The implications of human nature for conflict resolution

Three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog claiming that human nature did not exist. In that post, one of this blog’s most popular and controversial, I said that no one really knows human nature and its being invoked by so many people renders it meaningless. I was wrong because I thought human nature meant what was the same about everyone, and the same in all cultures, and different from what all other animals do.

I have read copiously on psychology and anthropology since then, however, and, fascinated by the study of human nature, realise that my definition of it was wrong; or at least, my definition was different from that of the psychologists. I now have a better definition. Human nature is, basically, what we all have in common, across cultures, based on our evolution. People vary considerably within cultures but each group has certain things in common, because we have a shared ancestry. We all hunt: we do not all hunt the same way, because different environments mean different ways of hunting, but we all hunt. We all sing and dance: taste in music and dance varies wildly, but it is a feature of every culture anthropologists can find.

In fact, there is a long list of human universals by American professor of anthropology Donald Brown that gives us some idea of what we all have inside us. This list, found here, was originally assembled in 1989 and has grown since then. The ideas may not seem revolutionary to you, until you realise that all of these things are common to all human cultures. This understanding can be used to cross cultural boundaries, making it essential for conflict resolution. If we know certain things we can find in any culture, we know practices that are probably recommended or proscribed, and how to negotiate and deal with anyone else more smoothly.

We must separate the myths of human nature from the facts. Steven Pinker, perhaps my favourite scholar on the subject, in his book the Blank Slate, effectively discards the commonly held belief that tribal societies from less complex civilisations (eg. a small group living on the savannah or in the jungle) are less violent than those in more complex societies. The thinking behind this “noble savage” misconception is that, given the damage done by modern warfare, there must be something inherently corrupting about modern life that leads us to kill one another. However, if one looks at the proportion of males killed in war, that of modern society does not even approach that of certain tribal societies such as the Dugum Dani of New Guinea, the Jivaro of Peru and Ecuador and the Yanomamo people of the Amazon. While a tiny fraction of men from the US and Europe were killed in the world wars of the 20th century, that proportion rises to over 20 percent for the Dani and Yanomamo, and over 50 percent for the Jivaro. (Pinker, 39) Furthermore, some 90 percent of hunter gatherer societies engage in warfare and raiding. (ibid.) Returning to a pastoral, hunter gatherer life would not eliminate widescale violence.

The point that I have always emphasised as most important regarding human nature is that, however much we understand it (and many of us do not), we must never use it as an excuse. It may be “human nature” that we cannot sprout wings and fly around the room, but to say that, for instance, nationalism, racism or other forms of collectivism are human nature risks legitimising them. We must not be slaves to our nature but use our ability to think critically to make the right decisions. We are smart and strong enough to resist the pull of our nature if it would lead to morally questionable actions.

Or are we? As I said, we all hunt because humans evolved as hunters. But most of us do not hunt the same way we used to. Some of us hunt criminals or enemies of the state; others collect coins and stamps. To a scholar of human nature, these two acts are both manifestations of the hunting instinct. Desmond Morris, in the Human Animal, a zoologist’s analysis of human life and behaviour, says that war is not an act of aggression, such as the dishonour or anger that might lead a man into a fistfight with another man, but a highly organised hunt. We needed an awareness of geography, an ability to plan and organise, and an ability to kill in order to hunt successfully. These qualities are still around, and so is the killing.

Though we are not slaves to our nature, we operate in quite predictable ways. In the Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo shows how truly flexible we are when confronted with environments that are unfamiliar, systems that exert their will on us, and situations we are not in control of. We are always at risk of influence by others that can make us do violence, and we must be vigilant or risk perverting our values. One can be a mafia boss, ordering the killing of whole families; a prison guard beating people up for not eating their bread; a politician ordering thousands to kill thousands more; and still go home to our families and feel good about ourselves. The line between the angels and the demons of our nature is thin.

The biggest question is, how can we use our knowledge of human nature to minimise violent conflict? If we understand our most basic urges and the trouble they could get us in, we can minimise their destructive effects and perhaps benefit from them. Here are some features of our nature, how they can be destructive, and how we can change our behaviour.

