Cuatro razones psicológicas por las que seguiremos haciendo la guerra

Four psychological reasons why we will continue to wage war (if we don't learn)


24 | 03 | 2022


Human psychology continues to understand violence as one more toolof the behavioural arsenal we have to survive.

In the picture

Duelo a garrotazos' by Francisco de Goya, oil on plaster, transferred to canvas.

The invasion of Ukraine has left the European population totally bewildered. The concept of war sounded distant in Europe, as if wars were not something specific to our continent or our culture beyond the romantic anti-Nazi vision of World War II, transmitted by a countless issue of American films. And this in spite of the Nagorn-Karabak wars of 2020 (6,000 dead), the various wars in Georgia between 1998 and 2008 (26,000 dead), the 1st Chechen war between 1994 and 1996 (the figures are confusing but are estimated between 38,500 and 129,000 dead), or the 2nd Chechen war in 2000 (between 25,000 and 50,000 dead). Perhaps if we make an effort in the collective report to relate bombings between Western armies, massacres of civilians, and refugees in European territory, it will lead us to the Balkan war, from 1991 to 2001 (about 130,000 dead). 

In view of this data, it makes little sense to continue to consider European society as a permanent paradise of rationality in conflict resolution and a paradise free of war. Recent history samplehas shown us the harsh reality: human psychology continues to understand violence as one more toolof the behavioural arsenal we have at our disposal to survive. And we will now see why.

The psychologist Abraham Maslow enunciated his well-known theory of motivation in 1943 in "A Theory of Human Needs"[1]. Maslow's pyramid indicates that the individual, within his life goals, values his physiological needs first (food, survival, rest) and secondly the physical security of himself and his family, moral security or private property. These are followed in ascending order by other needs such as membership, recognition or self-fulfilment, which we will not comment on here. The author pointed out that there is no capacity for self-realisation, happiness or full vital hope if the individual does not first achieve these two basic needs. Therefore, as long as citizens' own basic needs for survival and security are threatened, it will be difficult to meet other higher needs or motivations.

Another instinctive and universal mechanism that explains this human tendency to react to threats is the "fight orflight" mechanism of W. Cannon (1929)[2], which is so well known in psychology for the resolution of all subjectproblems. It is an automatic mechanism where body and mind (through the neuroendocrine system) tend either to flee from danger to safety or to confront it at the cost of one's life. We can see current examples in the Ukrainian population, where, faced with the imminent threat of attack, some take on the role of refugees and flee with just the clothes on their backs in order to save their lives, and others face the armed struggle against the invader as a survival behaviour.

A third reason that affects human psychology is related to "game theory", an explanation of behaviour based on the principle that individuals are rational egoists and choose social behaviour strategies that benefit them the most. We have examples of these laws of behaviour in games such as chess or mus, but it is applicable to more complex social relationships such as commerce, politics or affective interactions. Specifically, John Maynard Smith's "The Game of Conflict with Hawks and Doves" explains how aggressive and conciliatory strategies work and interrelate between the parties involved in a conflict or competitive social action.

The last psychological reason we present begins to transcend the individual and reaches human groups. Belonging to our social groups: family, friends, social classes, states, races... which brings us so much positively in our day-to-day lives in search of attachment can also be - and in fact is - sourcea common source of intergroup conflicts. According to Sheriff and Sheriff's theory (1979)[3] on intergroup relations, when different groups find compatible objectives, there can be cooperation, rapprochement between both parties and friendly relations, but when groups seek political or military hegemony, when resources are scarce or the goals of each groupare incompatible with the other, then intergroup tensions appear and, as an inevitable consequence, conflict. In this line, more usual authors of International Officesuch as Morgenthau (2006)[4] point out that human nature is behind international politics, stating that people want to dominate first their own lives, then their families, then their immediate social environment and finally other social and power Structures, such as states.

In this struggle for security and states' certainty about their own well-being and survival, some theories of political realism serve to explain conflicts, as Jordan (2022)[5] points out. For example, we can see how some superpowers use offensive realism, which is an attempt to establish their dominance without limit, distrusting the intentions of other state powers. Other countries, on the other hand, opt for defensive realism, in which what prevails is the acceptance of an appropriate level of power, setting self-limitations, relying on international diplomacy and seeking cooperation among equals.

