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The Group Psychology of War and Peace
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The Group Psychology of War and Peace
Charles Webel and Charles Fisher
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Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, 25:1–10
Copyright C
Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN 1040-2659 print; 1469-9982 online
DOI: 10.1080/10402659.2013.785319
The Group Psychology of War and Peace
Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud engaged in one of the twentieth century’s
most famous epistolary exchanges, commencing on July 30, 1932, when
Einstein addressed “the most insistent of all problems civilisation has to
face . . . : Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”
Both Einstein and Freud agreed that the selfish and rapacious instincts of small
groups of political and economic elites contribute significantly to warfare,
and, to mitigate this, a supra-national organization with the power to tame
these belligerents should be created. Unfortunately, despite the creation of the
United Nations, humanity is far from being delivered from its bellicosity.
To understand why war and violent conflict persist, while the dream of
global peace remains fanciful, it is helpful to examine group behavior in
crowds, mobs, and warfare. This can aid our understanding of human poten-
tials that are ever present but unseen in ordinary circumstances. In this essay,
we will outline some advantages and disadvantages of groups, especially with
regard to their belligerent and irenic propensities. Then we summarize some
important relevant clinical and psychological research findings. A case study
of the Achuar in Ecuador helps illustrate related issues of inter- and inner-
group conflict and association. And we conclude by mentioning some charac-
teristics of peaceful and warlike cultures, with an eye toward future research.
Human beings are highly social creatures. One of the most powerful
human tendencies is to aggregate and to distinguish the members of each
group from others. This is typically achieved by shared language, ethnic
and national identifications and symbols, customs, patterns of adornment,
mythological and religious beliefs and practices, and so on. Others who speak
different languages, who worship different gods, or who follow a different
political or economic system are identified as different and may be perceived as
threatening. Freud described the “narcissism of minor differences, whereby
some people tend to focus on, and exaggerate, relatively inconsequential
cultural traits that distinguish them from their neighbors.
Group life has important empowering components, including the ability
to pool resources, to cooperate via a division of labor, to learn and teach, and
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to receive stimulation from the presence of one’s fellows. There is a powerful
allure to being needed and appreciated and a strong tendency to associate
oneself with a larger whole, thereby enhancing one’s self-worth. There may
also be genetic benefits, conveyed by enhanced reproductive success among 30
returning warriors (balanced by costs incurred by those who do not return),
as well as the possibility that even if individually unsuccessful, war-fighting
genetic inclinations may experience higher evolutionary fitness if reflected in
greater success by a warrior’s relatives.
But there are also disadvantages. One of the most significant is the loss
of inhibitions that can result from immersion in a crowd, as a result of which a
mob psychology can take over, through which individuals engage in acts that 35
would rarely if ever be done if they were acting alone. It is debatable whether
war-making groups literally produce a new kind of entity, a social one having
its own tendencies and characteristics, or whether groups simply give social
sanction to individual tendencies—notably aggressiveness, intolerance, and
rage. Freud once commented that he could shame a single Nazi storm trooper, 40
sent to search his apartment in Vienna, but when two were sent together, they
became “good Nazis.
Within groups, there is often the phenomenon of contagious or imitative
behavior. A frustrated or angry person is much more likely to behave
aggressively if he or she perceives others doing so. This may involve not only
“getting the idea” of violence but also gaining a kind of social “permission”
to behave violently. Thus, violence (or, to put a more favorable cast on it, 45
resistance to oppression) tends to spread when others witness or hear about
the events. Examples include the violence of the French Revolution of 1789,
the Luddite uprising in early nineteenth-century Britain, and the U.S. African-
American ghetto uprisings of the late 1960s. Less violent cases include the
active resistance of Chinese students and workers in 1989, of Buddhist monks 50
and civilians in Myanmar in 2007, and the recent Arab Spring and Occupy
Another prominent characteristic of group functioning is the tendency
to dehumanize members of other groups—that is, to give the impression (to
compatriots and, at least on a subconscious level, to oneself) that members of
other groups are not really (or fully) human at all. It is quite easy to dehumanize
those who are recognizably different because of language, appearance, cultural
practices, religion, political ideology, and so on. 55
This dynamic could be malevolent because the social–psychological
process of categorizing individuals into in-groups and out-groups may lead
to depersonalization: individuals are perceived as without distinctive features
and as anonymous members of a “mass. And “they” may no longer be viewed
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as (fully) human, especially when language of dehumanization is at play. The
may lead to crimes against humanity.
