We fight for status, and we fight for belonging

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Former British Army officer Mike Martin’s Why We Fight explores the evolutionary psychology of warfare:

When you dig into it and you look at the data, there’s only two things that are worth risking yourself in war for, as an individual. The first thing is an increase in social status. And the reason why that’s worth risking yourself for is as you rise up the status hierarchy, particularly as a man, and men do most of the fighting, you get more mates, more sexual mates. When you have more mates, you have more children. That’s a reason to risk fighting in war.

But there’s another reason why people fight in war. That’s to ensure that they have membership of an in-group. This in-group could be a tribe or a nation-state. It’s the same mechanism, it’s the thing that causes us as humans to feel belonging. It’s the thing that makes you feel homesick. It’s the thing that sends shivers down your spine when you’re at a political rally, or a football match, or you’re singing in a choir in church. These are the mechanisms in your brain causing you to seek to belong.

In evolutionary terms, we need to belong to groups because they’re safe. The main reason that groups exist in evolutionary terms is because they protect us from other humans who are trying to kill us. We fight for status and we fight for belonging. We’ve got these ideas that these two things, status and belonging, and humans seeking those things are what cause individuals to fight in wars.

Actually, this makes sense. Look around the world. We’ve got two global level politicians and the idea of them seeking status and having status disputes with each other is very obvious in their behaviour. Leaders seek to dominate their own groups and that’s what they do. Running for the presidency of the United States is a massive status contest, it’s gruelling.

These people are driven to succeed and they’re driven to achieve high status. The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.

When you get to the top of your group, i.e. you become the leader of your country or perhaps you become the head of your tribe, it depends what scale we’re looking at, you then seek to dominate other leaders who are the leaders of other groups. This is where we see wars at a product of a status disputes between leaders playing out.

Belonging comes into play when those who aren’t leaders seek to take part in wars. We can see this played out and the rise of identity politics at the moment, particularly in the States, but also across Europe. If Why We Fight is correct and war is driven by status and belonging, we’re entering a very dangerous period of history.”

Martin has much more to say on his own site. You may recognize him from his appearance in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake:

(Hat tip to Scott Adams.)


  1. Kirk says:

    Yeah… And, again, BS.

    Status and mating as the sole causes of war? This is as crazy as saying “It’s all about the economies and resources”.

    You can’t analyze the whole thing along one axis in particular, because there are multiple causes besides just some humans playing the “Biggus Dickus” contest–Resource constraints, ideology, potential profits to be made in looting… All that goes into why some people chose to go to war or violence in the first place. And, then there’s the reaction to that, the folks who fight purely defensively, and wouldn’t have initiated the conflicts they find themselves in on their own.

    As well, this “vision” he has of “leaders” being the ones driving all this? Again, BS–More often than not, it’s a case of some poor bastard being there questioned by an interrogator, and then having to say “There they go… And, I must follow them, for I am their leader…”. The madness of crowds plays a role, here–Look at the popular enthusiasm for WWI, there at the beginning. Even the German Socialists were enthused, and said “…the hell with the Internationale…”.

    War is a hell of a lot more complicated than these happy-ass types assert. This guy strikes me as another of the sort of idiot that we have in Dave Grossman–He’s come up with a theory that has limited application in specific sub-cases, and tried to apply it universally. Which ain’t gonna fly, if you stop and think about it.

    I mean, seriously… Does anyone think that the sole motivating factor behind Hitler was that he was gonna get himself laid? There are simpler, less destructive means of doing that, and in the final analysis, was Hitler really all that motivated by sex in the first place?

    He was a consummate user of it, in that he knew that he’d maintain power better so long as all those wet-in-the-panties German hausfrau could close their eyes and think of him, and that’s why Eva Braun didn’t get seen much in public, nor did she ever seem to get much out of him.

    In short–This is a guy trying to apply things deriving from specific cases into some sort of universal rule that doesn’t work when applied universally…

  2. David Foster says:

    “The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.”

    True about the positive feedback loop, I think, BUT if testosterone is the driver of status-seeking, then why are so many women so status-obsessed? I would hazard a guess that, on the average, women are even more concerned with status than are men.

  3. lucklucky says:

    Yeah David, i am in full disagreement that testosterone is what drives status seeking, i would even says it might be the lack of it, like you give an hint in the end.

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