Minding the Enemy

Surmounting the psychological barriers that divide us

Fractures in the Road to Peace: Group Narratives and Bias

A psychological evaluation of the recent violence between Israel and Hamas

The power of narrative.

One of the most common and powerful vehicles for shaping public thought is the narrative. Politicians know this full well: "the out of touch rich guy who preys on companies as a vulture capitalist" might stick and sink a presidential bid, just as "man-boy in a tank" helped seal the fate of a presidential contender a generation ago. Importantly, the narrative need not be true. Even false narratives that are publicly discredited can persist -- the narrative that Saddam Hussein was directly linked to al Qaeda and partially responsible for 9/11 is so deliciously compelling that it continues to echo long after the bleat of facts and data have faded (to the tune of 38% of 19-25 year-old Americans believing that Saddam Hussein collaborated with al Qaeda on the attacks of 9/11). And this was certainly not be the first time that a false narrative helped drive this country to war.

In intergroup conflicts, narratives have the ability to entrench and polarize opinions, and there is perhaps no better example of this today than the Middle East, where cause and effect (of an rockets and missiles out of and into Gaza; building of the wall around the West Bank) have elaborate and incongruent descriptions for both sides. Not surprisingly, Arabs and Israelis consider each other's narratives about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict to be unreasonable, untrue and infuriating. In an fMRI study, we found that a particular region of the precuneus (in the back, middle of the brain) in Arabs and Israelis responded when reading the other side's narratives, and that this response was predicted by how negatively they viewed the other side (both explicitly and implicitly). Of particular concern is when the narratives of conflict coincide with a psychological bias. This has been on display during the most recent flare up of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza.

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Psychological bias and intergroup conflict

One of the consequences of owning a human mind is that we tend to think of ourselves as 'naive realists': we assume that our view of reality is objective and true. As a consequence, those who disagree with us must either be misinformed or crazy. We often make the latter inference, with important consequences to conflict. To illustrate this point, Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin conducted a study where they had students weigh in on a controversial topic by writing a short essay, and then presented them with an essay on the same topic supposedly written by another student. What Kennedy and Pronin found was that the degree to which participants' perceived that the 'other student' was irrational and biased depended on the level of disagreement; and the greater the perceived disagreement, the more likely the participants were to suggest punitive responses (sanctioning the 'other student's' views or censoring their comments) over conciliatory gestures (moderated discussion and conflict resolution). This suggests that people will normally view those on the other side of an ideological conflict as not just wrong, but irrational; and the more irrational, the less deserving of compromise or discussion. The inference is clear: if the other person is irrational, talking will not help, the only language they may understand is violence.

"You cannot negotiate with terrorists" is, of course, precisely the narrative we hear from Israel about Hamas in Gaza (and from the U.S. about groups we consider terrorists). The underlying assumption that the Palestinians who make up Hamas are irrational may be true, but the fact that a psychological bias drives us towards this conclusion, and an unchallenged narrative supports it, should give us pause and cause us to dig a bit deeper. One way to do this is by looking at the data. When a group of scientists led by Nancy Kanwisher at MIT sat down with the data of rocket fire out of Gaza, they actually found a remarkably rational pattern that ran contrary to the narrative: Hamas has in the past successfully suppressed rocket fire for months at a time during ceasefires, and the re-escalation of firing was almost always preceded by an Israeli strike, i.e. it was retaliatory. As an example, the most recent rocket fire out of Gaza immediately followed a drone strike on Ahmad Al-Jaabari, the leader of Hamas's military wing (who had, incidentally, helped successfully negotiated a recent prisoner exchange with the Israelis). In other words, while Hamas may be violent and dangerous and ideological, this data suggests that their actions are at least rational. If so, negotiations may not be as futile as the narrative suggests.

As conflicts continue, the positions of each side become entrenched. Part of this process is psychological, and part is based on the narratives we build about the conflict. This susceptibility may be a tragic reality of our minds. But the mind is as much defined by flexibility as it is by automaticity. And this provides great hope -- if we can get ourselves to explicitly challenge those things that we 'know' to be true, we may find that the there are more roads to conflict resolution than we thought.

Emile Bruneau is a social cognitive neuroscientist at MIT researching the neural basis of intergroup conflict, and the psychological and cognitive impact of conflict resolution programs.

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