War & Altruism

Tony Hockley, London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine created a war whose pain is felt worldwide through social media. The aptitude of Ukraine’s elected leaders and ordinary citizens for digital communication has generated an unparalleled empathy for the victims of war. This has invoked a strong and quite exceptional reflex for action amongst people in many countries, often with little previous awareness of Ukraine and its transformation as a country over the past 20 years. This spur to action offers a dramatic contrast to the usual behavioural challenge of securing any action even on strongly-held intentions.

Many commentators have highlighted the stark difference to the public response to previous suffering, in Syria and elsewhere. Multiple countries have shown “open arms” to refugees from the war in Ukraine. The opposite was the case to refugees from elsewhere. The many media references to people “just like us” and to Kyiv or Mariupol as like “any other European city” have shone a spotlight on the differential judgment between victims of war.

Similarly, some commentators have pointed to apparent behavioural biases affecting individual reactions to the catastrophe in Ukraine; that the rational response is to send money to major relief efforts not to indulge in individualistic actions. Perhaps these critiques, however, take too narrow and binary a view of behaviour?

It is undeniable that the public response in Europe has been much greater in the case of Ukraine than of previous wars that have generated huge suffering and flows of refugees.  This is an awful reality. But it is a human instinct in all of us that the closer to home a crisis hits the stronger an emotional response is invoked. Our tendency to inaction is overcome when it is hard to avoid seeing ourselves in the victim’s shoes. There is now a wealth of literature showing the prevalence of altruism within groups that identify one with another, and the importance of this protective instinct to group survival (Hanne Melgård Watkins has written in the blog about ‘in-group bias’ affecting judgments on combatants in war). Adam Oliver highlights the need for behavioural policy to be alert to the “dark side” of reciprocity, in which altruism within groups is also associated with rivalry between groups – hostility to outsiders. It is often only when an individual story (or image) emerges from the suffering of an out-group that these barriers shift outwards. The association with others as “humans like me” then kicks in, beyond identities as nationalities, religion, or ethnicities. This is why aid appeals to “sponsor a child” are usually more effective than more general appeals to donate. Policy can overcome or use the human instinct for in-group reciprocity, but it cannot eliminate it. Reciprocity within groups may well produce greater altruistic action than its elimination on the grounds that it is a harmful as a discriminatory bias. 

Similarly, the desire to engage in individual action may complement rather than displace collective action. The war in Ukraine has robbed many people of their individual agency. On the one hand we are all connected by social media to individual suffering in Ukraine, but on the other we are dependent upon national and international leaders to “do something”. We can fly flags and use hashtags to show support, but the feeling of powerlessness is everywhere. Whilst Ukraine’s leaders call persistently for a “no fly zone” this is not something individual citizens in the West can do. Appeals for funds have, so far, been effective. The joint charities’ Disasters Emergency Committee, for example, raised £150m for Ukraine activity within its first week. Incredibly, the charitable foundation of the Kyiv School of Economics raised $5.9m in its first two weeks of global fundraising to obtain medical kits and other essential supplies.

Kyiv School of Economics charitable foundation

Alongside this people are making their own individual contributions. Families from across Europe turned up at the Ukrainian border, at railways stations and at airports to offer places in their homes to refugees. Many others have made fictional bookings on AirBnB (who waived the usual charges) as a means of donating to individual households and communities. One Kiev hotel used these funds to keep their kitchens open to feed people in the city. Across Europe communities were packing vans full of clothes and food to send to those who need them.

Was this simply virtue signalling by donors? Just the harmful consequence of an ‘action bias’ and the counter-productive pursuit of a ‘warm glow’ (“responsibility utility”). On the contrary it is arguable that few altruistic acts do not produce some form of utility to the donor, and that pro-social “signalling” behaviours can have important and highly valued spillovers. 

Firstly, signalling has impacts, on those around us who may themselves be prompted to donate by individual action or through collective channels. It also has impacts on our leaders. It indicates an extraordinary level of empathy that encourages bolder and braver action than might have been considered politically acceptable. Would the ratcheting up of action on refugee policies and on defensive armament supplies occur without widespread individual signalling that “more must be done”? Similarly there will be local spillover effects from these individual actions. Those few in the war zones who benefit from AirBnB bookings exist will have their own social networks all of whom may appreciate the direct knowledge that they have individual supporters worldwide when they must feel most alone and scared.

Secondly, it is clear that the disutility of war is widespread. Whilst the suffering of people watching war on social media is incomparable to those directly affected by war, the close psychological association of people in the West to those in Ukraine and the level of direct communication to the experience of war will have clear effects on mental health, just as other atrocities have done in the past. It seems unhelpful, therefore, to disparage pro-social efforts that restore some of this individual utility. Recognising these individual efforts need not be a binary alternative to encouraging people to donate to collective efforts. Policy should encourage individual engagement, but also help guide this action away from endeavours causing unintended harm and towards those with maximum effect. The challenge is to crowd-in the prosocial motivation not diminish it, building people’s agency to ‘make a difference’.

There can be no doubt that the Ukraine war has invoked a starkly different response in many developed countries than previous conflicts. Public policy now should respond to this moment of change. Firstly, it must seek to sustain the extraordinary motivation for individual and collective action for as long as the current need persists. Secondly, it should maintain an eye on the future and work to establish this level of response as the benchmark for future humanitarian crises.