By Tom Wein


Behaviour depends on context – and conflict is the most extreme context of all. There have been a series of attempts, of varying value, to understand behaviour in that scenario – by academics, governments and NGOs seeking to predict and reduce conflict, and by combatants seeking an advantage. In recent years, many have turned first to social science, and then to psychology. Here, Tom Wein charts some of those efforts.

In recent decades, there has been a particular focus on understanding populations caught in war, and the choices they make, under the most extreme conditions of risk and uncertainty. If Afghanistan was a ‘hearts and minds’ war, then the side that could best affect popular behaviour had the advantage. This work follows Stathis Kalyvas in arguing that war is a collection of individual decisions and micro-level contexts. This idea, stated in various forms, has been at the heart of the (highly contested) moves by US, UK and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to a counterinsurgency strategy in which war is conducted – in Rupert Smith’s phrase – “among the people,” attempting to win their consent and cooperation.

This stated need to understand ‘the people’ has led to what Jeremy Black has called the “cultural turn”, with militaries searching cultures for individual, influential concepts they can employ – such as wasta (connections, clout) in the Middle East, and the jirga (community meetings) in Southern Afghanistan. Intelligence agencies have learned to create ‘influence maps’ of groups and actors, classed according to their friendliness to the mission. Whole units are devoted to Target Audience Analysis – a concept that can include anything from basic polling and ethnography to the multi-method measurement of multivariate ‘parameters’ from social psychology. Enthused by this, and frustrated by their own experiences in Afghanistan, Steve Tatham and Andrew Mackay have worked with Lee Rowland to explore what they call behavioural conflict.

Meanwhile, just as it did during the Cold War, the US Department of Defense has turned to social science, funding an array of initiatives to understand the local forces and factors that drive conflict (some are listed by Gonzalez 2015, while RAND and NSI have published major reports on social science’s value to the military). The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded a programme of neuroscientific examination into the power of narratives to influence behaviour, while the Minerva Initiative provides Department of Defense funding for academic teams examining culture and behaviour in conflict. Most prominent of all was the Human Terrain Systems programme, in which anthropologists were hired (over the objections of the discipline’s professional association) to ask better questions, collect data and identify the social buttons to push that would allow the US military to achieve its objectives. HTS never quite delivered as the Generals hoped, and eventually disappeared under a welter of claims of expenses fraud and sexual harassment. Other initiatives, for all the money spent, have delivered a mixture of outcomes. Some good quality research has had policy impact, but much has sat on shelves, whilst poorly conducted research has sometimes been utilised by soldiers grasping for simple answers.

In the academy, there have also been attempts to integrate psychology into conflict studies. The study of norms has long been a central plank of political science, and groupthink has been extensively examined; there have been several attempts to integrate political psychology into international relations. There has been important, exciting and often brave work on behaviour in conflict. Jason Lyall and colleagues have done much empirical work around identity and decisions in Afghanistan and beyond – their list and endorsement experiments have also offered a way forward in the face of fearsome field research challenges. Kenneth Payne, of KCL’s well-regarded War Studies department, has made a major contribution with his study ‘The Psychology of Strategy’. Oliver Kaplan has sought to understand how armed groups might be ‘nudged’ into taking different paths. Vera Mironova and her co-researchers have conducted a series of fascinating experiments among combatants and civilians in Syria and Ukraine. To that we can add some longstanding efforts to understand and model the behaviour and decision-making of terrorism and radicalisation. More widely, some of the best work at this nexus can be tracked by following the Political Violence @ a Glance blog.

Psychology’s early decades featured repeated attempts to apply the new tools for analysing patients to society’s biggest problems. In 1933, Freud (collaborating with Einstein) offered initial notions in ‘Why War?’. Ernest Jones, the British psychoanalyst, tried repeatedly through the 1930s to persuade the British Government to fund a project promising to explain all human conflict. Zimbardo and Milgram and others had as part of their aim the explanation of violent obedience after WW2. Since then, the field has mostly offered greater modesty and better evidence – principles which it must hold onto here. If it can do so, than in understanding a phenomenon in which uncertainty dominates, and where emotions are at least as important as reason, psychology surely has a role.

This post on psychology and conflict is a companion to a previous piece by the author on behavioural insights and international development, which may be found here. The author is grateful to Dr Kenneth Payne and Dr Neil Verrall, who offered advice on earlier drafts of this post.

Tom Wein

Tom Wein

Founding Partner at Aware International
Tom Wein is the founding partner of Aware International, a social enterprise offering behaviour insight and ground insight services for the public good. A behavioural science consultant and writer, he works mostly on conflict and development. He tweets @tom_wein and his writing is collected at
Tom Wein