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Violent conflict has long-term impact on individual behavior

06 July 2011

Large temporary shocks may have long-term consequences: civil war violence occurred between 1993 and 2003 has a clear impact on individual behavior in 2009. These are the findings of a study carried out by FEB professor Robert Lensink and researchers of other universities, who investigated the impact of conflict on social, risks and time preferences in 35 communities in Burundi.

Robert Lensink
Robert Lensink

‘This study is the first to apply experimental methods in a post-conflict environment to gauge the effect of violence on human decision-making’, says Lensink. ‘We find that conflict is robustly correlated with behavior. Econometric analysis reveals that individuals in communities which were exposed to greater levels of violence display more altruistic behavior to their neighbors, are more risk seeking and have higher discount rates.’

Experimental games

‘We have used well-established experimental games to explore the relationship between conflict and behavior’, explains Lensink. ‘To measure the degree of altruism, individuals were invited to divide a prize between themselves and a randomly (and anonymously) selected fellow villager. An individual’s altruism is measured by the ratio of the total amounts of money allocated to the partner and to himself.This ranges from totally selfish (if the subject always chose the allocation with the highest payment for himself) to totally altruistic (if he always chose the option with the highest payment for his partner).’

‘To measure risk preferences we asked individuals to choose between playing a simple gamble and receiving a specific amount of money with certainty. To measure time preferences, we presented subjects with a set of nine simple pairwise choices between two options: receiving an amount of money at some date in the near future, and receiving a larger sum at a later time.’

Effect on development unclear

Lensink: ‘Our evidence for Burundi suggests that the net effect on development is unclear. While exposure to violence encourages risk taking and increases the weight people attach to their fellow community members’ welfare, arguably positive features for development, it also seems to trigger impatience. As impatience discourages savings, it could drag down investment levels. If so, the net effect on the ability of communities to rebound after conflict is ambiguous. Nevertheless, the results may partially explain the pattern of recovery observed in many post-conflict settings, and thereby provide new evidence against pessimistic views on the destructive long-term consequences of civil war.’


‘The most salient and counterintuitive result is the relationship between conflict and altruism’, says Lensink. ‘The studyprovides some new evidence for the growing body of evidence that conflict exposure may lead to increased political participation and social capital, which may have important implications forhow policymakers approach post-conflict recovery.’

More information

Voors, M.J., Nillesen, E.E.M., Verwimp, P., Bulte, E.H., Lensink, B.W. & Soest, D.P. van (2011). Violent conflict and behavior: A field experiment in Burundi . American Economic Review, forthcoming.


Robert Lensink

Last modified:04 July 2014 9.26 p.m.

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