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The Missing Piece in Sustainable Peace

What we need to make peace last

Despite Governor Romney’s newfound call for international peace during the final presidential debate, as well as all of the other political rhetoric bandied about on peace, the fact is we know very little about what it is (and what it isn’t), the conditions that promote it, the motives that drive people to work for it, how to measure it, and how to build a climate and infrastructure that sustains it.

Why? Because we don’t study peace. We study war, violence, aggression and conflict – and peace in the context of those states and processes – but few study peace directly.

Here is a cautionary tale. For well over a decade, the noted psychologist and mathematician John Gottman and his colleagues in his “Love Lab” in Seattle, Washington studied married couples and theorized about marriage and divorce. Eventually, they developed a robust mathematical model for predicting divorce in married couples, which was 97percent predictive. The researchers felt very satisfied about this accomplishment until they realized something odd: their model did not predict happiness in marriage. They had been able to isolate the basic conditions which predicted divorce (or no divorce), but the opposite of these conditions did not predict marital bliss. When they realized the error of their assumptions they developed a program of extensive study of happily married couples. After sixteen years of studying marital happiness and stability, they came to understand more clearly that the predictors of each, divorce versus happiness, were not opposites, but were in fact qualitatively different conditions.

We believe the same to be true for peace. In a recent set of studies we conducted in Israel and the Palestinian Territories investigating the motives that drive people to support negotiations to end the conflict versus those that motivate them to work actively for improved relations and peace, we found something similar to Gottman. Employing Howard Moskowitz’s unique method of Rule Development Experimentation to assess motives (which revolutionized market research in the food industry), we found that the reasons Israelis and Palestinians are motivated to end conflict are fundamentally different from and independent of the reasons they are motivated to make and sustain peace. They are not opposites – the drivers for peace and the drivers for conflict – but are in fact fundamentally different animals.

This means that the seventy plus decades of systematic research that has been conducted on the conditions that promote and prevent war, violence, aggression, and conflict – although important and useful, are only half the story. It also means we have yet to really understand peace comprehensively.

To be clear, it is not that psychology, international affairs and related fields have not been concerned with peace; on the contrary. In fact, scholarship on the psychology of peace has been accumulating for decades and several thousand research studies have been conducted in this area since the end of the Cold War. However, this research has been predominantly problem-focused. In other words, the approach employed through these decades of research on peace has focused primarily on addressing and preventing the problems associated with conflict and violence and not on the solutions associated with peace. Concerns around nuclear annihilation, enemy images, discrimination, denial of basic human needs, terrorism and torture have been the main focus. Even the idea of positive peace, first put forth by Johann Galtung (1985) to distinguish it from negative peace or attempts to eliminate overt forms of violence, fundamentally concerns problems of injustice and oppression and the needs for “a more equitable social order that meets the basic needs and rights of all people”. This work has been necessary and critically important. However, a basic assumption inherent to this approach is that if we can gain a sophisticated enough understanding of the problems of conflict, violence, oppression and war that we will better understand, and be better able to foster and sustain, peace. But will we?

Other areas of scholarship have reached similar conclusions regarding the problems and limitations of studying problems. In fact, there is evidence from the study of attitudes that positive and negative evaluative processes often operate independently, and that positive and negative attributions function orthogonally as well. In particular, contemporary research on motivation has taught us that differences in our prevention versus promotion orientations to goals and outcomes have profound consequences for the types of information we seek, how we process it, the emotions we experience, and how we go about accomplishing our goals. This has led scholars who study anxiety-based motives of conflict such as terror management to call for more comprehensive models of human behavior that can account for the tensions and complementarities of both concerns for security as well as our hopes and dreams for nurturance and peace.

But this is easier said than done.

For example, The Global Peace Index (GPI) is a new attempt to measure the relative position of nations' and regions' peacefulness. It is the product of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) and developed in consultation with an international panel of peace experts with data collected and collated by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The list was launched first in May 2007, then again in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and most recently on June 2012, and ranks 158 countries around the world according to their peacefulness. This year the Global Peace Index for the first time included a Positive Peace Index (PPI), which looks at attitudes, institutions and structures that, when strengthened, can improve a country’s peacefulness.

The good news is that the PPI is oriented to societal resilience, with Eight Pillars of Peace measured including: well-functioning government, sound business environment, equitable distribution of resources, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbors, free flow of information, high levels of education and low levels of corruption. So the intention to measure positive states is there.

The bad news is that on most social dimensions, the PPI still measures only the absence of problems. For example, the PPI’s approach to measuring “good neighbor relations” and “acceptance of other’s rights” uses two indices from the Indices of Social Development from the International Institute of Social Studies. The measure for safety and trust (an index of good neighbor relations) reads: “We measure personal security and trust by using data on general social trust from a wide variety of surveys, indicators of trustworthiness such as reported levels of crime victimisation, survey responses on feelings of safety and security in one’s neighbourhood, data on the incidence of homicide, and risk reports on the likelihood of physical attack, extortion, or robbery” (

Regarding intergroup cohesion (an index of acceptance of other’s rights), it reads: “We measure intergroup cohesion using data on inter-group disparities, perceptions of being discriminated against, and feelings of distrust against members of other groups. ISD also use data on the number of reported incidents of riots, terrorist acts, assassinations, and kidnappings; agency ratings on the likelihood of civil disorder, terrorism and social instability; and reported levels of engagement in violent riots, strikes, and confrontations” (

So why are we stuck on measuring problems despite the recognition of the need to assess positive states? Here are three reasons.