According to Marilyn Brewer’s “optimal distinctiveness theory, humans
are characterized by two opposing needs—a need to belong and the need for
differentiation—and we seek to maintain some balance between them. A
major consequence of in-group identification is that individuals modify their
social behavior depending whether they are interacting with an in-group or
an out-group; groups promote trust and cooperation within the group, and
caution wariness and constraint in intergroup interactions. Thus, stereotypical
and ethnocentric inter-group attributions are necessary consequences of in-
group/out-group differences. Brewer concludes that perceptions of common
goals and common threats may promote intergroup conflict and hostility,
because positive interdependence threatens intergroup differentiation.
Volkan reached a similar conclusion and argues that groups have a need for
a bipolar relation—us versus them—with their enemies, and this need
becomes exaggerated and possibly accompanied by violence if a group’s iden-
tity is threatened. Another group is perceived as a “container” of unacceptable
psychic content previously built into unconscious mechanisms. To Volkan,
the perception of an “enemy” is formulated in a way to protect oneself from
contamination by the possible boomeranging of psychic content.
Tajfel claims that social groups may activate or accentuate existing
stereotypes for the purpose of anxiety-reduction. For example, racists, Nazis,
and other anti-Semites attribute large-scale distressing events—such as eco-
nomic recessions—to the actions of specific out-groups, such as blacks, Jews,
and/or gypsies. They do this to relieve themselves of any blame or guilt for
anti-social beliefs and to rationalize and justify violent and discriminatory
actions committed or planned against out-groups.
A significant proportion of international and domestic armed conflicts
involve members of different ethnic/religious/cultural/linguistic groups. The
horrific culmination of some these conflicts has been the forced “ethnic cleans-
ing” committed by militarily superior groups against ethnic minorities, as in
large areas of the former Yugoslavia and central Africa. The result has been
the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people and often
forced dislocation from their ancestral homelands.
There is nothing new about this. Hatreds based on ethnic and religious
differences were at the root of many wars throughout history. Many of the
twentieth-century intra-African wars (Ibo/Hausa, Hutu/Tutsi) have been more
ethnic than religious; the India–Pakistan wars, on the other hand, have been
primarily religious, although the differences between Hindus and Muslims
are so fundamental to Indian and Pakistani society that they include ethnic
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distinctions as well. The Iran–Iraq and Arab–Israeli conflicts involve both
religious and ethnic differences, although economic and political factors are
also involved. 90
Many other considerations apply to each of these conflicts: border dis-
putes, a history of antagonism based at least partly on generations of
real or perceived oppression, economic rivalries, and so on. And typically,
these various “causes” provide the immediate stimulus for each outbreak of
violence. But national and often racial sentiments linger in the background
as a crucial underlying cause and also as an explanation for the persistence 95
and intensity of many conflicts. Furthermore, once war erupts—even if for
other immediate reasons—the belligerents quickly seize on any discernible
differences between themselves and their opponents, typically magnifying
these differences, elevating their own traits, and devaluing those of the other
The controlled chaos of group processes, as observed by Freud, Turquet,
Le Bon, Trotter, Bion, Kernberg, and others, sheds light on the irrational and 100
cognitive processes emergent in large, relatively unstructured groups. This
work on large groups was based in part on the work of Wilfrid Bion and
Irving Janis, who studied processes within small groups that transcended
individual minds and motives.
