Minding the Enemy

Surmounting the psychological barriers that divide us

Trust and Betrayal: The Unkindest Cut

Trust-building is ubiquitous in conflict resolution efforts. Should it be?

The problem is so obvious, it's almost banal: there is a severe lack of trust between members of groups in conflict. The solution, explicit for many conflict resolution and dialogue programs is equally obvious: build trust. The problem is that increasing trust may do more harm than good.

We are told that trust is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. This seems reasonable from a purely practical viewpoint: knowing in any collaborative effort that the other party will hold up their side can literally cut work in half, and trusting another's word and intentions eliminates layers of embedded guessing about the other side's 'true' beliefs and intentions, making negotiations far more efficient. But trust has a dark side. While it can move people towards efficient and satisfying relationships, it can also be the precursor to a powerful negative emotion: betrayal. As made vividly clear by Shakespeare, betrayal is one of the strongest driving forces to harm another. And you cannot harbor the bitter fruit of betrayal without first planting the delicate seed of trust.

"For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.

Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar lov'd him!

This was the most unkindest cut of all;

For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,

Ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,

Quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty

heart. . . ."

- Julius Caesar Act 3, scene 2

I have seen this pattern of trust and betrayal over many years working with children, both as a teacher and as a researcher in regions of conflict. The scenario plays out something like this: people from "estranged" groups (e.g. Black, Hispanic and White Americans) or groups in conflict (e.g. Israelis and Palestinians) engage in some kind of conflict resolution or dialogue program. They talk together, eat together, play together. They learn to trust. At the end of the program they mourn the parting from their new friends, and then they return to old realities. Over the course of the coming months, the Black and Hispanic kids in the U.S., and the Palestinian kids in the Middle East take their new realities out into the world and realize that the infrastructure of institutional racism is completely intact. Their interactions with the White police or Israeli soldiers are just as tense and troubled as before, the barriers to success still just as strong. As a result, they feel betrayed, and their attitudes towards the other group get even worse than they were before.

What I describe here is my observation. It is intuition fed by anecdote. Knowing that we humans are incredibly susceptible to sampling biases (i.e. I could be choosing just the observations that confirm my hypothesis), it's important to also know what empirical work has been done on this topic.

The literature on betrayal is almost non-existent. I imagine that this is partly because it is difficult to run an ethical study that involves the initiation of such a powerfully negative emotion. There are some insightful hints, though. In one study, Tamar Saguy and others experimentally created empowered and disempowered groups, and then had them engage in simulated dialogue programs: either they initiated harmony by having the groups talk about their commonalities, or they avoided harmony and instead addressed the inequity head on by having the groups talk about their differences. After the program, they had each group member play an economic trust game with the other group. If the simulated dialogue program focused on harmony and fostered trust, they found was that the people from the disempowered groups expected to receive more money from the dominant group members than they actually received. There was no such imbalance in expectations if the dialogue program was not focused on harmony.

In this experimental setting, then, trust can establish inflated expectations about another group of people, which is then violated by that same group of people. Even more common, it seems, is the situation where one representative sample of people from a group (e.g. a group of Israeli kids) gains the trust of the 'other' (e.g. a group of Palestinian kids), and then a separate group of Israelis (e.g. Israeli soldiers at checkpoints) betray that trust.

Another potentially worrying consequence of trust is that it may sap motivation to change. Even if there are no subsequent interaction with the other group, increasing Palestinian trust towards Israelis, and Black Americans towards White Americans, may leave them with less motivation to organize and enact change. If the other side means well and has your best interests at heart, what use is it struggling against them? In the wonderfully titled, "Let them eat harmony", Tropp and colleagues summarize some of the empirical evidence for this process. They show that in members of disempowered groups, trust of the empowered group predicts decreased support of collective action to change the status quo. The implication is that if Civil Rights leaders had been taught to trust White Americans more, it may have been less likely that they would have spearheaded a movement to create societal change.

 

"We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal."

- Tennessee Williams

 

So if trust is so potentially dangerous, what is the solution? Here are 3 suggestions:

1. We follow the advice of Tennessee Williams and actually discourage trust. I've often thought that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reminiscent of a divorced couple with children: the couple may despise each other, but they are inextricably linked to each other and must somehow learn to interact. I would argue that immediately after a contentious divorce, it might not be best to encourage the couple to enter into a relationship based on trust. Perhaps a more remote and business-like relationship would work better in the short term. So, too, with groups in active conflict: asking for mutual trust in the face of current hostility may make them too susceptible to betrayal. Maybe trust should wait until at least some structural elements are in place that could limit the possibilities of betrayal (Civil Rights, anti-discrimination and hate crime laws passed, workplace equality achieved, stable peace settlements brokered). Until then, maybe the focus should be on other dimensions of bias entirely. The Israeli psychologist Daniel Bar-Tal speaks of 'delegitimization', the suite of psychological factors that cause conflict groups to deny humanity to each other, thus lowering inhibition towards harming the other; and a host of other psychological biases characterized by Lee Ross and colleagues lead conflict group members to think of the other side's views as not just wrong, but biased and irrational. If the other side is not fully human, and irrational, what use is negotiation? At that point, we assume that the only language they understand is violence. Might we be able to chip away at these biases outside of the context of trust?

2. Teach participants about the trouble with trust. There are some psychological biases that we can be inoculated against. For example, if you teach women about stereotype threat, they are no longer held under its sway when taking a math test. Perhaps the same would be true about inflated expectations following dialogue programs.

3. Have in place a way to continue the contact between participants after the program is over. Most of the instances of betrayal we see in Shakespeare come about based on a false belief by the protagonist. "Just talk to her!" we might scream in our minds to Othello. The broken lines of communication between conflict groups make correcting these betrayals more likely; having stable lines of communication in place to correct them after the conflict resolution program may be critical.

Whatever the plan, it seems that deeper thinking about the potential consequences of trust-building is prudent: betrayal is not to be trifled with.

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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