A Psychological Perspective on Peace: Understanding Aggression

A Psychological Perspective on Peace: Understanding Aggression

Give peace in our time, O Lord.
(The Book of Common Prayer 1662: Morning Prayer)

While the cry for peace rings across the world, every day brings reports of aggression and violence, perpetrated by men on fellow men. There are portrayals of violence in Nation against Nation, terrorism against State, outrage against people and crime against an individual. The question, which then arises, in a thoughtful person is – WHY?

The Mahabharat says “War begins in the mind.” There are various causes for this beginning of the war in the mind, ranging from geopolitical forces to socio-economic causes to the psychological. Be it at the group level or the individual level, to address the issue of “Peace,” it is imperative to understand its flip side – aggression or violence. And then investigate how aggression may be managed so that peace may prevail although peace is more than the end of aggression or violence. It’s to be noted that in 1989 UNESCO adopted the vision that “Peace is more than the end of the conflict,” at the Congress of UNESCO at Yamoussoukro (Côte d’Ivoire) while establishing a Culture of Peace.


It is often cited that man is social by nature. Is man also violent by nature? Early theories suggested that violence is genetically determined or inherited. Sigmund Freud, who opened up the whole vista of the “unconscious” to psychologists, stated that all human instincts could be classified under the two general headings of, the life instincts (Eros) and the death instincts (Thanatos). According to Freud aggression stems mainly from the death instinct which is possessed by all individuals. This instinct may be aimed at self-destruction or directed outward toward others in the form of violent behaviour. In fact, it took the World War of 1914-1918 to convince Freud that aggression was as sovereign a motive as sex.

A related view was proposed by the scientist Konrad Lorenze. He suggested that aggression springs from an inherited fighting instinct that humans share with many other species.

Social psychologists rejected the instinct view of aggression and gave an alternate view: that aggression stems mainly from an externally elicited drive to harm others. Therefore, external conditions especially frustration arouses a strong motive toward overt acts of aggression. In other words, there is an aggression drive. However, aggression has many causes other than frustration.

The modern view takes into account learning, cognition, moods, arousal along with biological inheritance. Therefore, psychologists hold the view that no single factor is a primary cause of aggression but that aggression is triggered by a wide range of inputs such as frustration, attack from others, aggressive models, individual differences in personality, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, etc., and also cognitions such as hostile thoughts, appraisals (interpretations) of the current situation and restraining factors. All, together, will determine whether aggression occurs or does not occur.

Broadly, aggression occurs at two levels though it overlaps. At the individual level aggression occurs through socialization processes at home, neighborhoods and school. It occurs through learning of stereotypes, prejudices, group belongingness, etc. These result in learning of categorization of people and feelings of us/them or in-group / out-group.

At the group level, it occurs through ethnicity, religion, culture, etc. which are internalized and again lead to the categorization of various people into different groups. It gives rise to prejudices resulting in discriminative behaviour leading to conflicts and ultimately to overt aggression.

Ethnicity, religion and culture have repeatedly been misused as the reason for enmity and war. It is when differences in people have perceived as the reason for inequality that incompatibility sets in. As John Hume (Nobel Peace Laureate, 1998) states, “War begins in the mind of those who perceive diversity as a threat.” At a reception in 2006, Hume observed “All conflict is about the difference. The answer to difference is to respect it, to honour it.”

Another group process leading to violence is 'deindividuation', which is the loss of self-awareness and freezing of evaluation processes. It occurs in group situations that foster anonymity and draws attention away from oneself. It is characterized by high levels of arousal, diffused responsibility, physical anonymity and diminished self-consciousness. It unleashes impulses, anti-social behaviour, violence, etc. It is seen in riots, ethnic violence and massacres, where an ‘individual’ is lost in the crowd/group.

Another form of extreme violence is terrorism. Who is a terrorist? A terrorist is a person who uses violence and intimidation to achieve an objective. Motivation may be political while there are others who are motivated by racism, a religious belief, or an extreme minority cause. The two characteristics of the terrorist which stand out are violence and ideological motivation.

The causes of violence may be many as cited above. But it is the totalistic ideology of the terrorist which makes terrorism different from other types of conflicts such as communal and ethnic violence.

Terrorists are usually indoctrinated during adolescence or early adulthood. It is during adolescence that many important changes take place. Along with the new found physique, the person now searches for a new identity – a new self. This is the stage for the onset of one’s own values and morality and for the development of a philosophy of life.

Erikson has labelled this stage as Identity v/s Role confusion. According to him a disturbing development which may occur is a negative identity, i.e. a sense of possessing a set of potentially unworthy characteristics. The most common way of dealing with one’s negative identity is to project them onto others, which can result in social pathologies including prejudice and violence, and discrimination against various groups. It also forms an important part of the adolescent’s readiness for ideological involvement.

Ideology is the solidarity of convictions that incorporate experiences from previous life stages into a coherent set of ideas and ideals. A lack of integrated ideology results in identity confusion. The incoherence of earlier experiences may also result in totalism. Totalism is the fanatic and exclusive preoccupation with what seems to be unquestionably right or ideal.

If these are some of the psychological causes of violence, then how do we counteract them and give peace a chance?! If education is the development of personality then let Peace Education be the “weapon” to fight aggression and establish peace.


There are various psychological means of reducing aggression. One is through early experience in the home and school (education) and through exposure to media so that the cycle of prejudice is broken by teaching "How not to hate". The negative attitude of parents and significant adults, who hold these prejudices and believe that they are justified, need also to be changed so that they make appropriate role models of peace for the children. Adults must be convinced to teach tolerance rather than prejudice.

Direct inter-group contact is another strategy through which the benefits of acquaintance is promoted. It leads to a growing recognition of similarities. Stereotypes can also be altered when sufficient information inconsistent with the stereotypes is encountered, proving their falsity.

However, direct contact is not always necessary. Knowing that members of one’s in-group are in contact with out-group members is also effective. This is because social norms are then broken and altered.

Re-categorization is another method. It means re-drawing the boundaries between “us” and “them”. Individuals need to be encouraged to view themselves as members of a single social entity. This makes attitude toward each other more positive. Individuals may be encouraged to do so by working together cooperatively toward some shared goal.

Cognitive intervention may also be carried out such as learning to say “NO” to stereotypes by paying attention to unique characteristics of each individual rather than membership to a group. The habit of stereotyping may also be broken by refusing to accept stereotypical traits.

Another very important strategy is the internalization of values and building a strong conscience so as to say “NO” to violence.

A Peace Education Program is another means to counteract violence. Such a program needs to incorporate the psychological aspects mentioned above so that children understand aggression or violence, and are also taught (through instruction and activity) of “……diversity as an element of betterment and growth,” (Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General, UNO). Peace education should foster peace in young minds, starting at the school level because it is at that level that the seeds of discrimination are sown, leading to growth in psychological processes, which may result in violence. For peace to prevail the future citizens of the world must be made aware now of the futility of violence, enmity and war through education on peace.

In conclusion
Since war begins in the mind of man, it is
In the mind of man that
Defenses of Peace must be constructed.”
(From the archives of UNESCO)

About the Author

Dr Indranee phookan Barooah


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