How to leverage psychology to aid a war-torn world

Psychological science can help us understand why conflicts happen, inform how best to rebuild communities and nations, and help prevent future violence

(Reposted from: American Psychological Association. March 1, 2024)

By Ashley Abramson

Psychologists have long applied their conflict-resolution skills in mediating large-scale disputes. With the violence and war that remain rampant in some parts of the world, psychological science can help us better understand why these conflicts happen, inform how best to rebuild communities and nations, and aid in preventing future violence.

Some psychologists develop theories about the roots of conflict and how to resolve it. For example, Fathali Moghaddam, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the conflict resolution program at Georgetown University, created omniculturalism theory, which suggests that emphasizing commonalities between conflicting groups is an important part of promoting peace.

Yet in a world fractured by violence, Moghaddam believes research is only one part of the equation. Science also needs to be applied, which is why it’s so important for psychologists to disseminate their findings to key stakeholders—such as political leaders—and to collaborate across different fields in the application of psychological research.

One group working to advance peace are practitioners focused on peace psychology, which uses psychological science to develop theories and practices to prevent and mitigate direct and structural violence. Members of APA’s Division 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence: Peace Psychology Division) work to advance peace psychology by publishing a professional journal, funding peace-related projects, and supporting peace education in K–12, college, and graduate settings.

Recognizing the vital need for evidence-based solutions, a few psychologists both conduct research and apply their findings in conflict-ridden areas. Eran Halperin, PhD, a professor of psychology and founder of the aChord Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studies how to promote mindset change that promotes peaceful relations in the conflict among Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians. He also oversees a nongovernmental organization dedicated to research application. “I can publish more and more papers, but we have to create a bridge from the science to the real world,” he said.

Around the world, psychologists continue finding new ways to apply their expertise.

Breeding empathy

In active war zones like Israel and Palestine, directly addressing long-standing conflict between groups can be logistically difficult and at times, unsafe. Halperin’s lab focuses on identifying indirect ways to address people’s mindsets about conflict with the hope of creating more empathy between groups. His findings suggest many people believe empathy is a limited resource and that they won’t have enough empathy for their own group if they extend it toward other groups, which can exacerbate intergroup conflict.

In a recent project at a Jerusalem art festival, Halperin’s lab created and implemented interactive performance art that communicated empathy as an unlimited resource. Ultimately, they found promoting the idea of unlimited empathy led people to experience more empathy toward out-group members (those not part of the participant’s social group) (Hasson, Y., et al., Nature Communications, Vol. 13, 2022).

At the festival, the study started with some participants meeting an actor who described empathy as an unlimited resource. Then, all participants met individually with two different actors, one who was Arab and one who was Jewish. Each actor shared a sad personal story. Participants who had heard the first actor with the “empathy is unlimited” message empathized with the suffering of the second actor, regardless of whether they shared the same culture. Many even elected to hug or shake hands with out-group actors who shared sad personal stories.

Through projects like these, Halperin hopes to impact people’s mindsets about out-groups so, over time, their behavior toward the “other” can change, too. “Our goal is to change people’s views about the conflict or out-group through interventions that induce hope and make them believe change is possible, and the conflict can be resolved,” he said.

Empowering youth

Young people have historically played a critical role in opposing injustice, from protesting police brutality to helping bring down dictators. Laura Taylor, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at University College Dublin and editor of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology, studies how to motivate youth toward effective social change.

One method involves teaching children perspective-taking. In a 2020 study, Taylor created a storybook vignette to promote empathy toward refugees among children as young as 6 years old. In one condition, the children were told to pay attention to what happened in the story. In the other condition, researchers told the children to notice how the main character—a Syrian refugee—was feeling. Children in the second condition were found more likely to help refugees (Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology). “The research suggests if we can promote empathy and perspective-taking, children as young as 6 would be more likely to help a newcomer coming to their school,” said Taylor.

Igniting the spark of allyship in young people could motivate new norms and help disrupt cycles of violence. As many conflicts are generational and occur in cycles, developing empathy among groups is one way to start to change long-standing patterns of violence. Perspective-taking can also motivate youth to be involved and effective in social movements.

Research suggests protests and demonstrations are more effective when they have a higher percentage of young people involved (specifically, in leadership positions) (Dahlum, S., Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2019). Reasons may include their propensity to spread information through social media and fewer family and professional obligations demanding their time.

