War Zone: Learning from social psychology

Research on social influence could help foster peace. Peace negotiators in the Middle East are gaining strategical insight from the principles of social psychology. Research on social influence and attitude change could help pave the way to peace. Psychology on the front lines.

By Kurt Salzinger Ph.D., published on May 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

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

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.

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

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

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

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.