The politics of deterrence can explain the equilibrium relations between states. It is based on the premise that one actor will refrain from aggressive action on a second actor for fear of the consequences. "Deterrence is a state of mind created by the existence of the credible threat of an unacceptable reaction" (Frías, 2016)[6]. In other words, it is about generating a behaviour in the potential offender of caution, containment or avoidance of military aggression towards the issuer of the deterrence measures. A state's deterrent actions affect not only the military aspect but also other areas, such as the diplomatic and economic spheres. There are two main forms: by denial (preventing the aggressor from achieving its objectives) or by punishment (inflicting such an excessive cost on the enemy in terms of resources or own objectives that it does not compensate for the offensive action). Deterrence capacity is related not only to the amount of forces that the actor possesses, but also to the credibility of the political will to use force and communication, i.e. the explicit or implicit accredited specializationto force and the determination to use it (Jordán, 2014)[7]. We can understand that deterrence is a common topicof International Officeas in the containment of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East (Chinchilla, 2018)[8]. But deterrence norms also serve other security issues, such as protecting human rights at the international level (Sikkink, 2011)[9], the prevention of crimes in the internal security of governments or even the effective enforcement of traffic safety regulations.

That said, we can learn from the current statusto avoid future wars.

Firstly, it is necessary to accept and recognise the violent nature of human beings, which is sometimes exercised individually and sometimes collectively. To this end, it is necessary to put an end to the spirit of 'buenismo' (according to the RAE dictionary, "the attitude of those who, in the face of conflicts, downplay their seriousness, give in benevolently or act with excessive tolerance"), which is far removed from the political, social and cultural reality of the 21st century. The fact that some people or groups argue that human beings are naturally good and that only negotiation is possible in the face of conflict indicates a lack of knowledge of human psychology and an inefficient way of making decisions about conflict. We have already shown that the survival instinct is a priority and universal, that consensus and understanding between equals is the result of the effort for empathy and for the common good with respect to others, but that it is also a consequence of having basic needs covered - such as food, health, family welfare or security - and that in no way can it be taken for granted that good understanding and peace will always be maintained in our social groups.

Secondly, the politics of negotiation between equals is good, it is necessary and should guide international political activity whenever possible, but there are state and supra-state actors who are not in this line of action and we must be aware that political and physical aggression are tools that will be with us as long as human beings have the capacity to decide freely.

And thirdly, the policy of deterrence must be envisaged: when the instinct for dominance or survival overrides reason, and when political ambition overrides the spirit of cooperation, states or societies must have political, military and economic measures ready to restrain the aggressor country before it takes action. Otherwise, appealing exclusively to negotiation and denying or hindering the victim's right to defend himself when violence has already broken out and there are already dead in the streets, is a fruitless conduct for the resolution of the conflict and an inhumane and inconsiderate attitude towards the people who are suffering.

* Luis Ángel Díaz Robredo is a professor at Schoolof Educationand Psychology at the University of Navarra.

[1] Maslow A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396. Retrieved from:

[2] Cannon W.B. (1929). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear, and rage. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

[3] Sherif M. & Sherif C. (1979). Research on intergroup relations. In Austin, W. S. & Worchel, S. (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-18). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

[4] Morgenthau H.J. (2006). Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, Boston: MacGraw Hill Higher Education.

[5] Jordán J. (2022). Realist theories to understand international reality. Global Strategy report. Retrieved from

[6] Frías CJ. (2018). Conventional deterrence. Revista del high schoolEspañol de programs of studyEstratégicos, 8 /2016 p 106.

[7] Jordán J. (2014). managementof uncertainty in international relations: dilemmas of security, deterrence and coercive diplomacy. Global Strategy. Retrieved from:

[8] Chinchilla M. (2018). The effectiveness of deterrence theory in nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Document framework. high schoolSpanish for programs of studyEstratégicos, 02/2018. 

[9] Sikkink K. (2011). The deterrent effect of prosecutions for human rights violations, yearbookHuman Rights 2011 pp. 41-61.