Peace Science Digest

Quality of Life Impacts Individuals’ Willingness to Take Up Arms

Photo credit: Mark Mathosian

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Inglehart, R. F., Puranen, B., & Welzel, C. (2015). Declining willingness to fight for one’s country: The individual-level basis of the long peace. Journal of Peace Research, 52(4), 418-434.

Talking Points

  • In high life-opportunity societies, people are more accepting of socially tolerant values:
    • Divorce-3x higher
    • Abortion-5x higher
    • Homosexuality-10x higher
  • When people experience higher life opportunity, they become less willing to give their lives in service to their countries’ wars.


This study questions whether democracy or capitalism actually contribute to global peace. Although democracy and capitalism are common in peaceful relationships between countries, the authors examine whether a more individual element to world development has helped bring along a more peaceful period on a global level since World War Two (WWII).

The study aims to prove an alternative cause behind the longest period of peace between the world’s major powers (WWII-Present). Although the leading theories are acknowledged, this study adds a more individual-level explanation. The authors argue that an increase in life- opportunities (education, income, life expectancy, living conditions) have allowed people to value their lives more, and as a result lead to the acceptance of more socially tolerant ways of thinking.

The authors analyzed more than 30 years of national surveys, covering the world’s largest countries accounting for 90% of the world’s population. Their findings show that over the last thirty years, virtually all of the world’s developed societies (countries with greater security and broader life-opportunities) demonstrated an increase in support of socially tolerant values, such as gender equality and sexual liberation. At the same time there was a corresponding decrease in tolerance for human casualties in war. The authors argue that due to a global advancement of life opportunity there has been a shift in the way people value their lives, making them less inclined to sacrifice that life—especially in the service of their country.

These findings lead the authors to suggest a relationship between the quality of life-opportunities and value people place on their lives. To support this theory, the authors propose the following hypotheses:

  1. Individuals in more developed societies (countries with greater security and broader life-opportunities) place greater emphasis on socially tolerant values and are less willing to risk their lives for their countries during war.
  2. Where people’s socially tolerant values grew the most, their willingness to risk their lives for their countries in war dropped the most.
  3. People who live in societies where socially tolerant values are accepted are less willing to risk their lives for their country.

The average willingness to fight and die for a country in low-opportunity societies was never lower than 65%, while the average in high-opportunity societies dropped down to 25%. This is a very large difference, concluding that people living in more socially tolerant, high-opportunity countries are much less likely to support their countries in war.

The study also showed that in countries where polling data spanned longer than 10 years, a rise in socially tolerant values was met by a drop in the public’s willingness to fight in over 90% of the examined countries. This dramatic shift equaled a 6% decrease in global war support every 10 years. This evidence gives credit to the second hypothesis claiming the relationship between the growth in societies’ socially tolerant values and a decline in people’s willingness to risk their lives in war.

Even though this study identified a common shift in global values, the authors point out that the trend isn’t universal; Iraq, for example, is a significant outlier. Although Iraq ranks near the bottom of the socially tolerant countries, the authors found their population’s average willingness to fight for their country was still very low. This is explained mainly due to the region’s ethnic and religious conflicts between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Those groups are often unwilling to fight for Iraq, but more willing to fight each other based on their ethnic differences. This is a very important exception to keep in mind—people’s willingness to fight for their country may vary in tribal or ethnically divided societies, where being part of an ethnic group provides a stronger sense of belonging than the nation.

This study suggests that global morality can evolve through the relationship between an increase in life-opportunities and the value attributed to human life. People often adjust their social beliefs, in this case accepting socially tolerant values, when the shift leads to better life-opportunities. Once people begin to experience greater opportunity and a higher quality of life, they become less willing to forfeit their lives in service of their countries’ wars.

Contemporary Relevance

This study showed that an advancement of programs aimed at increasing life-opportunities could drastically decrease a person’s willingness to fight in his/her country’s wars. Programs like these may be particularly useful in developing countries where an increase in life-opportunities would be the most noticeable, and where participation in violent conflict often serves as one of the most stable sources of income. In countries where the public generally supports war, the integration of socially tolerant values and opportunities may lead to a reevaluation of public war support with increased life-opportunities.

Practical Implications

By supporting programs that work to increase the acceptance of socially tolerant values into developing countries, we can expect to see the advancement of life-opportunities, and hopefully a decrease in war support. Although this study is valuable in addressing the extended peace between major powers, it does little to address the countless wars between weaker states, or strong states vs. weaker states that have plagued the international scene since WWII. Peace between “major powers” is only a part of the picture. We need to address the millions that have died, millions displaced, and trillions spent on war by major powers during this time of ‘peace’.

Keywords: democratic peace, willingness to fight, lasting peace, life-opportunities, war support, war opposition

Key Terms: The Democratic Peace theory suggests peace is due to the spread of modern democracy. The Capitalist Peace theory points more towards the interconnectedness of trade and global economies.

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 1, of the Peace Science Digest.