Study finds brothers in arms ‘bond like family’

11 November 2014

A study published today of Libyan revolutionaries surveyed during the 2011 conflict has found that they were as strongly bonded with each other as with their own families. The bonds among frontline fighters were the strongest of all.

The survey included revolutionaries who served on the frontline with an assault rifle and non-fighters, such as workers who serviced vehicles or drove ambulances. When asked to choose between family and battalion as the group they were most bonded with, frontline fighters were more likely than non-fighters to choose battalion. The study, funded by an ESRC grant at the University of Oxford, suggests that the strongest bonds evolve through sharing bad times, such as the deprivation and negative stress of combat. The findings are published in the early online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In July 2011, four months into the Libyan revolution, one of the Oxford authors Brian McQuinn joined a humanitarian relief convoy travelling to Misrata. While there, he studied how the rebels began as groups of three to five fighters that later developed into the revolutionary groups which prayed, slept and fought side by side in their effort to overthrow the Gaddafi-led regime. Lead author Professor Harvey Whitehouse joined McQuinn as the conflict was ending. Together they persuaded the revolutionary leadership in Misrata to allow them interview and survey 179 civilians from four different battalions that were registered with the Misratan Military Council.

They measured levels of ‘identity fusion’ – a visceral sense of oneness with the group that has been used in many previous studies as a measure of the extent to which individuals are aligned with groups. Each individual was asked to represent their relationship to the group by choosing from a series of pictures that represented different degrees of overlap between themselves and three groups: their families, their battalions and other battalions.

Participants who chose the picture in which the ‘self’ overlapped completely with the group were said to be ‘fused’ with the group in question. Researchers found that nearly all (99%) of frontline fighters had strong bonds or ‘fused’ identity’ with their own family. However, perhaps more strikingly, a similar level (97%) also indicated fusion with their own battalions and 96% with fighters in other battalions. Participants were then asked which of the groups they were most fused with. Nearly half (45%) of frontline fighters chose their own battalion rather than their family while only 28% of battalion expressed that preference.

By contrast, only 1% of those in the battalions surveyed were fused with ordinary Libyans who supported the revolution but did not join the battalions. There is a large body of research into how cohesion in the military affects the performance of the group. However, until now little research has been done into how bonding with the group leads individuals to place themselves in harm’s way and sacrifice themselves for others in the group.

Lead author Harvey Whitehouse, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘This research suggests that the old adage about “bonding in adversity” is true. Although most fighters were not related, they characteristically expressed feelings of brotherhood for each other. These ties were so strong that in many cases, they were willing to die for one another. Such willingness to offer the ultimate self-sacrifice for genetic strangers has puzzled scientists since Darwin.’

One interpretation of this study is that undergoing life-shaping, intense experiences together, such bearing the brunt of enemy fire, is what bonded revolutionaries in Libya. Another explanation could be that those who were predisposed to bond with the battalion at the outset are the most likely to end up on the frontline. Professor Whitehouse added: ‘Fighters hardly fused at all with ordinary Libyans and this result was quite surprising. Interviews with participants revealed they viewed those who had not taken part in any combat role as incapable of understanding what the fighters experienced during the revolution. This distinction in the minds of the revolutionary fighters sowed the seeds of distrust between fighters and non-combatants after the war.’

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Notes to Editors:

  • The paper, ‘Brothers in arms: Libyan revolutionaries bond like family’ by Harvey Whitehouse et al is published in the early online version of the by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the week of November 10, 2014.
  • The research is funded by the Ritual, Community and Conflict Project funded by a five-year grant from the ESRC, which examines the causes and consequences of rituals in human societies. The project directed by Professor Harvey Whitehouse of the University of Oxford is being undertaken through the collaboration of international teams of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, archaeologists, and evolutionary theorists. For more information, go to