Janis focused on the failures of small-group decision making. He found
that groups sometimes make irrational decisions and authorize extremely
dehumanizing activities, such as large-scale bombing, because the core con- 105
cern is to reach group consensus and not the quality of the decision. Janis
named this phenomenon “groupthink” and claimed that it may result in the
group’s illusion of invulnerability, while viewing the opponent as weak and
stupid. Groupthink occurs when a homogenous, highly cohesive group is
so concerned with maintaining unanimity that they fail to evaluate all their
alternatives and options. 110
These observations from large and small groups lead to certain hypothe-
ses about unconscious motivations latently present within each individual, but
capable of being activated under special circumstances. Clinical psychoana-
lysts have studied these same unconscious motivations.
InGroup Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud described such un-
conscious factors as suggestion, libido/eros, individual lack of freedom, and
“the herd instinct. Later, Melanie Klein, Elizabeth Bott Spillius, Jacqueline
Rose, and others have written about envy, projective identification, sadism, 115
shame, revenge, and paranoia in the individual. These unconscious motiva-
tions may interact with such supposedly “rational” motivations as “national
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interest, and economic or geographic competition. Unconscious motivations
can provide the energy behind the push to pay attention to a particular fact,
belief, or plan. By comparing the findings in the study of groups with the data
from clinical psychoanalysis, we can assess hypotheses about such uncon-
scious motivations as envy and revenge, which lead to war and forestall peace.
In addition to analyzing the rational–irrational hybrid motivations that
lead to war, we can also consider how these motivations are activated. Studying
the relationship between the individual and the group, as Freud did, and
between the leader and the group, as Kernberg has done, can help disclose
the unconscious dynamics leading to intergroup violence. And the work of
Vamik Volkan on the concepts of failure to mourn, chosen trauma, entitlement
to revenge, collective regression, and group humiliation helps explain the
unconscious residues of group history leading to war.
A case history of a group in the Amazon rainforest further illuminates
these concepts. In this group, clan warfare has dramatically diminished during
the last thirty years. The factors contributing to this change constitute a kind of
photographic negative of the factors leading to war as well as the factors that
lead to intergroup reconciliation and nonviolent means of conflict resolution.
The Achuar are an indigenous people living near the Pastaza River, an
Amazon tributary, in the rainforest of Ecuador and Peru. In the 1970s, when
visions and dreams “informed” them that they must do so in order to protect
their independence and their territorial integrity, the Achuar reached out to the
outside world. The Achuar have deep traditions of revenge, murder, violence
between clans, and violent conflict with other tribes. These traditions have
changed dramatically within the last three decades.
For the Achuar, death and illness are never accidental, but rather are caused
by malevolent spiritual or human forces. Often a shaman is blamed for an
individual’s death, no matter how it occurred. One of the authors of this article
(Charles Fisher) has spoken with some Achuar people whose relatives had
been murdered because they were blamed for deaths or outbreaks of disease.
Cycles of revenge killing did not end with the death of the shaman or another
individual blamed for natural death and disease. The killers themselves were
then killed in retaliation for previous murders. Often, these revenge killings
were carried out in surprise predawn raids, possibly years after the killing that
was being avenged. Hence the violence was not impulsive, but rather carefully
planned action, consonant with a set of beliefs. Semi-nomadic clans fought
with one another. Battles with the Shuar (the famous head-hunters of the
Amazon) and the Quichua were also frequent. Not surprisingly, the Achuar
population remained low, or even fell.
Substantial credit for the dramatic reduction in violence among the
Achuar and between them and their former adversaries must be given to a
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Salesian priest, Father Luis Bolla, who lived and worked among the Shuar
and Achuar for fifty years. Father Bolla had been a strong supporter of the 150
creation of the Achuar Federation as an independent entity, rather than a
subgroup within the earlier Shuar–Achuar Federation. This move in support
of the Achuar people was an important step leading to the diminution of
When Charles Fisher was in Sharamentsa in 2009, he witnessed a suc-
cessful negotiation conducted by Domingo Peas, which prevented what might
otherwise have been violent retribution against a shaman in a neighboring 155
village. This was possible because, in addition to functioning as a peacemaker
himself, Father Bolla helped others to become mediators and peacemakers.
During the 1960s, a war occurred between two Achuar clans. It began
with a single revenge killing, which escalated into multiple raids and murders.
