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Georgia and Sierra Leone: War and prosociality

Effects of War on Social Preferences: Prosociality and Parochialism

Do humans who have experienced war become more selfish, or are they more „groupish“? Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar, Julie Chytilová and Joseph Henrich study how exposure to war affects social preferences. Using simple economic experiments with hundreds of children and adults in the Republic of Georgia (Caucasus) and Sierra Leone (Africa), they show that experiencing war during childhood and adolescence increases both within-group egalitarianism and parochialism – a tendency to favor members of one’s own group to outsiders. These effects seem to be persistent and are observed from six months after a war to ten years later. The findings are important for understanding several phenomena from post-conflict countries, such as rapid recoveries in some, or persistent parochialism and cyclical conflicts in others.

Michal Bauer / Charles University and CERGE-EI
Alessandra Cassar / University of San Francisco
Julie Chytilová / Charles University
Joseph Henrich / University of British Columbia

where: Georgia and Sierra Leone
sample size: G: 543 children, 4-12 years old; SL: 586 adults
when: G: February 2009, SL: 2010

project in PDF
original paper

We would like to thank for supporting this project:

Czech Science FoundationGlobal Development NetworkIES FSV UKInternational School of Economics at Tbilisi State University, GeorgiaRenomia

War and altruism

Wars and violent conflicts between groups have pervaded human history. Yet, at the same time, people often cooperate and are willing to help others even if it comes at a cost to them. The puzzle is why evolutionary pressures have not eliminated such prosocial behavior. Since Darwin’s time, social scientists have been preoccupied with the distasteful idea that these phenomena are intertwined. Inter-group violence may act as a catalyst in the evolution of human prosocial behavior and ultimately affect human psychological responses to survival pressures. During warfare each group’s survival hinges on its ability to cooperate. The theory predicts that warfare should intensify altruistic or egalitarian behavior because it suppresses competition and conflicts within groups, and parochialism, a tendency to favor in-group members to outsiders, because it increases a group’s ability to outcompete other groups. The question is whether the experience of war indeed changes individual preferences in the predicted way.

The games will show

The researchers looked for an answer in two very different post-conflict countries – Georgia and Sierra Leone. Individuals within each sample group were exposed to war to a varying extent. Characteristics of the two conflicts suggest that both children in Georgia and adults living in rural Sierra Leone were to large extent inflicted randomly. This implies that the affected individuals can be compared to those non-affected to identify the effect of violence.

In the Sharing game (A), children in Georgia chose between the equal allocation (1:1) – one token for the participant and one for the partner – and the allocation (2:0) – two tokens for oneself and zero for the partner. The game pits self-interest against equality.

In the Envy Game (B), the player chooses between (1:1) and (2:3). Here, the unequal choice pays more to both participants, but it also creates disadvantageous inequality: „I would have less than the partner“. In Sierra Leone, the choices were similar.

Permanent effects

The experiments in Georgia reveal that children who were more war-afflicted are more egalitarian towards members of their social group and more selfish towards those from outside their group. In Sierra Leone, adults affected by war during their childhood behave the same, even a decade after the conflict. Meanwhile, behavior doesn’t seem to change for those who were younger than age 7 or older than 20 during the conflict. Social preferences thus seem to form mainly in primary school age and adolescence. Results from both Caucasus and Western Africa indicate that people experiencing a violent conflict during childhood develop a stronger sense of their group identity. These changes seem to happen fast after the conflict and are long-lasting. The results are not isolated: A recent study of Maarten Voors and his colleagues found stronger sharing behavior towards neighbors among farmers who experienced more violence during civil war in Burundi. A 2009 study of John Bellows and Ted Miguel presents evidence from Sierra Leone suggesting that conflict exposure increases participation in local collective actions such as road brushing.


An armed conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia took place in August 2008. The war lasted one week and intense indiscriminate fighting resulted in substantial human losses and the devastation of livelihoods in South Ossetia and bordering districts. Most of the fighting involved aerial, artillery and tank-fire strikes. More than 100,000 civilians had to flee their homes, most of whom were still displaced at the time the research was conducted.

Sierra Leone

The 1991-2002 war has been one of the most brutal and horrific civil conflicts in the history of Africa. The civilian population became the victim of brutal attacks, including public executions, rape, amputations and the abduction of children to serve in the rebel army. It has been estimated that more than one third of the population (two million people) were displaced.


  • - War experience increases egalitarianism within a group. This may support cooperation at local level and rapid recoveries of post-conflict societies.

  • - Increased within-group social cohesion may come at the expense of hostility towards outsiders. Post-conflict societies may tend to polarize and may suffer from cyclical conflicts.

  • - The effects of war on human social behavior are most profound if violence is experienced during childhood and adolescence.


Bauer, M., Cassar, A., Chytilová, J. & Henrich, J. (2013): War's enduring effects on egalitarian motivations and in-group biases. Psychological Science. [download here]  

Related literature:

- Choi, J. K. & Bowles, S. (2007): The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War. Science.

- Voors, M. et al. (2012): Violent Conflict and Behavior: A Field Experiment in Burundi. American Economic Review.

- Bellows, J. & Miguel, E. (2009): War and Local Collective Action in Sierra Leone. Journal of Public Economics.


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