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Preparing for Peace

The website of the Westmorland General Meeting 'Preparing for Peace' initiative



FACT SHEET ONE               



The causes of war are never simple. Two factors are always essential – weapons, and individuals to use them.  Why should people be willing to go to war? For the most part they know that they may be killed or mutilated.  And yet they go. Many of them come away horrified and disillusioned.  What causes them to overcome or to forget their knowledge of what the consequences of going to war may be?

Aggression’ or ’aggressive behaviour’ and ‘aggressiveness’ are often suggested as reasons.


These are distinct from each other:

·        Aggression and aggressive behaviour describe actions intended to harm others, directly or indirectly.


·        Aggressiveness refers to the attitude or motivation to harm others.


Aggression or aggressive behaviour may be sparked off in a number of ways – by fear or greed, for instance. It is a tool that may be used for many purposes – robbery, greed, revenge, self-assertion, and so on. 

But it is only rarely that aggressiveness is the sole basis for aggressive actions.


The distinction is important because the way in which we talk about war tends to confuse personal behaviour with that of the state. But the psychological and physical activities that cause one individual to strike another have nothing in common with the chains of command in an invading army.


During the Cold War both sides justified their stockpiles of nuclear weapons by arguing that human aggressiveness makes war inevitable. Yet aggressiveness is not a cause of wars. This is a false view of human nature.  We all have the capacity to behave aggressively. But if muggings, rapes and murders were normal events on the street every day, they would not be reported in the newspapers. For the majority of the time our everyday experience tells us that the whole world is not like that, that we all have the potential to behave with kindness and consideration to others, -to be ‘pro-social’- as well as a potential to be selfish and aggressive - ‘anti-social.’


What makes the balance between pro-social and anti-social behaviour swing towards the latter?

Why are some individuals more prone to show aggression than others?


There are three main groups of factors:


·        First, individuals tend to be less prone to aggression if they have been brought up by one or two caregivers (usually the mother and father) who respond sensitively to their needs and exercise firm but reasoned control. Conversely, people who are brought up in a rigid, harsh and insensitive family, or by laissez-faire parents, tend to be selfishly aggressive.


·        Second, the balance between pro-social and anti-social tendencies is affected by current circumstances. If things are difficult, if it is hard for individuals to obtain food and other necessities, competitive behaviour, including aggressiveness, become more prominent. As might be expected, parents living under harsh conditions find it less easy to be sensitive caregivers to their children, and may encourage their children to be self-seeking.


·        Third, people are influenced by the culture in which they are living. Thus in a challenging environment like that experienced by those who pushed out into the American West in the nineteenth century, assertiveness and independence were seen as virtues.


These three factors can reinforce each other.

Session 1