Father Bolla went to visit Kashijint, one of the most feared warriors. Kashijint
surprised Father Bolla by pointing a shotgun at his chest. Kashijint was moved
by Father Bolla’s fearless and openhearted response to him. An on-going 160
relationship developed between Father Bolla and Kashijint, which eventually
led to Kashijint’s renunciation of war. Father Bolla also conducted a kind of
shuttle diplomacy between two warring clans. Using one of the earliest model
voice-recorders, he recorded a message from one warrior who expressed a
willingness to contemplate peace with the other side.
Father Bolla also encouraged the creation of larger and more permanent
communities, which permitted improvements in health care, education, and 165
protection of the environment from outside incursions. These larger commu-
nities in turn led to a more vibrant group life among the Achuar and fostered
the political organization of the Achuar people. The preservation of language
and culture, including the development of hymns and rituals, has also been a
key element in enhancing the pride and confidence of the Achuar. This is part
of what has made peace possible. 170
Another peacemaking key factor is that the Achuar were tired of war.
Father Bolla, as a courageous “warrior” himself, was able to serve as
a catalyst for peace. He enabled the Achuar people to show greater love for
themselves, rather than killing one another. Respecting their political, terri-
torial, environmental, and cultural needs, he fostered authentic development
rather than conversion to Christianity. His courage and profound dedication 175
to his work were evident in his meetings with Achuar warriors, who were
capable of great and sudden violence. His religious faith and dedication to the
work of peace, even at risk of his own life, were of great importance in his
peace work.
Significantly, the Achuar do not use violence as a punishment. Violence
for the Achuar is not “primitive” and is not particularly regressive, unless
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things get out of hand, as they did for a few decades. Misbehaving teenagers180
and adults who steal are sent out into the rainforest for spiritual cleansing.
They fast, take very powerful hallucinogenic drugs, and experience dramatic
visions. All the people Fisher talked to who had had this experience claimed
to have been restored to “proper” behavior by it.
Violence for the Achuar is belief-based rather than impulsive. It is nor-
mal rather than aberrant behavior. But norms can change. As demonstrated by
the spiritual cleansing ritual, the underlying principle is one of restoring order
and re-establishing harmony among individuals, the community, and nature.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, for the Achuar, aggressive impulses are
deployed in the service of core values and beliefs. This suggests a differ-
ent view of human nature than one that asserts and that drives, and whose
vicissitudes determine behavior.
Bion, Turquet, Le Bon, Volkan, and others write about circumstances
that promote regression in groups. It is likely that for the Achuar, such a
circumstance was the increased presence of outsiders in their territory in the
1950s and 1960s. This development presented challenges difficult to master.
By organizing into a federation, and with the support of Father Bolla, the
Achuar were able to meet the new challenges with a higher level of organi-
zation and active mastery. (Hans Loewald writes comparably about changes
that occur within an individual’s mind in the course of successful psychoanal-
ysis.) The Achuar have, thus far, been able to appropriate useful items from
outside—medicines, the Spanish language (enabling better communication
with the outside world), motorized canoes, and so on.
Father Bolla’s contributions, as well as those of other positive influences
from the outside world, have enabled the Achuar to shape their com-
munities and destinies, rather than feeling at the mercy of uncontrollable
forces. Hence, there is less need to project unacceptable feelings and wishes
onto individuals outside the immediate clan. With decreased killing of adult
males, there has been a decline in polygamous marriage and hence, less sexual
competition than occurs when a few men have multiple wives.
Comparative analyses of the Achuar with advanced industrial societies
and with other non-technological cultures, such as those described by Bruce
Bonta and Majken Sørensen, are important for understanding the commonal-
ities and differences between cultures in which small groups determine their
bellicosity, peacefulness, and the mechanisms of transition from the former
to the latter.
Bonta analyzed twenty-four allegedly peaceful peoples in order to de-
termine how and why their ways of conflict resolution differ from those found
in allegedly more violent societies. He claims that over half of these societies
have no recorded violence, largely due to their view that if all conflicts cannot
706xml-als-v1 CPER_A_785319 April 19, 2013 7:34
be avoided, they can more effectively be managed nonviolently than by pun-
ishment. This is in stark contrast with the consensus among Western scholars
that violent conflict is inevitable in all societies and that punishment and force
prevent internal and external individual and group violence.