Behaving predictably. One reason a small act of violence in the form of terrorism can be so effective is that it usually provokes a predictable response. The disproportional retaliations of, for instance, the Bush administration to terrorism played right into the hands of the terrorists. Many popular books on psychology and economics attempt to explain that, while we are ultimately free to choose, we succumb to innumerable pitfalls in our thinking because we are not aware of them.

If you think human behaviour is not predictable, you can test it for yourself. If you are a man, go up to another man bigger than you, surrounded by his friends, also bigger than you, and push him. I bet you that 99% of the time, what you think will happen will happen. If a friend tells you something he believes to be true, say “not only do I disagree, but that was a really stupid thing to say. Do you even know what you’re saying? What’s wrong with you?” Unless you are talking to the Dalai Lama, you are likely to make your friend angry, defensive and more convinced than ever that he or she is right.

Dr Zimbardo says that anyone is susceptible to manipulation, influence by unsavoury characters and contemptible behaviour. The less aware we are being manipulated, or the stronger we think we are to counter it, the more compliant we are likely to be. There are many books on persuasion and influence that can teach us to be aware of evil forces acting on and through us. The best I have read is the Lucifer Effect.

Categorising and simplifying. We have an urge to put things conveniently away into drawers and pigeonholes in order to save ourselves the trouble of thinking too much. We talk in simple language and simple thinking about the Muslim world or the Arab world, the West, Africa, the black community, Asian values, such and such a civilisation, and so on. Speaking this way is easier, but if we do not recognise the nuances, the enormous variety within these groups, we are liable to make serious mistakes.

I write further on this subject in Why Interculturalism Will Work. You can read it at http://www.scribd.com/doc/15987798/Why-Interculturalism-Will-Work. Suffice it to say, if we simplify the world too much, we risk making the wrong decisions, leading to misunderstandings, disrespect, conflict and war.

Cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias. In a previous post, I described part of this shortcoming as windows and mirrors. Windows are what we use to look at others, and we are very good at seeing their faults. But when it comes to our own, looking in the mirror, we see ourselves–and significantly, the groups we are loyal to–as pristine. This happens because we have an inborn tendency to legitimise everything we do as right and noble, to write off our own weaknesses as not really weaknesses and, put simply, to lie to ourselves about ourselves.

The book Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me) is a book about the damage cognitive dissonance can do. It shows how we can believe, for instance, that we go to war for freedom, kill for peace, terrorise for justice and are never at fault when we are wrong. Sure, some people died in the war I started, but they were probably mostly bad people. Sure, what I am doing is bad for others, but if I didn’t do it, someone else would. Sure, it looks like I’m stealing money from my company’s shareholders, but I work hard and deserve it. Really, I should be taking more, but I’m holding back. What a nice guy I am.

This phenomenon may also help explain why dictators are usually unrepentant and incorrigible. They have spent their whole careers killing, suppressing, torturing, dividing, concealing and so on, and have their consciences well under control. We all have self-serving bias which means, among other things, we forget or brush aside our failures and failings. We remember the things we have done that make us good people and forget the things that make us seem bad.

Likewise, supporters of a dictator, members of an ethnic group at war, followers of a religion or ideology can easily find instances of where their people or ideas have done good, and get angry when one brings up the seemingly insignificant or irrelevant instances where they have done wrong. After all, I am a good person, so whatever movement I am a part of must be noble and right.

But knowing our limitations is how we can overcome them. Checking cognitive dissonance requires awareness of how and when we do it. If we have any nagging doubts as to whether your actions were morally justified, we might be right. It is wrong to simply write off everything we do as a legitimate means to some greater end. Imagine someone else doing the same thing. Imagine your enemies, if you have any, doing the same actions. Are they still legitimate? Is it possible to understand the point of view of someone who does similar actions?

Collectivism. Whether or not it is an excuse, collectivism appears to be a big part of our nature. When I say collectivism, I mean treating people in terms of in-groups and out-groups. To a collectivist, there are people in my group that are inherently superior to those outside my group. I care for those in my group like I care for myself–we are human beings deserving respect and dignity. Those outside the group, however are less than human. Our love of team sports, with separate uniforms, chants and rivalries that occasionally erupt in violence are an example of this.

