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- Health Belief Systems and the Psychobiology of War

Health Belief Systems and the Psychobiology of War

NEIL J. ELGEE, MD, Seattle

Belief systems overlie powerful biological and psychological forces that are root causes of war. Much as in medicine where an appreciation of health belief systems is necessary in the control of illness and disease, so the paths to the control of war may lie in an understanding of belief systems and ways to circumvent them. Such understanding gives strong theoretical support to many time-honored but underutilized international initiative and educational ventures. The effort of the medical community to educate the public about biomedical aspects of nuclear war should gain more balance and sophistication with an appreciation of belief systems in the psychobiology of war.

(Elgee NJ: Health belief systems and the psychobiology of war [Commentary]. West J Med 1984 Jun; 140:964-968)


Pronouncements about the end of the world are characteristically met with disbelief. Similarly, attempts to educate the public about the medical implications of nuclear war run up against belief systems.

The thesis of this essay is that an appreciation of the significance of belief systems in the psychobiology of war can point to paths around the irrationalities they present and make the education effort more effective. We know how difficult it is for health education to change behavior in everyday matters like smoking and dieting. Face-to-face counseling and exhortation seldom have the desired effect.' Nor does new information in the mass media convert people to new belief systems. 2 Conviction that vitamin megadoses ward off disease can be impervious to criticism while scientific facts meet irrational resistance. There is, however, at least one model of health education showing that adverse health behavior can be favorably influenced across an entire community even in matters of diet and smoking.' This requires a large outlay of effort and money and a highly sophisticated design. Such is the level of sophistication we should seek in our efforts at nuclear education. I propose to explore the health belief systems that relate to nuclear war in the light of behavioral science, and from this study to suggest ways of improving our public education effort.

First, some background biology and psychology need examination, notably aggression in primates, pseudospeciation (in-groups/out-groups), the genetic leash on human behavior (sociobiology) and the derivation of belief systems. Then the relation of this basic material to the problem of war will be considered and education in the prevention of mass violence discussed.

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