Based on his work with the Achuar, Charles Fisher takes exception to
part of Bonta’s analysis, since in societies described by Bonta, aggression is
denied rather than acknowledged. Bonta seems to hold the view that these 215
societies put up with bad behavior by individuals in order to keep the peace.
The dominant note seems to be one of passivity. For the Achuar, the dominant
note is one of restored and refined pride. They are empowered, rather than
Majken Sørensen analyzed competing discourses on aggression and
peacefulness among several non-technological peoples. The claim that
Homo sapien is “innately” aggressive does not seem compatible with the fact 220
that some societies are very peaceful. Using the examples of Semai Senoi, an
indigenous people in Malaysia, and Inuits, the original inhabitants of Green-
land, northern Canada and Siberia, Sørensen illustrates this.
Aggression does not necessarily lead to violent behavior. If it is handled
in a different way, there can be a certain level of aggression even in a peaceful
society. The Semai Senoi regard all strong emotions as dangerous, as some-
thing to fear. And fear is the only acceptable emotion. Children are socialized 225
to fear all other emotions, which leads to fear of conflicts. They do all they
can to avoid conflicts. Similarly, the Inuits are raised to control anger to a
degree traditional Western people would call extreme. Feelings like anger and
jealousy are strongly disapproved of among Inuits. Sørensen concludes that it
is meaningless to try to copy these cultures, but they can serve as inspirations
to develop new ways to handle aggressiveness. 230
One way of doing so is proposed by the noted ethnologist, Franz de
Waal. He argues against the allegedly antisocial character of aggression and
instead proposes a “reconciliation hypothesis, according to which aggression
is a well-integrated part of social life. By examining the dynamics of social
interactions among non-human primates, de Waal argues that confrontation
should not be viewed as a barrier to sociality but rather as an unavoidable 235
element, upon which social relationships can be built and strengthened through
According to de Waal, social animals, including humans, seek contact
with former opponents and engage in post-conflict reunion practices like
kissing, embracing, sexual intercourse, grooming, and so on. Reconciliation
serves to decrease aggression and socially destabilizing anxiety. De Waal’s
demonstration of reconciliation in both monkeys and apes supports his idea 240
that forgiveness and peacemaking are widespread among nonhuman primates.
706xml-als-v1 CPER_A_785319 April 19, 2013 7:34
The evolutionary advantages of reconciliation are obvious for animals that sur-
vive through mutual aid, for example, the continuation of cooperation among
parties with partially conflicting interests. De Waal’s findings regarding non-
human primates (especially among the young) may have significant potential
applications for understanding human conflict resolution: Reconciliation be-
havior must be seen as a shared heritage of the primate order.
In conclusion, the psychological and comparative study of group be-
havior sheds light both on the reasons for violent conflict and on efficacious
nonviolent ways of conflict resolution and transformation. By analyzing cul-
tures very different from ours, we may gain insight not only into how they
redirect aggression and manage disputes, but also on how we may do so as
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Charles Webel, Ph.D., teaches philosophy, politics, and peace and conflict studies at the University of New
York in Prague and has recently been Visiting Professor at the University of California at Berkeley and
Fulbright Senior Specialist in Peace and Conflict Resolution. He has a doctorate in Philosophy, Political
and Social Thought from U.C. Berkeley and is a research graduate of the Psychoanalytic Institute of 305
Northern California. He has published numerous articles and books, including, with David Barash, Pea c e
and Conflict Studies. E-mail: charles
Charles Fisher, M.D., is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the San Francisco Center for
Psychoanalysis and a Personal and Supervising Analyst for the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern
California. His work on the Achuar culture, along with his colleague Beth Kalish-Weiss, has been presented
at the American Psychoanalytic Association, the International Psycho-Analytical Association, and the
International Association for the Study of Dreams. E-mail:
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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