War Zone: Learning from social psychology

Peace negotiators in the Middle East are gaining strategical insight from the principles of social psychology. Herbert Kelman, Ph.D., director of Harvard's Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, talks about the factors that influence and help resolve these disputes.

Kurt Salzinger [KS]: What psychological principles are involved in international conflict?

Herbert Kelman [HK]: The root causes of conflict are unfulfilled or threatened human needs. I'm thinking primarily of psychological needs: security, identity, dignity, recognition, justice. Conflict is often exacerbated as much by the process of the relationship as it is by the issues. A good example is the failure of the Camp David meetings a year and a half ago. President Arafat and the Palestinians felt humiliated by a process in which President Clinton seemed to ally himself entirely with Israel. Parties in ethnic conflicts tend to assume a zero-sum relationship between their national identities. Each sees the other's identity as a fundamental threat to their own identity, so they deny the other's identity, rights and often existence as a national group.

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KS: There's mutual denial?

HK: Yes, the whole rhetoric is based on that. Self-image is also very important. Each side sees itself as good and peaceful and the other side as evil and inherently hostile. In intense conflicts, leaders attach a greater premium to hostile actions than to conciliatory actions. Prospect theory suggests that people are more inclined to take risks to avoid losses than they are to take risks to achieve gains. Failure to take risks when pursuing peace involves opportunity losses, but these don't weigh as heavily as the losses attributed to failure to respond with sufficient military force. Alternative forms of influence aren't high up in the repertoire of political decision-makers.

KS: Are you suggesting that rational arguments are not very important?

HK: I'm not saying they are not important. I am saying that we deceive ourselves if we assume that nonrational factors don't play a role. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, humiliation is not an added source of Palestinians' suffering-it's at the very heart of it.

KS: But is it personal?

HK: A lot of it has cultural meanings. When a Palestinian family is forced by Israeli troops to leave their house, and then the soldiers bulldoze the house, one element that is stressed is the father's humiliation and loss of dignity: It's his role to protect the family, but he is unable to do so. Social-identity theory suggests that personal dignity is very much affected by the dignity accorded to the groups with which we identify.

KS: Which psychological practices are most critical in resolving conflict?

HK: In our work, the first step is "needs analysis," where each side presents its needs, fears and concerns. A second element is taking the other's perspective or "realistic empathy." Third is looking at the conflict as a joint problem. This process is more likely to produce solutions that satisfy the fundamental needs of both sides. It also builds "working trust"-trust in the other's commitment to making peace. Peace is not just a piece of paper, it's the transformation of a relationship. Peace is also not made between governments alone, but between societies. Therefore, changes must be inserted into the political cultures of the two societies.

KS: To give support for the leaders.

HK: And to break down stereotypes. I don't believe that humanizing the other, in and of itself, brings peace. But how can you make peace with another whose only purpose in life is to destroy you? If you learn they have other agendas-to build their own society, raise their kids-then the other becomes a potential partner for peace.

KS: Should governments have psychologists as advisers during such negotiations?

HK: I hesitate to just say that we need more psychologists, because that can feed into the simple-minded notion that if you know what's going on in people's heads, you can facilitate the process. You need to have knowledge of the particular political and diplomatic context with which you're dealing. I would rather say that the policy process can benefit greatly from awareness of the kinds of issues that are raised within a social-psychological framework. What governments need, therefore, are advisers who can introduce that kind of awareness.

Kurt Salzinger, Ph.D., is Executive Director for Science at the American Psychological Association and a former psychology professor at Hofstra University.

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