Motivations For War and Other Conflicts


     Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   1-22

ABSTRACT:  In order to reduce the amount of interpersonal and inter-group conflict among people, it may help to address the personal motives of human beings in this regard, especially those of leaders.  A framework for analyzing these motives is provided.

KEY WORDS:  motivation, conflict, war, leadership

Human groups have had conflicts and wars since the beginnings of the species, including the whole panoply of interpersonal conflicts in every relationship as well as the conflicts between subgroups of society and between nations themselves.  Being very much a social animal, humans naturally form groups, and since group strategies for survival depend on decision-making, and the larger the group the more difficult it is to arrive at jointly agreeable decisions, leaders tend to be identified in groups who can bring together the opinions of enough citizens to enable taking agreed-upon actions.  (Leadership in small groups can be more fluid, but the focus here is on large groups.)  Besides group survival and internal cooperation, the other major motive for having leaders is the inherent tendency of human beings to wish to be taken care of as they were as infants and to want leaders who seem to have that capacity, including the capacity for violence if that serves survival needs.

This essay focuses on how selection of leaders affects the amount of killing and violence in the life of a society, but we should consider also why humans are individually so willing to war and to steal from other groups.  It is plausible that on an individual level, there was a certain adaptive value (meaning an advantage in reproduction and spreading of one’s genes) to being willing to be violent, if necessary, in order to go on living and potentially reproducing.  It is also plausible that groups that were more willing to kill and take from others survived and reproduced better than those they vanquished.  This would seem consistent with our current evolutionary situation in which societies are both very willing to go to war and expropriate others’ land and at the same time to voice morals that prohibit such behavior.  Most interpret this as a compartmentalization of “how we treat each other within our group” from “how we treat people in other groups,” but some can see the hypocrisy in this stance and would like to see people expand their sense of “us” (one’s in-group) to include all human beings instead of just those in their own group.  Nevertheless, if we believe in natural selection, both individual and group survival will continue to be top priorities, and we will have to rely for diminution of violence and killing on the willingness of people, to some degree, to learn to seek solutions that involve compromises and do not require war.

Theoretically, various criteria are possible for choosing leaders (those whose ideas and recommendations are most likely to be followed by the group).  However, in practice, those who become leaders are most often the stronger and more aggressive individuals.  Other types of persons may become leaders of sub-groups, such as religions, but the overall leadership of the group (both militarily and politically) tends to go to the stronger and more aggressive.  This would seem to go back to the fact that groups compete for territory and resources, and when survival seems at issue, actual physical fighting is likely, which makes it seem intuitive to have as a military leader the person who can fight or lead fighting the best.  Kings and chiefs were generally the military leaders of their groups.  Inheritance (leader to son) has also played a role in determining leadership in many societies. 

Another important dynamic in complex societies is that one’s rise to the apex position is complex and usually seems to take a lifetime of preparation, through being elected or appointed to increasingly responsible leadership positions (school board, zoning commission, mayor, governor, president), or on the other hand to have enough time in military positions to establish a reputation for winning battles or wars.  Only people with intense motivation are willing to traverse this path, and few manage to traverse it without making mistakes which disqualify them from continuing to rise.

The personal motives of those who pursue top leadership positions is important to understand.  The universal motives of all human beings are as follows:

1–finding resources and conditions for survival,

2–having any pain and suffering be no worse than tolerable (recognizing that some pain and suffering are built-in parts of the human experience),

3–having a generally positive emotional state as much of the time as possible (including, hopefully, some satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment),

3a–having good feelings about oneself (good self-esteem),

3b–feeling an acceptable level of security,

4–fulfilling our sex and procreation desires, and

5–finding at least basic acceptance in and some emotional gratification in one’s social groups.                     

These motives are “wired” into us and apply to all human beings.  There are no other motives than these, since all other motives, including religious impulses, the search for love, and wishes for negative outcomes for certain other persons, serve these listed motives.  For example, having a job is a tool and not a separate motive, since it serves our desires for survival, having some positive feelings, having some self-esteem, and finding basic acceptance and some gratifications in relationships.

The motives of leaders, then, come from this list.  Clearly survival of the individual and of the group is relevant for leaders, as well as achieving an adequate level of feeling individually secure.  Being approved of or thought well of are probably desired by most leaders.  Finding acceptance may also be relevant for some.  Most leaders engage in benefiting the daily lives of citizens only to further fulfillment of their personal motives in the above list.  Unfortunately, it seems as if, in general, the stronger and more aggressive a leader is, the less motivation he/she has to improve the daily lives of citizens.

We would hope that leaders’ fundamental motives were reasonably visible to voters, but also at play are a leader’s efforts to compensate if he/she has not been satisfied in these basic motivational areas, and these compensations are usually hidden, if possible, so they won’t be embarrassing.  For example, failure to get reasonable amounts of love and emotional support in early years (which relate to the goals of minimal pain, adequate self-esteem, and adequate social acceptance) can result in a person feeling hurt and deprived and therefore being vindictive and especially punitive toward those who disagree with him/her.

Many human behaviors are efforts to compensate for a failure or for not meeting some important needs.  Bullying behavior, for example, is quite often a compensation for feeling unimportant and therefore powerlessness and neglected.  “Sex addiction” or promiscuity is often a compensation for feeling a lack of love.  The insight this brings to our discussion is that trying to look powerful (by saber-rattling, demonstrating one’s power to harm others, bragging, defiant behavior, etc.) is often an attempt to cover up feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.  So, we should not accept at face value that such a leader is simply powerful, since due to his need for compensation, he/she may overdo things by mistake or by being unable to “lose face” and back off after making threats, whereas a leader who felt confident in his/her adequacy and power would be more flexible (and end up in a war less often).

