and belongingness are other reasons why humans wage wars. The notion “Us vs. them”, which became famous after the US-led war on terror, explains how an identity, or in conformity to an idea, can escalate the flames of war.

Identity and loyalty to a specific social group or an organization are at the heart of ancient and contemporary conflicts.

former US president George Bush
The term “axis of evil” became hallmark of George Bush’s foreign policy, giving himself a blank check to wage “just wars”

We don’t have to dig too deep to understand how conformity to specific social groups excludes the entire population of Earth and installs obedience to a minority.

The two of the biggest wars in human history, i.e. WW1 and WW2, were primarily fueled by nationalist sentiments and exclusivist ideas.

The US and its allies worked day and night to demonize Germany to instil hate and exclude them from the category of humans (the civilized West).

veiled muslim women
During the occupation of Algeria, French officers, photographers and journalists produced eroticized representations of women lifting their veils and exposing their naked bodies. The French troops saw themselves as liberators of women from “oppressive social structures”.

Most of the time, conformity to an idea requires the exclusion of those who don’t conform to the idea.

Such was (and remains) the case with the US-led war on terror, where invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were justified with the notion of democracy and freedom.

Now, any effort to resist is termed “terrorism”, and rightly so, because specific people do it against a group of people with democratic governance and free societies. 

“If we (people of the host country) are financially struggling and think that immigrants are contributing to the economy only by taking our jobs—as Donald Trump suggests and his supporters seem to believe—we feel hostile toward immigrants“, Arash Emamzadeh, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, says.

He stresses that the “Us VS them” mentality primarily focuses on the competitiveness of the playing field. 

WW2 propaganda poster
American propaganda poster where a Japanese soldier is compared to non-human creature to arose emotions of hatred.

Unity against a threat

Renowned early American psychologist William James suggested that war, despite its inherent brutal nature, has positive psychological effects.

James argued that war fosters a profound sense of unity and cohesion among communities facing a collective threat.

It’s not just about the soldiers on the front lines; the community as a whole becomes bound together during the time of war. 

This shared experience instils communal goals and inspires citizens beyond the battlefield to act honourably and selflessly for the greater good.

According to James, war offers a unique opportunity to express elevated human qualities, such as courage and self-sacrifice, often dormant in ordinary life.I

It provides meaning and purpose, lifting individuals beyond the mundane routines of daily existence. However, as societies grapple with the psychological paradox of war, it prompts reflection on the hidden costs and complexities accompanying this seemingly unifying force.

This shared experience has evolved into a nationalistic notion in the past two centuries.

As the world has become increasingly globalized, we may expect humans to associate with something more profound and powerful.

People associate the same notion with brands, which are no less than propaganda machines nowadays.

Humans may continue to see the evolution of unification against a common threat, as nationalism is still here and intensifying with time.

Unity against a common threat was associated with religious groups, family, community and values in the past.

These informal groups were entities humans tried to protect against external enemies.

Family ties, culture and religion have weakened, and nation-states and corporate companies have replaced them to an irreversible extent.

(There are other psychological reasons, which we’ll discuss in the future)

How to overcome the desire to wage wars?

The simple answer is “we cannot”. It is almost impossible to overcome or reduce the desire to wage wars against fellow human beings.

We can’t just erase all human differences because that’ll breed more and more violence.

There will be moral questions before we embark on a journey that tries to shun human experience and impose something they disagree with.

We can reduce the desire to wage wars by simply discarding every instrument of war, which looks impossible in an uncertain world like ours.

nuclear blast of Hiroshima
Human’s capacity to wage wars have evolved from individual weapons such as sword, shield and bow to, hand grenades, machine guns, cannons and nuclear weapons.

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