For example, a student movement called Otpor in the former Yugoslavia successfully used public art to create resistance against the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was eventually defeated in the Sept. 24, 2000, election.

“Too often the attention goes to elites without recognizing the role of young people in social change, because they’re the ones who are voting and will be living with generational conflict for the long run,” said Taylor. “We need to understand what motivates young people to get engaged and what makes them effective.”

Applying neuroscience

The desire for power alone may sometimes motivate violence. But conflict also arises when people or groups sense their core human needs—such as belonging, safety, or resources—are in jeopardy. “Many fights start because people or groups feel left out, or that they’re not getting their share of land or wealth,” said Mari Fitzduff, PhD, a professor emerita of psychology at Brandeis University.

For example, she said Putin’s actions may stem from feeling that his concerns about EU and NATO expansions were being ignored, and extremists may behave violently because they feel that their often-legitimate needs are being unheeded. In addition, such violence is often sustained because individuals, and particularly young men, find the group bonding they achieve through violence addresses their need to belong. In the current Middle East conflict, both Israeli Jews and Palestinians feel their need for identity and security is at stake in the war.

These emotions lead to physiological processes that can help explain conflict—and help peacebuilders understand new ways to promote dialogue between groups, which can ultimately identify long-lasting solutions for a more peaceful society. In her book Our Brains at War: The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding, Fitzduff provides suggestions for mediators addressing intergroup conflict.

For example, researchers have found administering intranasal oxytocin can promote bonding and cooperation, and reduces xenophobic out-group rejection (Marsh, N., et al., PNAS, Vol. 114, No. 35, 2017). This finding suggests that when people feel less threatened and more connected, they may be more likely to work together. This is especially true when people perceive other group members as part of their own group, which means it’s important to forge humanizing connections that allow for empathy between groups.

According to Fitzduff, mediators of difficult conversations can promote oxytocin-rich environments by setting up the mediation room in a way that doesn’t encourage groups to sit totally separately from one another. For example, providing informal gathering spaces, like a common hallway with coffee and snacks, or arranging experiences that can create oxytocin bonding through natural and relaxed conversations, such as sporting or cultural leisure activities.

Training teachers

In societies affected by identity-based conflicts, including war zones, teachers are tasked with addressing topics such as injustice, unequal distribution of power and resources, and misrecognition of diversity in society and diversity—­without provoking future violence. Teachers’ approach to curricula in these situations can help shape students’ perspectives about the roots and consequences of conflict and how they see and interact with other groups.

Understanding the crucial role education plays in helping to disrupt generational cycles of violence is a major focus of the work of Karina V. Korostelina, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Peace Lab on Reconciling Conflicts and Intergroup Divisions at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Korostelina develops and implements peacebuilding training programs for history and social science teachers in conflict-ridden areas, focusing on humanizing enemies and reframing historical narratives of violence into narratives of peace, equity, and justice.

For example, in Ukraine, she’s implemented psychology-based methods for teaching history that accurately address conflict and educate students about the importance of peace, justice, and reconciliation (Peace and Conflict Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2023). While Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, Korostelina’s work has shown that Ukrainians maintain different views on the meaning of peace and how to achieve it. Her training equips teachers to be aware of their own biases so they don’t incorporate them into lessons and to address disagreements through the lens of equity and respect.

Some of the activities she has developed teach students the difference between dialogue and debate, help them identify their preference for their own in-group and potential discrimination toward out-groups, and help them grasp the meaning of peace as not just the absence of violence but also the presence of justice for all people. “Teachers aren’t usually trained to address conflict, and this is one way we can disseminate psychological science so they can apply it in their lessons,” she said.

Leveraging media

What people read, hear, and see on platforms from social media to major news outlets profoundly influences their perspectives and, eventually, their actions. Rezarta Bilali, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and social intervention at New York University Steinhardt, works with local and international organizations to apply psychological insights to help African countries mired in local and regional conflict.

She supports teams creating and broadcasting soap opera–like radio programs in the conflict-ridden areas. The popular programs depict characters enmeshed in similar violent struggles using realistic skills to work through conflict. When viewers care about the characters depicted in the storylines, researchers hope they will similarly change their social norms, attitudes, and behaviors as they watch the characters work toward resolutions.

The dramas, penned by local scriptwriters tell stories about villages in conflict, detailing the history of the violence, its resolution, and how people came together after it. Along with psychological research on role modeling, social learning, and perspective-taking, Bilali works with writers to incorporate mass communication principles about how to most effectively engage listeners with difficult aspects of conflict and violence in a way that promotes social norms and behavior such as tolerance of out-group members.