Using the framework of the universal motives presented, we can hypothesize about things to watch out for in selecting leaders. 

1–Those whose survival has been threatened or tenuous (and therefore have had serious feelings of insecurity) are likely to be overly concerned about security (and overly suspicious of others) and may be overly conservative and avoidant of conflict (and therefore unlikely to be selected as leader) but if selected as leader he/she may well be primed to readily or preemptively attack any who seem to threaten that security.

2–Those who have endured intolerable pain are likely to guard excessively against the possibility of further pain, which could produce either personalities that are over-agreeable (in order to appear not to be a threat to others) or personalities who look for opportunities to give pain to others so as to “even up the score.”

3–Leaders who are in a negative emotional state much of the time are likely to react suspiciously and by withdrawing from negative stimuli (and therefore likely to avoid dealing with difficult issues as leaders).  In the U.S., such persons would only become leaders if they could also mask their negativity so as to appear more positive to those who are selecting leaders.

3a–Persons who have shaky self-esteem are likely to be overly sensitive to insult, and to cope with this either by frequently reacting aggressively or by being overly agreeable (and therefore unlikely to subject themselves to the vicissitudes of position-seeking in the first place unless they see a way to use their positions to compensate, often by using power over others to feel superior).  Persons with shaky self-esteem are also likely to have difficulty making decisions when there are competing parties involved.

3b–Persons who have minor insecurity feelings will very likely either try overly hard to please or to seek power over others so as to feel more secure.

4–Persons who feel deprived sexually are likely to have difficulty with human relations in general, to blame and hate those who seem to be depriving them, and to try to prove their worth and power in other ways so as not to feel the shame of being rejected.

5–Persons who feel significant amounts of rejection (lack of acceptance and approval in family and other groups) are likely either to be depressed (and therefore not seek leadership positions) or to try to “get back” at those who are withholding their acceptance and approval.  These efforts to “hurt back” may be focused in a displaced way on groups who cannot fight back, such as immigrants or despised minorities.

Perhaps the most common compensatory effort for feelings of deprivation in these fundamental goals is to seek power over others, since with that power the person thinks that he/she can force others to give greater acceptance and approval.  This is usually done through various extortion and blackmail kinds of behaviors, threatening exclusion and punishments for failing to treat the leader as he/she wishes to be treated.  Thus, seeking power over others betrays the potential leader’s emotional lack, since people who are satisfied with how they are treated and accepted have little reason to seek power.  This extends as well to claiming to seek power in order to do supposedly positive things for society.  People who are satisfied emotionally will more likely seek social change through discussion and agreement.  (In this sense, our current political structure of two giant political parties continually competing for power suggests that, in my opinion, many of these leaders should not have been elected, given their propensity to want to “win” and subjugate the opponent.)

Persons who are aggressive and who favor violence to achieve control always try to achieve high degrees of power over others, which results in damage to societal ideals of fairness and equality.  They are more likely than more moderate and reasonable leaders to involve the nation in conflicts and even war with other countries.

These characteristics may be hard to discern in some potential leaders, especially since they will be trying to hide their deficiencies and shame from others.  Perhaps the two best indicators of future problems in leaders are the degree to which they seek power and how they treat others around them.  In my own opinion, the nation would be better off without leaders who will use the position of leader to compensate for deficiencies they feel, by cultivating power and by treating others poorly to demonstrate their power.

People who wish to reduce the incidence of war and of violence internal to society can (1) train themselves to assume that peaceful solutions are possible and are more desirable than violence and war, (2) practice identifying and accepting such peaceful solutions (which almost always involve compromise—not getting all one wants but allowing others to also benefit to an extent that neither side feels pushed to violence), and (3) spreading the word that such an approach is morally superior to violence as well as practically advantageous, so as to make seeking peaceful solutions an acceptable or even a favored attitude in society.  Our schools can also further this view.  Those seeking leadership who prefer violence are automatically unacceptable candidates for leadership for the single reason that they favor violence, control, and/or war.

It will be of concern to some that a less aggressive, more reasonable leader might not be capable of using aggression (military force) to properly defend the nation, because he/she (especially she) would hesitate too long to use violence, would not use sufficient levels of violence, or would stop using violence too soon.  This, however, is not a characteristic related to reasonableness but a characteristic related to things like lack of will power or determination, having too strong an emotional distaste for violence, feeling over-empathy for those affected by one’s actions, and not wanting to be seen as a “bad guy,” all of which should themselves be red flags to consider when choosing a leader.

 It is possible to find persons to lead who have a good balance between reason and emotion, who are not significantly motivated to gain power, and who will go to the mat to defend the nation.  The good qualities to look for are—

  • reasonableness,
  • good judgment,
  • ability to communicate clearly and empathically,
  • perceptiveness in evaluating and understanding people,
  • courage and the capacity to tolerate pain and criticism to accomplish a valued goal
  • fairness,
  • inclusiveness (being a leader for all persons, not just supporters),
  • ability to integrate disparate data (like figuring out the best policy when segments of the population have different ideas about what is best, so as to benefit everyone as much as possible),
  • cooperativeness and willingness to compromise,
  • capacity to inspire the public by communicating and living by values that are humane and supportive of what is truly important in life.

When you vote, consider all these, plus power-seeking and how the candidate treats those around him/her, and vote for the candidate who will be best for everyone and for the country.