World

Sex and Violence: Is Sex at the Psychological Root of War?

Research from Hong Kong suggests that, among men, the impulses to make love and war are deeply intertwined.

Guys: What do you feel when you look at a photo of an attractive woman? Excited? Intrigued?

How about warlike?

Such a response may seem strange or even offensive. But newly published research suggests it is far from uncommon — and it may help explain the deep psychological roots of warfare.

With yet another war in full swing, we once again face the fundamental question of why groups of humans settle their differences through organized violence. A wide range of motivations have been offered over the years: In a 2002 book, Chris Hedges compellingly argued that war is both an addiction and a way of engaging in the sort of heroic struggle that gives our lives meaning.

Evolutionary psychologists, on the other hand, see war as an extension of mating-related male aggression. They argue men compete for status and resources in an attempt to attract women and produce offspring, thereby passing on their genes to another generation. This competition takes many forms, including violent aggression against other males — an impulse frowned upon by modern society but one that can be channeled into acceptability when one joins the military.

It’s an interesting and well-thought-out theory, but there’s not a lot of direct evidence to back it up. That’s what makes “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships,” a paper just published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, so intriguing.

A team of Hong Kong-based researchers led by psychologist Lei Chang of Chinese University conducted four experiments that suggest a link between the motivation to mate and a man’s interest in, or support for, war.

The first featured 111 students (60 men) at a college in China. Each was shown 20 full-body color photographs of members of the opposite sex. Half viewed images of people who had been rated attractive; the other half saw pictures of people classified as unattractive.

Afterward, “participants responded to 39 questions about having wars or trade conflicts with three foreign countries that have had hostile relationships with China in recent history,” the researchers write. Twenty-one of the questions “tapped the willingness to go to war with the hostile country,” they noted, while 18 addressed “peaceful solutions to trade conflicts.”

The results duplicated those of a pilot study: Male participants answering the war-related questions “showed more militant attitudes” if they had viewed the photos of attractive women. This effect was absent in answers to the trade-related questions, nor was it found among women for either set of questions.

In another experiment, 23 young heterosexual males viewed one of two sets of 16 photos. One featured images of Chinese national flags; the other focused on female legs. They then performed a computer test to see how quickly they could respond to common, two-character Chinese words. Half of the words related to war, while the others related to farms.

If they were motivated by nationalism or patriotism, the young men would have presumably responded to the war words more rapidly after having viewed the flag. But in fact, the researchers write, they “responded faster to war words when primed by female legs.”

In contrast, the rate at which participants processed farm-related words did not vary depending upon which photos were seen. This result was repeated in a follow-up experiment using a slightly different design.

Why would men with mating on their minds be more receptive to the idea of war? Chang and his colleagues suggest there is a “mating-warring association” deep in the male brain, due to the fact successful warriors have traditionally enjoyed greater access to women.

This instinctual force propels men “to engage in organized lethal aggression by co-opting other human adaptations, including our unique cognitive and social mind,” they write. To put it more simply, our rational brains lose the internal battle to our instinctual selves.

If peacocks impress potential mates with colorful feathers, the researchers write, perhaps warriors attract women with their ribbons, badges and fancy dress uniforms. And men’s “swords and missiles” may be our answer to a stag’s horns: weapons that showcase one’s virility.

The researchers concede war is a collective enterprise that cannot be explained entirely by individual motivates. And it’s worth noting this theory doesn’t explain why women join the military (admittedly in relatively small numbers). Furthermore, while there’s no reason to believe their results are culturally driven, it would surely be interesting to try to duplicate them in the U.S. or Europe.

Such caveats aside, their work provides further evidence that the impulse to fight may go deeper than the desire to defend one’s nation, religion or tribe. If their thesis is correct, the 1960s slogan “Make love, not war” may have to be revised. Love — at least the sexual variety — may have more in common with war than anyone imagined.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.