Psychology Of Peace Promotion Research Paper

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Brutal conflicts such as those in Rwanda, Kosova, and East Timor have boosted awareness of the subjective dimensions of war, genocide, and intergroup conflict and of the need to address hatreds, fears, and emotional wounds of war in building peace. Within a multidisciplinary perspective, this research paper examines the psychological origins of war and destructive intergroup conflict and psychological approaches to resolving conflict nonviolently and to building peace with social justice.



1. Historical Context

Psychology became prominent partly through helping the US develop government tests for selecting military recruits in World War I. Through World War II, many psychologists contributed to war efforts, although William James, Edward Tolman, and others worked for peace.

Following World War II, social psychologists such as Morton Deutsch, Herbert Kelman, Otto Klineberg, Gardner Murphy, Charles Osgood, Muzafer Sherif, and Ralph White analyzed sources of intergroup tension and methods of nonviolent conflict resolution, with an emphasis chiefly on the Cold War. The nuclear threat animated large numbers of psychologists worldwide, as researchers such as Robert Jay Lifton, John Mack, and Milton Schwebel examined the psychic impact of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Throughout the Cold War, psychological research focused mostly on negative peace, that is, on stopping and preventing war (White 1986), rather than on positive peace, which involves social justice, positive inter-group relations, human rights, and sustainable development.

Following the Cold War, psychologists examined a wider array of peace issues such as women and war, militarism, children and armed conflict, environmental destruction, and postconflict healing.

2. Psychological Sources Of War And Destructive Intergroup Conflict

Armed conflicts, including the intrasocietal conflicts that are now the dominant form of war, have complex political, historical, and economic roots. Much destructive conflict originates in a divergence of objective interests, competition over scarce resources such as land and water, and worsening life conditions. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, had antecedents in land scarcity, social class, and the political and economic privileging of Tutsis under the Belgian colonial regime (Prunier 1995). Many conflicts have their origins in struggles over oil, diamonds, land, and other objective resources.

Armed conflict also has subjective sources such as social identity and ideology. Even when no objective divergence of interest exists, people tend to categorize themselves as belonging to different groups and to show in-group favoritism in judging people, thereby attaining self-esteem and positive self-identity from identification with the in-group (Tajfel 1982). Typically, they judge others relative to the standards set by the in-group, leading to ethnocentric attitudes and behavior, and they derogate members of the out-group. Identity processes alone do not cause violence, but they set the stage for other subjective processes such as hostile ideologies to generate hatred and fighting. Before the Rwandan genocide, President Habyarimana, a Hutu, used mass media to create an ideology of hatred toward Tutsis. Similarly, Hitler used an ideology of racial superiority and global Jewish conspiracy to fuel anti-Semitism and enable the Holocaust (Staub 1989).

Social identity processes play a key role in interethnic conflicts, often referred to as identity conflicts. Ethnic groups are ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson 1991) that share distinctive language, religion, social institutions, and origin myths. Ethnic identities exercise powerful emotional influence, as children are taught to love their people, their mother tongue, and their way of life. People learn to define themselves by reference to the larger group (e.g., ‘I am Russian’), to experience unity with the group, to be patriotic, and to make sacrifices for the group. The sense of unity and solidarity, integrated with a powerful sense of homeland and a sense that the group requires protection, may fuel nationalism and separatist desire for an independent national state.

Conflict escalation often stems from the interplay of objective and subjective factors. As conflict over resources escalates, negative psychological dynamics come into play, and these become self-perpetuating parts of the conflict process (Rubin et al. 1994). Each group tends to create enemy images—demonizing, exaggerated stereotypes of the ‘other’ that amplify fear and motivate aggressive action (White 1984). These images bias perceptions, leading adversaries to make negative attributions or inferences about motivations regarding the ‘other’s’ behavior. For example, building military forces could be motivated by desire for security, but an adversary who harbors enemy images tends to perceive such actions as having hostile, offensive intent. Negative perceptions and fears on both sides fuel behaviors that the ‘other’ regards as threatening, contributing to malignant conflict spirals that tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. By using public media to propagate enemy images, leaders mobilize society for war and genocide.

