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The Psychology of War

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What psychology is common to most, if not all wars? What mindsets lead to war? 

Human history is mostly of conflict and war. History teaches many lessons, but has few students. It seems that the main fact that humans can learn from history is that humans don’t learn from history. 

The cycle seems to be: conflict leading to war, massive damage, casualties and costs on all sides, collective statements of ‘never again’, followed by a short period of peace, then repeat. 

War seems so much part of the human condition that it is reasonable to ask: are humans hard-wired for war? Do genetics drive people to war so that their genes can be better reproduced after destroying the genes of ‘others’ who compete for resources?

Many anthropologists and archaeologists have provided evidence that human warfare emerged around only 6000 to 10000 years ago. The emergence of war coincides with the creation of agrarian systems and societies. Organising the mass production of food freed many people from the never ending cycle of hunting and gathering. That in turn, enabled some people to live off the labour of others; a ‘leadership‘ class then emerged. 

If wars only began after some people had the free time and the status to direct it, that indicates: the desire for war is not hard-wired, or, if hard-wired, the desire for war requires that time and resources are available for any such genes to be expressed. 

In the last 3000 years there have been few periods without war in Europe where richer nations appeared to have the genes, the time and resources. However, since the foundation of the forerunner of the EU in the aftermath of WWII, (created to prevent war), there have been no wars between any members of the EU, despite having the same gene pool, and vast time and resources being available. What explains the outbreak of nearly 80 years of peace?   

Perhaps people who trade together, work together and make decisions together, and have peaceful ways of resolving the inevitable conflicts, don’t make war on each other. Possibly where there is shared law, and equal access to justice, creating the mechanisms of trust, people generally live in peace, despite any minor disagreements. If war were hard-wired, and made possible by time and resource availability, such trading and cooperation structures as the EU would not prevent war. 

Most civil wars in recent history took place despite all of the above apparently being in place. Perhaps, when those systems break down war is still possible, or, is even inevitable. For example, when one or both parties to a potential civil war are not prepared to accept a shared solution, or, there is no mechanism to find, or implement, a new mutually acceptable status quo, perhaps war, or the separation of the parties in to new countries, is the only way to resolve the conflict. 

That has been the solution to many conflicts. Three example from recent history are the former Yugoslavia, East Timor, and Sudan, Africa. Indeed, many countries were formed under exactly those circumstances. 

War could be a toxic side effect induced by the type of people who enter politics. The characteristics widely thought to be necessary to thrive in political systems, are: mendacity, narcissism, and psychopathy. Perhaps it is the dysfunctional psychology of many political “leaders,” that leads to war; in their attempts to cling to power they relinquish any principle, tell any lie, and order any act. 

Anyone who has followed a war either in real time, or in history, will have noted the lies that are told, and atrocities committed by both sides. ‘Truth is the first casualty of war,’ although often stated as truism, is, itself, not true. By the time someone is in a position to call for, or order war, truth and integrity have long since been accepted as ongoing collateral damage in their quest for power. War reveals that mendacity more starkly.

Some wars are fought over control of or access to resources. Most species of animal only kill to eat. Those that kill but do not eat, usually do so, only if they are under actual physical threat. Humans will kill each other if their ideas are under threat. Many wars are fought over political ideology, religion, values, beliefs, governmental systems, etc. 

Perhaps ideas, ideologies, can work in a way similar to genes. Could it be that humans compete for their ideas to be accepted? Do humans conflate personal survival with the acceptance of their ideas? Do people need validation so much that they are willing to go to war for it? While that may sound irrational, it seems to be so when people declare such as: ‘I am willing to kill or die for my beliefs.’ Here is an example from the cold war era: ‘I’d rather be dead than Red.’

Politicians throughout history have directed people to commit murder on a huge scale over arbitrary ideas such as ‘countries’. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels,’ was said by Winston Churchill, before he, too, took refuge in the idea of ‘country’.

Since few people are prepared to harm anyone, let alone those who are just like them, it is necessary for politicians who wish war to ‘otherise’; to create an enemy, to spin that enemy as an existential threat to their people, to their way of life, to their ideas. 

