Why our brains are at war — and what we can do about it

Mari Fitzduff
Futuring Peace
Published in
8 min readSep 28, 2021

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Illustration by Mario Wagner for UN DPPA

In my recently published book Our Brains at War: The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press) I suggest that we need a radical change in how we think about war, leadership, and politics. Most of us, political scientists included, fail to appreciate the extent to which instincts and emotions, rather than logic, factor into our societal conflicts and international wars. Many of our physiological and genetic tendencies, of which we are mostly unaware, can all too easily fuel our antipathy towards other groups, make us choose ‘strong’ leaders over more mindful leaders, assist recruitment for illegal militias, and facilitate even the most gentle of us to inflict violence on others. Drawing upon the latest research from emerging areas such as behavioural genetics, biopsychology, political psychology, and social and cognitive neuroscience, I identify the sources of compelling instincts and emotions, and how we can acknowledge and better manage them so as to develop international and societal peace more effectively.

Lessons Learned

1. On Being Mortal

We need to better understand and learn from what social psychology, and the emerging neurosciences tell us about our emotional and instinctual human nature.

We rarely understand, or indeed believe, how our feelings, ideas and behaviours are influenced by our bodies, our brains and the presence of others. New methods of testing today such as fMRI, electroencephalography, DNA analysis and hormonal testing are increasingly widening our understanding of how important bio/neural factors such as genes, brain structure and hormonal processes are in affecting our human behaviour, particularly in group conflicts. These new methods are far more accurate than any previous subjective reports in helping us to understand how our brains and bodies affect unconscious and instinctual tendencies often in surprising ways, and particularly in conflict and peacebuilding situations.

2. The Amygdala Hijack

Many of us fail to understand the fragile strength of reason when pitted against instincts and emotions.

Contrary to what most of us think, our human capacity for rational judgement is much (much!) shallower than we think. There is often a significant tension between the parts of our brains that deal with our fears, our instincts, and our memories, and those that serve us using analytic and logical reasoning. This balance between these varying parts of our brains can be different in different people. Understanding this can explains why social tensions can arise so easily, why murders, genocides and mass killings can evolve in almost any context and how, most importantly, bioneural differences can affect people’s perspective on contentious issues such as immigration, leadership, military spending, hate crimes and patriotism.

3. Us and Others

People usually need to ‘belong’ more than to be ‘right’.

The social and biological advantages of group membership pertaining to religion, ethnicity, and social and cultural identities offer us hormonal feelings of safety and belonging. However, they can also increase our suspicion and rejection of others, and enable us to exclude, harm and murder them. We usually understand and relate to other people and groups not by thinking about them but by feelings which are assisted by our mirror neurons as well as by hormones such as oxytocin and testosterone. We are also susceptible to the phenomenon of emotional contagion between groups, which will push people into group behaviour that can be contrary to their ‘normal’ behaviour.

4.My Truth or Your Truth?

There is often little relationship between what many of us believe and what are ‘facts’.

For many of us, far from our beliefs being ‘true’, they are born out of a particular social context, allied to physiological needs such as a differing neural sensitivity to threats, and the greater certainty of belief that a group can provide. Thus, beliefs are often what is termed ’groupish’ rather than necessarily true. We often rationalize what our gut instincts tell us rather than care too much about fact checking. Once we form our beliefs, we tend to see and find evidence to support them in our media and group membership choices. Our memories (including collective memories) are often notoriously faulty because our memories often reframe and edit events to create a story that suits what we need to believe today, rather than what is actually ‘true’.

5. The Lure of Extremism

Fundamentalism (including violent extremism) is a form of extreme beliefs in which group relationships are often more important than the actual beliefs.

Our choices for membership of extreme groups are often facilitated by our genetic, neurological, and hormonal predispositions to situations of tension and danger, particularly when added to perceptions of group inequities and exclusion. Membership of such groups is more often about a sense of solidarity and collectiveness than about truth, and strategies aimed at changing ‘beliefs’ can have only a limited force. Thus, the emotional as well as the expressed reasons for joining such groups need to be considered in designing strategies to change such memberships.

6. Follow the Leader

The importance of leaders in setting the tone and direction of conflicts cannot be overestimated.

The supremacy of emotions in choosing our leaders is particularly relevant in situations of perceived conflict where our choices are often instinctual, dictated not only by our environment, our emotions, genetics, and brain structures, but also by hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which inform our response to fear messages. This supremacy of emotions in choosing our leaders is particularly relevant in situations termed ‘weak psychological situations’ such as crises or situations characterized by uncertainty, and by the presence and/or threat of outgroups. It appears that our desire for a strong leader who will provide us with endorsement and security can often significantly outrank our desire for logic, and for democracy.