In a destructive conflict, damage to the parties’ relationship becomes part of the conflict, and the emotional and social wounds encourage fighting. Viewing the other side’s actions as transgressions, each party sees itself as a victim, constructs collective beliefs or myths about the traumas inflicted on it, and believes that violence is necessary for self-preservation (Volkan 1997). Further, the parties tend to become highly polarized, and intragroup pressures discourage contact with the other side, which is viewed as having incompatible goals. In protracted conflicts, each side may come to view itself as irreparably opposed to the other side, leading to an ethos of antagonism and a tendency of each group to define itself in part via opposition to the other.

Subjective influences are visible also in the biased decision-making of policy elites. Many leaders’ aversion to losses encourages excessive risk-taking and departure from rational decision making. In intense conflicts, leaders may experience powerful fears, which motivate misperceptions regarding their adversaries’ motives, strength, and willingness to fight. As intercommunal tensions escalate, leaders may experience a cognitive constriction evidenced in reduced complexity of views of the adversary expressed in speeches. Leaders may also use inappropriate historical analogies to guide thinking about current crises. Under pressure of crises, small leadership groups having a strong esprit de corps and a charismatic leader may make flawed decisions guided by premature consensus, a sense of invulnerability, failure to weigh moral concerns, internal suppression of dissent, and poor contingency planning (Janis 1982). In a variety of contexts, obedience to authority is a powerful enabler of armed conflict, human rights abuses, and even genocide (Kelman and Hamilton 1989).

3. Nonviolent Conflict Resolution

Conflict can be constructive when it is managed in ways that promote communication, healthy relationships, and a sense of positive interdependence (Deutsch and Coleman 2000). To handle destructive conflict nonviolently, psychologists have developed or refined numerous tools designed to resolve conflict and to transform or repair damaged relationships (Rubin et al. 1994).

Negotiation, the handling of conflict through communication and bargaining by the parties themselves, has important psychological dimensions. If, as often occurs in official diplomacy between hardened adversaries, opponents view negotiation as a win–lose affair, they may dig into entrenched positions and use damaging, coercive tactics such as threats. Psychologically, a more useful alternative is principled negotiation, which reframes negotiation as a win–win affair. In this approach, parties collaborate to solve their problems and seek not to beat the opponent but to enable all parties to meet their underlying needs, thereby contributing to improved communication, empathy, and relationship. Which approaches to negotiation are likely to succeed depends not only on the situation, the kind of issues at stake, and the amount of fear and relational damage, but also on culture. For example, US negotiators favor direct communication and emphasize what is said, while Asian negotiators often communicate indirectly, relying on context and maintaining group harmony by avoiding direct confrontation.

Strong mistrust, fear of appearing weak, and poor communication can make negotiation infeasible. In this situation, a preferred approach is mediation, in which a third party helps the parties to negotiate a settlement. By proposing alternatives that the parties may not be willing to suggest themselves, mediators enable face-saving. They may also use social influence processes such as ‘carrots and sticks,’ a mixture of promised rewards for conflict reducing steps and promised punishments for intransigent behavior. Skilled mediators manage the conflict process, separating the parties when they are likely to say or do damaging things.

Official diplomacy, however, is limited since hardened adversaries may be unwilling to meet publicly. Also, public agreements can evoke backlashes, and official treaties may not change the polarization, fear, and hostility present in divided societies and communities. Kelman has pioneered the use of interactive problem-solving workshops (Fisher 1997) as a tool of unofficial diplomacy and relational improvement. Regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, a typical workshop brings together three to six Israelis with an equal number of Palestinians for three days of private dialogue facilitated by social scientists. In analytic, problem-solving discussion, the participants examine the main issues at stake in the conflict, explore their concerns and fears, and identify possible steps and solutions that could reduce the political and psychological barriers on both sides. Empathy, problem solving, and group exploration of ‘what-if?’ questions are encouraged. Afterwards, participants take their new learning about the other side back into their communities, beginning the wider process of community transformation. By building positive relationships and infusing useful ideas into conflict-torn communities, this method provides a useful complement to official negotiation.