The horrors of war are only possible if decent people can be convinced to murder; if they become the ‘Universal Soldier’, (as so well explained in the song by that name by Buffy Sainte-Marie). The process is started slowly, reasonably; the ‘other’ is contrasted with how civilised and honourable ‘we are’, Then, gradually the ‘other’ is demonised, and dehumanised. Once the newly minted ‘universal soldier’ is convinced that the ‘other’ is deserving of their fate, they will happily commit any atrocity ordered; their targets have foregone their human rights; they are the subjects of moral exclusion. 

The brainwashing process of preparing a people for war is the same one that is used by cult leaders to disparage non-cult members, and keep cult members under control.

Many other psychological factors are involved in war. Here are just some:


War based on revenge has has been present in several parts of the world for millennia. Each party seeks “justice” for the last “injustice” imposed on them, and in so doing they impose another injustice, and the cycle continues, often for generations. 


Humans have, over and over again, gone to war, for fear of being attacked. That is, fear of war creates war. Countless lives have been lost in ‘pre-emptive’ attacks to ‘defend’ against a threat that was utterly baseless. Repeatedly,  peoples have been manipulated by politicians to attack before they are attacked, when no such attack was intended or possible.


Each party involved feels their war is ‘just’, in various forms: defending their country, their way of life, their resources, their morality. Each can justify fighting a war with their righteous indignation, but their enemies are condemned for thinking and acting in exactly the same way. 


When leaders of the past are lauded as ‘great’ for having led the mass murder of their ‘enemies’, the egos of leaders in the present are tempted to write their place in history via war. What kind of person is prepared to authorise the massacre of millions to make themself ‘immortal’? A psychopath. The history and psychology of war seems to be the history and psychology of psychopaths.

Logic justifies emotion

Most of us like to think we are rational and logical, that our emotions follow our logical analyses. Alas, we are not. It is the other way around: our logic is used to justify our emotions. Even the most base of emotions can be justified with logic, in very predictable ways:  

‘We don’t like [insert name of the “other”]. They are [insert wild imagined threats]. They are [insert baseless accusation of horrible characteristics]. We should [insert call to damage the “other”] to save ourselves, from them.’

“God is on our side”

War after war has been fought in the name of religion, or justified using religion. Both sides use the same justifications and/or claim religious validation for breaking their legal and religious principles (for example, not to kill). Religion is co-opted and corrupted by politicians, and used to ‘justify’ war. 

The first act of any organisation 

Organisations, like living systems, immediately they come into existence, set about protecting their existence. Arbitrary concepts such as groups, companies, and countries, seek to protect themselves, even if that means that all real and actual living members or citizens are annihilated. Governments have massacred their own people too in the name of ‘the party’.

Group think

When a group of people comes together, they quickly adopt shared norms. If the group has been pre-selected for their shared view of the world, those norms have no means of being challenged. Any and all information which a rational, objective person could see would challenge the group’s dysfunctional thinking, is reinterpreted by the group as evidence to support their thinking. Such delusional reinterpretation of reality is common in many mental disorders. When those in power are gripped by group think, it can quickly start and continue the madness of war. 

There are no winners

War almost always emerges as a result of a toxic cocktail of dysfunctional psychology. It matters not which side has the most delusional thinking, there are no winners in war, only greater or lesser losers. 

The people who fight wars are the youngest, fittest, and strongest, huge numbers of whom are killed in battle. The gene pool is diminished for all. After WWI, vast numbers of women could find no husband, and had no children. 

Vast numbers of the soldiers involved in a war have their lives ruined by post traumatic stress injury. They suffer nightmares for life, their relationships are impaired, holding down a normal career is difficult, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, unemployment, homelessness, and suicide are all higher in those unlucky enough to have seen the reality of war. 

Few peoples have avoided paying massive costs for going to war. Are the costs of directing a country to go to war borne by those who direct it? No. Political systems seem to immunise those who start wars from the consequences of their decisions. Perhaps that immunity makes them more likely to lay down the lives of others, to protect or enhance their own lives and positions.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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