7. Accultured Norms

We need to better understand the cultural differences that exist between groups in different contexts around the world.

Without a sensitivity to such differences, peacebuilding efforts can easily fail. These differences include the existence of high-context–low-context societies, and collectivist versus individualist societies, where group relationships are more, or less, important. Understanding varying hierarchical approaches to power and authority, differing emotion expression/recognition styles, gender differences, differing evidencing of empathy, face preferences, and communication styles are all critical to peacebuilding. Lack of cultural sensitivity to these issues can exacerbate misunderstandings and create tension and conflict, unless understood and factored into sensitive strategies and dialogues.

8. New Horizons, New Tribes

For better and for worse, the future of our conflicts and wars will be significantly affected by social media.

Our social and biological natures are being affected by our usage of social media particularly in times of conflict and war. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have already significantly changed how people, communities and nations feel and relate to each other, form new connections, or deepen older ones. They have also radically changed how people make judgements about leaders, and other groups, and how they act on those judgements. Such power is unprecedented and has potentially disastrous consequences if used in situations of tension and violence. Unfortunately, our human social, neural, and hormonal biological tendencies make us easy prey for varied purveyors of conflict who wish to emotionally persuade us to support conspiracies, or peace-damaging goals and objectives. We need to find better ways to prevent this hijacking of our human and emotional predispositions and ensure that social media processes deliver on what is the best in our human biosocial nature, and not the worst.

9. The Next Adaptation?

Thankfully, cooperative human behaviour is the rule, not the exception.

We appear to have innate human tendencies and capacities that exist to promote cooperation between people, in contrast to the competitiveness that previous evolutionary psychology has suggested is the norm. However, the research is ambivalent about the future of such cooperation. It suggests that although socially and biologically humans have evolved for cooperation, so far it appears to be mainly with the people they perceive as their ‘own’ group, and only gradually with other groups. This raises the question of whether we are asking too much, too quickly of our biosocial histories that we should willingly expand our circles of concern to include the increasing refugee and migration movements that are changing the diverse nature of our societies and are vastly expanding the nature of our belonging groups. As such diversity increases, we will need to find social and emotional rationales, and new ways of group belonging if such expansions are to be emotionally and peacefully sustainable.

10. Lessons for Peacebuilding?

  • Do not to base peacebuilding strategies primarily on rational discourse.
  • Do not worry (too much) about ‘fact’ checking. Remember that people usually do ‘believe’ what they say. Check what will they lose by changing their beliefs.
  • Keep in mind that anger and aggression are usually the result of fear, that most people are conservative for good reasons, and thus change takes time.
  • Know who and what matters emotionally to the people/groups you work with and involve these factors/people in your change work.
  • Increasing the supply of oxytocin during mediations is important. Factor in time out, common experiences, eating/drinking, music, comfortable corridors, etc.
  • Use sustained aid and institution building to create relationships and institutions that promote everyday familiarity and trust with ‘others.’
  • Develop new groups for people to belong to, or their supposedly changed attitudes and behaviour will fall away.
  • Remember that many people, and many young men, need ‘heroic’ opportunities for mattering in their lives.
  • Sell peace agreements to people’s hearts and not just to their heads — and note also that the advent of peace is not an emotional gain for everyone.
  • Most importantly, remember that contexts, not character, usually define human behaviour. Thus the development of societies in which equity, and contributory inclusion are the norm is critically important to enable people to behave at their human best, and not at their worse.

Conclusions

Our various genetic and bio-physical tendencies have been powerful in enabling us to (mostly) live together relatively peacefully as communities and nations. Such tendencies have helped us to create a world which, for many nations, has become an inter-connected one where our ability to collaborate rather than to compete has been crucial for our economic development. However, it is useful to remember that as humans we still maintain many instincts and feelings that may have served our ancestors well in the past, when our environments were very different, and many of these are a mismatch to our current needs, and particularly to that of sustainable peace. Understanding these human tendencies and how easily they can evoke the worst in most of us is crucial. However no less is the knowledge that our history has proved to us, as ever evolving human beings, that we can move beyond our current tribes to interact with others so as to ensure that we expand the sum of human good for all on this tiny interconnected world.

About the author: Mari Fitzduff is Professor Emerita at Brandeis University where she was the Founding Director of the international programs in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence. She has undertaken research and training on issues of mediation, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Her books include The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts: From War to Peace (co-edited with Chris Stout), and Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump.

“Futuring Peace” is an online magazine published by the Innovation Cell of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA). We explore cross-cutting approaches to conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding for a more peaceful future worldwide.

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