Positive contact between members of polarized, isolated groups can also reduce destructive conflict (Pettigrew 1998). Positive contact is likely to occur in a context of equal status that enables individuals to get to know each other personally and when steps have been taken to gain leaders’ support and prevent damaging behavior. To reduce perceptions that the positive individuals from the out-group are exceptions, one may use cognitive strategies that enable generalization. One useful strategy is to build superordinate group identities, as occurred in post apartheid South Africa when blacks and whites forged larger identities as ‘South Africans’ and championed the national rugby team.

The most powerful form of cross-group contact involves cooperation toward the accomplishment of shared goals that neither group could achieve on its own. Global problems such as nuclear proliferation, environmental destruction, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic provide many possibilities for cooperation on shared goals that mitigates and prevents destructive conflict.

4. Building Peace With Social Justice

Beyond war prevention and nonviolent conflict resolution, peace requires social justice, social equity, and sustainable patterns of living. Psychology has analyzed how beliefs, attitudes, and practices support social injustice and ‘-isms’ such as sexism.

In systems of severe oppression and genocide, there is a pattern of moral exclusion in which out-groups are dehumanized and removed from the moral realm, providing a rationalization for killing them. Similarly, sexism is supported by socialization norms and practices that privilege boys, encourage girls to conform to stereotypic roles, and encourage acceptance of existing patterns of patriarchy. Environmental damage through, for example, the production of mass amounts of toxic waste, often leads to environmental racism via ‘not in my back yard’ attitudes that encourage storage or dumping of toxic materials near impoverished neighborhoods inhabited by minority groups that lack political power. Efforts toward poverty alleviation may be thwarted by tendencies to blame the victim, enshrined in societal beliefs that people are poor because they are lazy or deserve it.

In promoting social justice, useful psychological tools include steps to increase the sense of positive interdependence between groups, media campaigns that heighten salience of justice issues and indicate specific behaviors that can help address the problem, positive modeling of tolerance and restraint by authority figures, and methods of attitude change. In addition, commitment can often be built through the ‘foot in the door’ method in which agreement to a small request increases the likelihood of subsequent willingness to engage in more effortful action. To change behavior on a wider level, one may use community-based social marketing methods that strategically assess points of leverage for social change, pilot selected interventions for changing attitudes and behavior, and replicate the process on a larger scale (McKenzie-Mohr 2000).

Education for peace is essential in building social justice and peace, as most people are socialized into systems of violence (Raviv et al. 1999). In schools, psychologically informed programs have developed skills of nonviolent conflict resolution, encouraged peer mediation of conflicts, enabled cooperative learning that also reduces excessive competition, and built curriculi that undermine hatred and stereotypes. Beyond schools, education for peace has included activities to enable constructive handling of family conflict, cross-conflict dialogues in divided communities, and use of mass media to show positive handling of conflict, to counteract black–white thinking, and to reduce the excessive emphasis on violence evident in television and the war-toy industry.

5. Future Directions

Since wounds of past violence create emotional vulnerability and enable cycles of violence, building peace requires the healing of emotional wounds and reconciliation. Programs of humanitarian assistance and development increasingly include psychosocial activities aimed at healing the wounds of war through normalizing activities, expressive arts, reintegration of former child soldiers, and use of local cultural networks and resources. A key task for the future is to find the most effective, culturally appropriate ways of rebuilding torn societies. There is great need of research on reconciliation, the repair of damaged relationships, and its connection with processes such as truth-telling, forgiveness, and establishment of justice. As psychology addresses these issues, it will examine a wider array of cultures and develop theories that connect microlevel change in individuals and small groups with macrolevel changes in societal and international structures.


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