The experience of war during middle childhood and adolescence could lead people to treat their neighbours and schoolmates with a greater sense of equality, but not strangers, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science.
The children who were most affected by violence were more likely to share equally with members of their group. (Image: Shutterstock)
The study was led by CIFAR Senior Fellow Joseph Henrich in the Institutions, Organizations & Growth program, who is also a professor at the University of British Columbia. His team studied children and adults post-war in the Republic of Georgia and Sierra Leone, using simple games that tested their willingness to share tokens they could exchange for money or small prizes.
The researchers found that those who had experienced war during a developmental window, starting at about age seven until at least 20, were less likely to share their reward equally with people they didn’t know, who lived far away or studied at another school, than those who were nearby — the people they considered part of their social group.
“The more affected you were by the war, the more you were in-group egalitarian,” Henrich says.
The study’s hypothesis came from the evolutionary suggestion that people who are embroiled in conflict would work harder toward the welfare of their own group, which could help ensure their own survival. The connections forged among people who endure bloodshed together could help explain how violence leads to more violence, or alternatively, to nation building.
“Historians have long suggested that nations are born out of conflict and that it’s after a big war that you’re able to build a nation,” he says.
“This suggests there actually might be a kind of psychological response foundation to that, where you create a whole generation of people who are more tightly bonded than they would otherwise be after a conflict.”
Henrich’s team studied children aged three to 12 in Georgia, six months after the Russia-Georgia war drove 100,000 civilians from their homes, and adults in Sierra Leone a decade after a civil war killed more than 50,000 civilians.
In one game, the researchers gave children two tokens and assigned them a partner, either an anonymous child from their class or an unknown student at another school. The children with the tokens then chose whether to divide them evenly, one for each partner, or to keep both for themselves.
The children who were most affected by violence — for example, those who had a family member killed — shared equally with fellow classmates slightly more than two thirds of the time, while they only treated strangers equally about half of the time.
The games revealed similar patterns among adults in Sierra Leone who were younger than 20 during the civil war. The effects weren’t present in either country for those who were younger than six or older than 20 during war.
Henrich says the results could show that experiences during critical years of growing up could have a huge influence on social development.
“In our case we looked at war, but there may be lots of things that if you’re affected during a certain period of childhood that it then shapes you for a long time to come.”