First, as humans, fear is simply more primal and basic than hope. Brain research has shown that fear reactions to threat are triggered sooner in a more primitive place in the brain (amygdala) than experiences of hope and optimism, which are considered secondary emotions which are experienced more downstream. So we are in fact hard-wired to focus on problems and threats first.

Second, there are definitional problems with peace. For example, a search of the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge database on articles published in English since 2000 with “peace” in the their title reveals over forty terms distinguishing different types or aspects of peace. This is more than a matter of semantics. Peace can differ in a variety of ways, including by level (interpersonal to international to global peace), direction (internal and external peace), durability (from fragile to enduring peace), source or conditions (peace through coercion, democratic participation, economic incentive, etc.), type (negative, positive and promotive peace) and scope (local to global peace). So even though the PPI is attempting to assess an “optimal environment for human well-being and potential to flourish” (a decent definition of peace), it is still assuming that the absence of negatives (crime, discrimination, rights violations) is sufficient to create such environments.

And third, it matters who is doing the measuring. Many scholarly disciplines operate on a set of basic, often unquestioned assumptions about cause and effect, the nature of human motivation, and what constitutes ideal, positive states. In economics and political science, a prevention-focus (avoiding harmful problems) is primary. This was also true in other areas of the social sciences such as anthropology and psychology until recently when movements to study positive processes and states came more into vogue.

So, what is needed going forward to better conceptualize, measure and realize sustainable peace? Here is one strategy:

1) A clear working definition of sustainable peace that includes both the prevention of destructive dynamics and the promotion of positive. We define sustainable peace as existing in a state where the probability of using destructive conflict, oppression and violence to solve problems is so low that it does not enter into any party’s strategy, while the probability of using cooperation, dialogue and collaborative problem-solving to promote social justice and well-being is so high that it governs social organization and life.

2) Support for the development of basic theory and research on sustainable peace. There are few scholars today conducting basic research on the fundamental conditions and processes conducive to sustainable peace (the anthropologist Douglas Fry is one exception). However, it is critical that the applied frameworks which inform practice be informed by basic, sound, empirically-tested theoretical models, in order to foster peace most effectively. Our recent book, Psychology’s Contributions to Sustainable Peace (Coleman & Deutsch, 2012), offers a sound beginning.

3) Education for Promotive, Sustainable Peace. It has been increasingly recognized that our schools have to change in basic ways if we are to educate children so that they are for rather than against one another, so that they develop the ability to resolve their conflicts constructively rather than destructively, so that they are prepared to contribute to the development of a peaceful and just world. An emphasis on cooperation and constructive conflict resolution in schools can offer children and adults an orientation to problems and a set of norms and skills that can assist them in fulfilling their needs in a non-violent manner. Teaching and modeling these processes are methods for preventing violence in that they can establish a culture of peace, and a sense of caring, within schools that provides students with experiences of safety, inclusion, fairness and hope. At the university level, we should commit to developing courses which involve a core group of faculty from different disciplines that are committed to working together to weave and develop the ideas and practices of sustainable peace to instruct the next generation of leaders.

4) The enhancement of current data-based indices for annual reporting on state and regional levels of sustainable peace. This project could build on the Global Peace Index for measuring and reporting on sustainable peace worldwide, but integrate promotive, pro-social assessments. This initiative could be informed by such initiatives as the Gross National Happiness Index (Med Jones, 2006), the eight bases of a Culture of Peace (UN Resolution A/RES/52/13), and the Peace Scale (Klein, Goertz & Diehl, 2008). Another possible step would be to develop a dynamical computational model with variables from multiple disciplines that have been shown to predict both violence and peace and then try to keep a "Violence Watch" as well as a “Peace Watch” on countries by plugging data in to see if we can identify nations susceptible to outbreaks of violence and outbreaks of peace.

5) Annual theory-practice-policy forum on sustainable peace. There is currently a need for an annual gathering of policy-makers, peace-practitioners and scholars, where leading-edge research on sustainable peace could be translated and provided to policy-makers.

6) The Development and Launching of UN Sustainable Peace Goals (SPGs). Modeled on the UN’s approach to development (MDGs, now the SDGs), the SPGs suggest that states, regional organizations and the international community would benefit greatly from specifying a set of measureable goals for achieving and sustaining (both preventative and promotive) peace. An inclusive constellation of experts (from community-based organizations, NGOs, academia, the UN and donor nations) could identify preventative, intervention and reparative goals for peace-making, peace-keeping, peace-building and peace-sustaining – in a manner that coordinates all three activities. These goals would help better situate UN mediation efforts in the context of broader, sustained efforts for peace. They would need to employ the enhanced metrics for assessing state-level sustainable peace goals annually detailed in #4 above.

Copyright Peter T. Coleman

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