Do warlike peaceniks exist?

The American president, George W. Bush, once said, "I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace." Although many of his opponents laughed at this, the idea that war and peace are not mutually exclusive, and that under certain circumstances may overlap, is not novel. Nevertheless, much of the work in psychology treats these concepts as opposites. It also treats attitudes towards these phenomena as mutually exclusive, and assumes that one cannot be at the same time, for example, pro-peace and pro-war.

Recently, Dr Boris Bizumic from ANU, and an international group of psychologists and political scientists, investigated these ideas in a series of studies with around 5,000 participants in the United States and Denmark. The researchers developed a new measure, the Attitudes Toward Peace & War (APW) Scale, and using it showed that attitudes towards peace and war are distinct and diverse, and that although for many participants these attitudes tend to be incompatible (some tend to be pacifists, that is, they are pro-peace and anti-war, and some tend to be militarists, that is, pro-war and anti-peace), for many these attitudes are not incompatible. For example, in a sample of almost 4,000 US participants, more than 1,000 participants were warlike peaceniks, that is, they expressed positive evaluations of both war and peace. Indeed, US conservatives were somewhat more likely than US liberals and moderates to find attitudes towards peace and war compatible. In addition, the research showed that attitudes towards peace and war have distinct causes in different personality characteristics, ideological beliefs, and values, that they might be affected by political group memberships and situations, and that these attitudes tend to have distinct behavioural outcomes.

An important implication of this research is that it can help us understand the dynamics at work during the times of peace-making and war-making. These are, for example, times when leaders and institutions attempt to shape people's attitudes, and also when they craft policies and decisions that may satisfy different kinds of people, who, to begin with, tend to have quite diverse attitudes towards peace and war.