The experience of conflict is, in a near-universal sense, negative. It damages human capital, physical capital, welfare, health, and a whole array of other outcomes. It, therefore, feels churlish to ask whether or not such experiences can, also, be transformational or harnessed for good. In an aggregate sense, however, this might be the case, at least in terms of reforms of governance and social structure.

An increasing body of work seems to suggest that individual transformation – whether rationalist; pro-societal; or personal – might also have a micro-behavioural foundation. Certainly, plenty of work suggests that individuals engage in behaviours that positively affect others in the aftermath of an episode of war. In other words, individuals who live through war have often been observed to increase investments in prosocial behaviours – a broad classification of activities that can include: civic engagement via voting behaviour, investment in public goods, and trust in institutions.

Among primates and, even, in early human societies, comparable actions after fights – like excessive grooming or bringing of gifts – are not unknown and are thought to be undertaken in order to increase the chance of sustaining peace. That analogous behaviours should arise in modern, anonymous, human societies is, therefore, very interesting, not least because it might provide the foundation stone to behavioural peacebuilding interventions. In these cases, where individuals cannot make amends directly with victims or perpetrators, it is possible that they engage in behaviours that benefit society as a whole, just as they do in situations of anonymous reciprocation, for similar motivations.

If people engage in “good” behaviours towards strangers after war and could be nudged to engage in further “good” behaviours, this opens up a new set of behavioural interventions that aim to promote peace by building on the individual transformations that war might bring.

Despite a litany of positive findings to date, however, we shouldn’t yet get carried away by this idea. It is premature to suggest this is a settled literature. People don’t always act more prosocially. Sometimes, quite the opposite. Sometimes, only very specific groups are affected; or prosocial improvements are driven by increased preference towards ingroups outweighing increased bias against outgroups, which has very different theoretical predictions for peace. In other settings, some prosocial behaviours increase, while others worsen, in the same populations.

A rational question to ask before we decide if such processes can be harnessed to build peace might, therefore, be about what drives these messy findings? Answering this question has value in and of itself, of course; but more importantly, it might open up the road towards a new generation of behavioural peacebuilding interventions. In other words, it is a question we were interested to answer.

As a first port of call, we posited that the experiences one has during an episode of violence are going to matter. Certainly, it matters for related outcomes like risk and trust. A simple thought experiment illuminates why they should also matter in rationalist explanations of post-conflict prosocial behaviour. If individuals “invest” in prosocial actions to protect against violence, the value individuals place on peace likely varies across experiences during war. Those who expect to be most harmed, likely, value peace more and should be more willing to invest in it than those who expect to be harmed least.

This simple proposal underpins the recently published work we undertook in Kenya. Simply, we asked individuals how they had experienced a severe episode of electoral violence. We find that those who were personally harmed behave more prosocially than those who were indirectly harmed (e.g. having family members harmed). The indirectly harmed did not have a different behavioural profile than those who were not harmed at all. We also find that only specific behaviours change – those that involved generosity. Cooperative behaviours are unaltered, no matter which experiences individuals had. Perhaps more importantly, we find that these differences are not driven by parochial preferences.

For robustness and completeness, we then changed how we measured exposure to violence, using a prime that altered the salience of the episode in question. In this approach, the same broad pattern of results emerges, except that we see reductions in prosocial behaviours. In other words, with three relatively simple tests, we managed to replicate most of the results that make the literature messy…

What does this all mean? Well, perhaps most importantly, it suggests that how exposure to violence is measured is important. If we measure it directly – an approach with a bewildering array of challenges to causality because war does not happen at random – a set of results grounded in that literature emerges. If we measure it by varying the salience of the same episode of violence, an entirely the opposite set of responses emerge that are consistent with literature that varies the salience of violence.

Consequently, this means we need to be careful about what we think we’re saying. A vast majority, if not all, of the micro-level literature is conducted without comparison to a pure control group. Everyone in our sample lived through a severe cycle of violence, whether or not they were personally harmed. In other words, this only allows us to say that those who were personally harmed are relatively more prosocial than the average in their society; not that private experience of conflict has results in increases in prosocial behaviours in that place. To some extent, this could undermine the cause of behavioural peacebuilding – or, at least, give food for thought.

Second, our results challenge most rationalist explanations, which focus on investments in social capital. Such investments increase social, as well as private, outcomes and are, thus, cooperative. In our case, we see that cooperative behaviours don’t change. This is not to say that rationalism has no explanatory power but that the motives that underpin it might not, yet, be well understood. Generous behaviours could satisfy the basic constrains of an economic signal. They also fit more closely with the classic economics literature on why individuals engage in prosocial behaviours, like winning friends, or signalling good intentions.

This observation speaks to the possibility that humans, even in complex and anonymous societies, seek to make peace, after war, through behaviour. Certainly, while not a unique explanation for this cluster of findings observed, these results are consistent with that idea. As with more general rationalist explanations, those most harmed should value peace the most and, therefore, be willing to invest more in such signals. To some extent, this bolsters the case for behavioural peacebuilding.

Of course, there remains work to do before we reach that point. Perhaps the main thing that our work shows is the gaps that are still present in a literature entering its second decade. At the aggregate level, we still don’t really know if conflict causes increases prosocial behaviour or, only, if certain experiences mediate adverse effects. Indeed, if individual experiences matter in the way our work suggests, conflict micro-dynamics might be as important in determining outcomes as the onset of war, itself – an area that has not at all been examined.

Behavioural peacebuilding might work better in situations with high civilian casualties, where many individual transformations take place and be less effective in battle-based conflicts, where fighting takes place on frontlines distant from civilian populations. This would suggest caution when such behavioural interventions are used and on the expectations we form for them in certain settings. At the same time, we see the potential – both for these gaps to be closed; and for work that attempts to harness positive behavioural change in the aftermath of conflict as a force for peacebuilding.

The opinions expressed throughout this article are the opinions of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Vision of Humanity or the Institute for Economics & Peace.

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Neil Ferguson

Neil Ferguson

Program Director for Peacebuilding at ISDC

Economists on Peace

Economists on Peace is an editorial collaboration between the Institute for Economics and Peace and Economists for Peace and Security that aims to stimulate global discussion and shared learning on economic aspects of peace and conflict leading to appropriate action for peace, security and the world economy. Economists for Peace and Security is an international network of economists, set up to establish economics of peace and security as a fundamental part of the academic discipline of economics.