As much as we try to shed them, we seem to have brains stuffed with stereotypes. What this means is that anyone outside the group we consider ourselves part of could be made to seem less important, less complex and less human. As a result, any kind of national, ethnic or religious group will have trouble reconciling its differences with another, especially when the groups have less opportunity to mix. Moreover, men possessed of stereotypes about women are likely to see women as weak, which increases the likelihood of rape.

The evolution of this feeling is understandable. We used to live in small bands where those we knew were family. However, our idea of community has changed over time to what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities”. Imagined communities are groups that consider themselves to have an essential similarity that makes them equal (and by extension, more important than others), though they may never meet. Soldiers go to war to protect their nations, even though the only thing they are certain to have in common is nationality. Zealots engage in holy wars partly because followers of their gods are threatened. See this post for more on collectivism and conflict.

If we can harness collectivist sentiment and language, we can use it to mean everyone. After all, our groups do not have to be exclusive. We can be a brotherhood of men, a community of the world, a united human race.

Proving oneself. Young men, from teenage years to young adulthood, have an urge to prove themselves. That was the age they were most likely to perfect their skill at hunting and find mates. These boys are most likely to want to do violence. In Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff describes the killing that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasureable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

Perhaps liberals have not understood the force of male resentment which has accumulated through the centuries of gradual European pacification. The history of our civilisation is the history of the confiscation of the means of violence by the state. But it is an achievement which an irreducible core of young males has always resented. Liberals have not reckoned with the male loathing of peace and domesticity or with the anger of young males at the modern state’s confiscation of their weapons. One of the hidden rationales behind nationalist revolts is that they tap into this deeper sub-stratum of male resentment at the civility and order of the modern state itself. For it seems obvious that the state’s order is the order of the father, and that nationalism is the rebellion of the sons. How else are we to account for the staggering gratuitousness and bestiality of nationalist violence, its constant overstepping of the bounds of either military logic or legitimate self-defence, unless we give some room in our account for the possibility that nationalism exists to warrant and legitimise the son’s vengeance against the father. (Ignatieff, 187-8)

Boys who are occupied and motivated by other things, however, do not kill. Paul Collier, author of Wars, Guns and Votes, says that in post-conflict situations, one of the highest priorities is jobs for young men. “[T]he reason [such situations] so often revert to conflict is not because elderly women get upset, it’s because young men get upset. Why are they upset? Because they’ve nothing to do.” His suggestion is job creation in construction: it is necessary after the destruction of conflict, and the jobs are not subject to international competition.

Some parts of the Arab world have employment laws that favour men. In other words, men get first pick of all the best jobs. Though this of course is a sexist policy, it is probably a good one: the last thing the world needs is more unemployed young men with holy books.

Proving oneself is really another way to say reaching one’s potential, just like one can do in a job. At this key age, young people can be coaxed into anything with the right attention and care. That is why, in strong communities, they play sports and video games, do homework, have jobs and volunteer for their community. Suppressing all teenage rebellion in a society that values freedom is impossible. Therefore, our task is to divert the people most at risk of committing acts of violence and give them occupations that, to their genes, are equivalent to hunting, but to the rest of us are productive rather than harmful.

Ignoring the truth, hunting each other, behaving predictably, dividing the world into us and them and simplifying the world away are just a few sides of our nature with implications for analysing and resolving conflict. Exploring the depths of human nature can help us understand, mitigate and reverse the tragic consequences of some of our most basic, and most dangerous urges.

Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities

Collier, Paul: War, Guns and Votes: democracy in dangerous places

Fine, Cordelia: A Mind of Its Own: how your brain distorts and deceives

Ignatieff, Michael: Blood and Belonging: journeys into the new nationalism

Morris, Desmond: The Human Animal: a personal view of the human species

Pinker, Steven: The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature

Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Zimbardo, Philip: The Lucifer Effect: understanding how good people turn evil

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