Why We Hate

Psychologists studying intergroup conflict are trying to understand the atrocities humans are capable of committing. Is evolution to blame?

Why We Hate
[Image via Shutterstock]

Why do humans do such terrible things to each other? What makes us capable of torture, war, and genocide? These kinds of questions aren’t just broad, rhetorical inquiries for Sabina Cehajic-Clancy, a Bosnian psychologist who studies the science of conflict between different groups of people. In a recent story for the Chronicle of Higher Education, writer Tom Bartlett explores the science of hatred through Cehajic-Clancy’s work, which mainly covers the ethnic cleansing of Muslims that occurred during her childhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early ’90s.


In the summer of 1992, Cehajic-Clancy and her mother and brother fled to Croatia and then to Germany to escape the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs, which killed thousands of civilians on both sides of the conflict. In 1995, Serb forces massacred more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men near the town of Srebrenica, a mass killing that many Serbs still don’t acknowledge as genocide, though the UN recognizes it as such. Now, Cehajic-Clancy is one of a relatively small group of social psychologists trying to get at what drives the kind of intense prejudice and violence she witnessed during her childhood.

Sarajevo, Bosnia, July 3, 1993. Photo by Northfoto via Shutterstock

One theory to explain human violence is called the male-warrior hypothesis, which contends that men have evolved a capacity to dehumanize and kill members of other groups as a way to protect scarce reproductive resources. Not all scientists buy into this theory, but as Bartlett points out:

It makes a sort of cruel sense. Wiping out competing tribes protects your women and therefore your current and future offspring, gives you access to more resources, increases your safety.

Our capability for violence could be something within us that runs far deeper than any one particular conflict, according to this theory:

A 2009 paper published in Science cited archaeological evidence of violent clashes between hunter-gatherer groups more than 10,000 years ago. That combative bent may extend even further back. A recent study of rhesus macaques found that they display “greater vigilance toward out-group members” and that male monkeys, in particular, “show positive attitudes toward those in their in-group and negative attitudes toward those in their out-group.” If men really did evolve to band together and battle outsiders, then every conflict is about more than the details of that dispute.

The hope is, if we can find a science behind human violence, maybe there could be a scientific path toward peace, too.

If there is an underlying cause of warfare and prejudice, if hate is part of our evolutionary heritage, then perhaps there are paths toward peace that apply universally. Not a secret formula. Not an instant fix. But methods that take into account our deep flaws, that adjust for our proclivities.

Make sure to read the whole thing here.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.