Conflict breeds kindness
Rigorously testing the idea that violence is linked to altruism is not so simple. Nevertheless, two studies published in 2010 provide compelling support for it. In a recently published article,
The data on the patterns of bombing in Georgia and village attacks in Burundi suggest that violence was to a large extent inflicted randomly. This implies that the violence in these studies can be treated as a sort of ‘natural experiment’, and the affected individuals can be compared with those in a control group (communities that have not been bombed or attacked).
Most importantly, both studies conclude that exposure to violence fosters pro-social behaviour. The findings reveal that Georgian children and Burundian farmers hit by violence are much more generous towards others than children and farmers who came through the war unscathed. This is consistent with the paradoxical notion that conflict is altruism’s midwife, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Bowles, director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in the United States.
The study of Georgian children suggests that the desire to share and help evolves quickly, and the Burundi study suggests that the effects can be long-lasting. The insight that conflict may carry the seeds of altruism is consistent with a 2009 study by John Bellows and Edward Miguel,
When designing interventions to promote reconstruction and economic development in post-conflict settings, NGOs and governments would do well to acknowledge this diversity of behaviours, and tailor their interventions accordingly. What works in one community may not spill over to another, and differences may systematically and predictably co-vary with the local history of violence.
A word of caution may be appropriate. The accumulation of
Conflict may also affect a wider swath of human preferences, including a taste for risk-taking or impatience (fundamental drivers of investment and hence growth). The Burundi data suggest that this is indeed the case. Farmers who had been exposed to violence showed a higher willingness to take risks and were more impatient.
One of the challenges for scholars and practitioners in development studies is to make sense of the plethora of (conflicting) evidence from macro and micro sources. It is fascinating that simple experiments with children and farmers can be used to illuminate fundamental issues, which strike at the heart of the current policy agenda with respect to the reconstruction of fragile states.
Bauer, M., Cassar, A. and Chytilová, J. (2010)
Bellows, J. and Miguel, E. (2009) War and local collective action in Sierra Leone.
Bowles, S. (2008) Conflict: Altruism’s Midwife.
Bowles, S. (2009) Did Warfare Among Ancestral Hunter-gathers Affect the Evlution of Human Social Behaviours?
Tilly, C. (ed) (1975)
Voors, M., Nillesen, P., Verwimp, P., Bulte, E., Lensink, R. and Van Soest, D. (2010)