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Égalité après la guerre: how war affects in-group fairness

Over the last few evenings, I inhaled Robert Harris‘ novelisation of France’s infamous Dreyfus affair. Told from the point of view of Colonel Georges Picquart, the intelligence officer whose scrupulous honesty finally established Dreyfus’ innocence, An Officer and a Spy breathes life into historic events. Events I last encountered in a claustrophobic mid-80’s high school class, from the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) to J'Accuse, the impassioned open letter to the French President by which Émile Zola brought Picquart’s arguments to public light.

Georges Picquart (1854-1914), protagonist of Robert Harris' book, An Officer and a Spy, about the Dreyfus affair. Wikimedia commons

More than a history, though, the novelist in Harris evokes the prevailing social milieu and the psychology of his characters. The loss of Alsace (where both Picquart and Dreyfus spent their early years) and Lorraine to the Prussians in 1870-1 hangs palpably on the ageing French generals. As a result they choose to protect their own in the army at the expense of truth and justice. That same loss also propels the rampant anti-semitism that makes Dreyfus such a convenient scape-goat.

War profoundly shapes the attitudes of those who survive it. Particularly the attitudes to one’s own people and to members of other groups. This might seem an empty truism; the horrors and privations of war can hardly be expected not to reshape attitudes. But to what extent could these reshaped attitudes be functional? And can we understand them in light of evolution and our species' long history of warfare?

A paper published this week in Psychological Science shows that people affected by war take on different attitudes toward in-group members as a result. And they do so in a manner predicted by evolutionary biology.

Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar, Julie Chytiolová and Joe Henrich studied 543 school children in Georgia, 6 months after the brief conflict with Russia over South Ossetia. They also studied 586 adults (18-84 years) living in northwestern Sierra Leone, a region wracked by civil war between 1991 and 2002. In both places they recruited individuals who had not been directly affected, others who had been somewhat affected, and another group who had been profoundly affected, losing family members or being displaced by the fighting.

The investigators administered two economic games commonly used to distinguish selfish, egalitarian and altruistic tendencies. In the Sharing Game, participants choose whether to share a number of tokens (20 in Sierra Leone) evenly (10 each) with another, unseen, participant, or to take a larger share (15) for themselves, leaving fewer (5) for the other player. Self-interested players should always choose the larger share, but those inclined to egalitarianism often divide the tokens evenly.

The Envy Game asks the player to decide between an even split (10-10 again) or an uneven one in which both players get more than in the even split, but the player gets less (13 in the Sierra Leone study) than the other participant (16). The rational player should choose the unequal split, but players motivated to redress inequalities that disadvantage them often do plump for the even split.

In each game, players divided their tokens with someone from their own in-group (an unnamed member of their own class in Georgia, or of the same village in Sierra Leone) or an unrelated, but not hostile out-group (a class at another school, or an unspecified distant village). And the tokens had value. The Georgian schoolchildren could exchange their tokens for prizes. The Sierra Leonian villagers earned as much as or more than the national average per capita daily income.

In both experiments, individuals least affected by war treated in-group and out-group members no differently in the two games. But the more profoundly a subject had been touched by war, the more egalitarian they were in dealing with in-group members. Yet they were less likely, or at least no more likely, to treat outgroup members in an egalitarian fashion than the group least affected by war.

Numbers and cohesion

Why does war lead to stronger egalitarian impulses toward one’s in-group but not toward strangers? Bauer and his collaborators argue that the answer lies in group size and cohesion.

Evolutionary biologists tend to get nervous when adaptive explanations focus on what works best for a group. Group benefits, so beloved of pre 1970’s adaptive storytellers, tend to be undermined by individual self-interest. But war is one of those arenas in which the good of the individual and the good of the group often fall smartly into line.

For most of history, war has been a game of numbers and cohesion. In foraging and horticultural societies, larger groups win far more fights with smaller groups than they lose. And as societies have grown, numbers remained an important element of military success. Throughout Harris' An Officer and a Spy, to briefly return there, the French generals fret over Germany’s three-to-two numeric supremacy.

So important are numbers that historians fast-track the immortalisation of dramatic victories for the outnumbered side. Hannibal’s victory over Rome at Cannae (216 BCE) is still studied by military tacticians. And Henry V’s thumping of the French at Agincourt shall be remembered, thanks to Shakespeare, from that St Crispin’s Day in 1415 ‘forward unto the ending of the world’.

The Battle of Agincourt, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V

Outnumbered sides that triumphed usually made up for their numeric weakness with some combination of technological advantage, superb tactical innovation and, especially, cohesion. Cohesion makes a difference not only among the troops but in the society as a whole. When people prioritise egalitarianism over personal gain, they are able to build greater in-group cohesion. And this means bigger group sizes, as fewer individuals or splinter groups feel they can do better by going it alone.

The Psychological Science study suggests that war changes the way individuals function in groups, making them more inclined to subvert their own interests in favour of equal outcomes for their in-group mates. The authors argue that this is an adaptive shift from more individualistic ways of behaving to more collective ones as a direct response to cues that the individual’s fate and evolutionary fitness will be tied to that of the collective group.

It remains to be tested whether other tribulations, like being affected by a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, have similar effects. Disasters certainly beget heart-warming tales of personal sacrifice, and occasional accounts of great selfishness. It would be interesting to know if people affected by disasters show the same biases toward in-group egalitarianism, or if any changes are directed more generally at other affected people.

Experiencing war profoundly changes individuals and, as a result, societies. Much attention has rightly been devoted to the profound psychological trauma and ongoing ramifications for mental health that war inflicts on soldiers and civilians. But the new study shows that war also has subtler - possibly adaptive - effects on in-group fairness and attitudes to out-group members.

Perhaps this research will, in time, lead to a better understanding of how to dismantle old out-group prejudices and hatreds before they lead on to more violence (or to Dreyfusian travesties). And how to kindle in more privileged generations the extraordinary cooperation and civic-mindedness often claimed to characterise generations who have experienced war.


A bonus for Shakespeare lovers. What better illustration of cohesion, of subverting one’s own interests to the cause, exists in art, than Henry’s rousing speech before Agincourt?