The Social Psychology of War and Genocide

Soldiers, Corporal Ryan Walker, Wikipedia

While not the only causes of war and genocide, there are factors that increase the likelihood of scapegoating and violence, some of which are present in many countries.

Antagonistic Beliefs

Antagonistic beliefs manifest as the “us versus them” dichotomy in which members of one group view members of another mistrustfully and ascribe negative characteristics to them.

Antagonistic beliefs cause people to assume that the ambiguous acts of others are threats and that friendly overtures are manipulations.

Problematic Societal Self-Concept

When members of a given society believe in their own superiority or experience collective self-doubt, they are more inclined to wage war or seek internal scapegoats.

A combination of superiority and self-doubt, which is particularly dangerous, is more likely to occur when members of a group feel that they have been wronged or harmed in some way, particularly if they have experienced what they believe is a threat to their survival.

Excessive Nationalism

People are predisposed to define their sense of self in relation to group membership. The family is the first such group, and in ancient times, the group focus would have expanded to the tribe or clan as a child grew older.

In modern times, there is less likely to be a large extended family living together or a small tribe with which to identify, so the focus often becomes nationalistic. However, there are other ways to achieve group identity, including positive strategies, such as joining a team or club, and negative ones, such as joining a criminal gang.

Nationalism provides a sense of belonging, but to maintain this identity, people often exaggerate differences between their supposedly national or ethnic traits and those of other groups. They are also more likely to be threatened by nonconformity and to project their own negative traits or subconscious thoughts and feelings onto members of other ethnic or social groups.

Obsession with National Security

An obsession with national security, which usually stems from an antagonistic belief system, can lead to the persecution of those perceived as internal enemies and the waging of war against those thought to be external enemies. This obsession usually manifests as the belief that all those of other groups want to subvert the paranoid group’s government, way of life, economy, values, and religious beliefs.

A national security ideology may manifest as constant preparation for war, preemptive military strikes against other nations, or surveillance and persecution of certain groups within the country.

Non-military approaches to conflict resolution are abandoned, and those in power limit the flow of information to the public, discouraging open discussion of policies and facts.

Glorification of War

The belief that war is glorious increases the likelihood that citizens will support a government’s desire to wage war.

Glorification of war occurs in movies, television programs, and literature, and many people associate warfare with worthy causes, courage, self-discipline, honour, powerful friendships among soldiers, and opportunities for heroism.

Negative Views of Human Nature

Another ideology that increases the likelihood of going to war is the bleak “realism” of philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, which holds that people act to fulfill their own selfish desires and that they do not care what happens to others in the process.

Such philosophies assume that others will attack to get what they want if they believe that they can get away with it. Therefore, conflict resolution requires a show of force; those who compromise will be taken advantage of or worse.

Monolithic Societies

Pluralistic societies – those that support a broad array of ethnic and religious groups — have a lower risk of war and genocide than monolithic societies, where a rigid adherence to uniform behaviour and world view is encouraged.

Pluralism doesn’t entirely remove the risk of warfare, however. In some cases, particularly if the country is nationalistic, antagonistic, and obsessed with national security, various groups will band together against what they believe to be a common threat.

Authoritarian Leadership

Leaders, particularly those with an authoritarian style, can increase the likelihood of warfare or genocide by initiating a cycle of hostility. This is particularly easy to do if there has recently been a hostile act committed by another nation against the nation in question. The leader can make use of the insecurity felt by the wronged nation’s citizens to arouse patriotic fervour, which will make them more accepting of the possibility of going to war.

Even a democratic nation can have authoritarian leadership. This is referred to as soft authoritarianism or illiberal democracy, whereby certain democratic freedoms, such as freedom of the press, speech, and assembly, are curtailed when they conflict with government interests.

Positive Reciprocity – A Viable Alternative

There are three things that must occur for nations to avoid warfare and internal persecution.

First, people must be made aware of faulty individual and group belief systems that bias their perceptions of others, a process that requires free access to information.

Second, the basic needs of individuals, such as food and shelter, must be met, and there must also be opportunities to fulfill greater human potentials, such as self-confidence, achievement, creative expression, and spirituality. People are more inclined to look for scapegoats in times of scarcity when competition is fierce and insecurity is high. Reducing such insecurities diminishes the feeling of threat and increases the likelihood that people will embrace peaceful solutions to conflict.

The third precondition for peace is to create a cycle of positive reciprocity. It is well known that people are more inclined to help those who have helped them in the past and to harm those who have harmed them. As such, friendly initiatives made to adversaries have the potential to bridge the gap, improving relations over time and reducing the likelihood that conflicts will escalate.

For more psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.

Reference: Staub, Ervin. (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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