“The idea is that the characters take action to prevent violence or bring groups together for peace, and these characters often become role models for people,” said Bilali. “It’s through these role models and their actions that certain behaviors can start becoming a norm or seen as more socially desirable.”

Research on a radio program in Burkina Faso found that, compared with the control condition, those who listened to the soap opera reduced justification of violence and increased prioritization of addressing violent extremism (Psychological Science, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2022). Bilali has also found that role modeling positive actions can increase people’s confidence that they can make changes in their own lives and communities.

Rebuilding post-conflict

Psychology can help prevent conflict and violence, but it also plays an important role in the rebuilding phase. Many psychologists facilitate processes through which societies move from a divided past to a shared future. These transitions include a search for truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees that the past will not repeat itself. “Addressing the root causes of conflict and changing structural barriers to justice is critical for social transformation and healing,” said Teri Murphy, PhD, associate director for peacebuilding research at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. “We have to deal with the past, and at the same time, build a new vision for a shared future.”

Murphy’s transitional justice work has taken her to Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Colombia, and South Africa, where she has partnered with local leaders and organizations to help mediate conflict between groups, redress unjust systems in communities, and implement healing processes including restorative justice and memorialization.

Research suggests that contact between conflicting groups in post-violent settings can help reduce feelings of threat and build empathy by engaging directly with one another (Psychological Science, Vol. 16, No. 12, 2005). Study co-author Linda Tropp, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, supports nongovernmental organizations in designing and implementing intergroup contact programs in areas recovering from war to prevent future outbreaks of violence.

Tropp explored the effects of intergroup contact in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where several different ethnic groups experience long-standing conflicts. One project involved a week-long “Peace Camp” in which ethnically diverse groups of youth learned how to analyze conflict and discuss challenging topics using nonviolent communication strategies. Participants’ cross-group relationships also grew through less structured activities, such as building a fire or working together on a farm. Scores on out-group trust, closeness, empathy, and willingness to interact with ethnic out-group members all significantly increased following the camp intervention (Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2022).

“If you’re segregated from another community, you don’t have many humanizing experiences to rely on,” said Tropp. “When you start to engage with people across lines of difference, you start questioning your stereotypes. You see these are real people with experiences, thoughts, and feelings, which helps to promote empathy.”

Connecting refugees

For refugees fleeing violence or other adverse circumstances, conflict can continue in their new settings if left unaddressed. Many U.S. resettlement communities consist of refugees from multiple sides of a conflict, which can thwart efforts to help residents adjust to their new environment.

“People really need each other in this context, when they’re in a new country, don’t speak the language, and are often dealing with loss of status, racism, and social exclusion,” said Barbara Tint, PhD, a professor in the Conflict Resolution Program at Portland State University and at the University of Oregon Law School.

Intergroup dialogue is a method that aims to create safe and constructive processes for different groups, such as those with historical conflict, political polarization, or differing views on social and community issues. Partnering with a Portland-based refugee agency, Tint and her colleagues worked on a project called Diasporas in Dialogue in which they recruited African refugees from groups historically in conflict, such as Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi community members. In a 10-session series, participants from all sides of the conflict shared their stories, experiences, strengths, and challenges with the goal of building relationships and community. Rather than creating solutions as in mediation, the dialogue focused on creating space for community conversations and understanding. “Through increased understanding, change, and solutions can eventually develop,” said Tint.

Trust often grows slowly. Tint said some participants wouldn’t eat together right away because they knew people who died from being poisoned during the conflict. By the end of the series, members of both groups had overcome their reservations and wanted to continue these dialogues. Eventually, they became facilitators and ran a new series of groups on their own. Some participants formed nonprofits together, such as a Rwandese women’s organization, to encourage connections and healing across the divide (Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 2, 2014).

It’s easy to feel hopeless about the state of society and the world as conflict and war rage on even amid ongoing efforts toward change. Creating and applying long-lasting solutions is complex, yet many build on fundamental realities about humanity with which psychologists are uniquely familiar. “Our fundamental needs as humans are a significant link between psychology and conflict resolution,” said Tint. “Change requires adopting a more curious mindset and suspending our judgments about challenging situations so we can recognize that we’re all looking for safety, security, and belonging. Power and historical trauma need to be addressed, and if done well, groups can walk forward together in a different way.”

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