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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Peaceful Soldier

My definition of war has always been fairly myopic. Perhaps never having been involved in a war (only protesting unjustified ones) I’ve never possessed a need to see it as anything but a bad thing for everyone involved. In fact, I’ve often wished that soliders just wouldn’t sign up. (It’s not unlike how I feel about actors that do commercials—please, do something else.) But having poured for weeks and months over research about game theory, sociology and the cognitive science of decision-making (for a research paper) I am surprised to now possess the realization that the volunteer who signs up for the military is really engaging in a very altruistic and cooperative decision. It is the cognitive equivalent of the instinct of the worker bee, who protects the hive, even though the act of stinging will kill him. Frankly, the old me would have thought that there was no justification for becoming a soldier that could not be explained as being due to familial tradition or jingoism. I now see that I was wrong on that count, and that the rabbit hole goes even deeper.

For instance, if the act of signing up for war could be considered altruistic, certainly the opportunity for altruism disappears the moment you’re “in the shit.” Not so. Consider some stories from David Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.” In it he talks about how British and German troops “regularized” their firing on each to such a degree that injury could be easily avoided by both sides. “These rituals of perfunctory and routine firing sent a double message. To the high command they conveyed aggression, but to the enemy they conveyed peace.” (on Page 86) Peace in the midst of gunfire! We are a bizarre species.

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