During the war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, the Taliban suffered high casualties and territorial losses against a well-funded and well-armed opponent. Despite these circumstances, the Taliban endured the lengthy war, and ultimately emerged in control of the country.
Hoping to explain this phenomenon, Scott Atran, adjunct research professor at the Ford School, and eight co-authors investigated what provokes humans to fight and sustain the costs of war. The authors hoped to add to previous research on human conflict, to understand historical outcomes and ongoing conflicts, and to better predict and prevent future conflicts. To pursue this goal, they conducted a series of 11 studies focusing on physical and spiritual formidability, culminating in a final article, “Spiritual over physical formidability determines willingness to fight and sacrifice through loyalty in cross-cultural populations,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Atran and his colleagues define physical formidability as “the material capacity to inflict damage on an opponent,” and describe it as often measured by body size, physical strength, and aggression. They define spiritual formidability as “the conviction and nonmaterial resources (values, strength of beliefs, and character) of a person or a group to fight and achieve their goals in conflict.”
Their studies were conducted in the field, as well as through online surveys, in various areas of the world. Participants were recruited from Iraq, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Spain, and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
The results of the study establishes personal spiritual formidability as a primary determinant of the will to fight across cultures, transcending cultural differences, training, manpower, and firepower. The authors also conclude that personal spiritual formidability is more strongly associated with the will to fight and make self-sacrifices for the group. The will to fight is only strengthened when coupled with loyalty, which the authors define as “the allegiances developed and felt among teammates, ingroup superiors, and a primary group.”
Setting their study apart from previous research, the authors “add more precision to the concept of formidability to better understand the contributing role of each in the will to fight.” They also show the important role of nonmaterial components of formidability valuable when making decisions in situations of potential conflict.
To conclude, Atran and his colleagues argue that their findings indicate that a continued failure to assess nonmaterial, spiritual components of conflict and willingness to fight will only lead to more strategic failures in political and military planning.
Read, “Spiritual over physical formidability determines willingness to fight and sacrifice through loyalty in cross-cultural populations,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.