War or Peace? Psychology's Contribution

By Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol
Posted on 17 October 2013
Filed under Climate Refugees, Cognition

Human beings have been fighting each other in organized warfare since time immemorial. The 20th Century has often been characterized as one of the bloodiest ever. Does this mean that war is inevitable? Will human beings continue to slaughter each other on a large scale?

Some scholars have offered an optimistic prospect for the future: For example, Steven Pinker has suggested that violence in the world has been on a gradual downward trend, major cataclysms such as World War I and II notwithstanding. Others have disagreed with Pinker and have argued that violence continues unabated.

Irrespective of the historical trends, many people might agree on the need for a better understanding of the societal and psychological processes that underlie warfare and violent intergroup conflict. The most recent issue of the American Psychologist is dedicated to exactly those issues. The issue, which commenced shipping in hardcopy on 16 October, with online postings of the articles to follow shortly, reports a broad range of contributions from experimental psychologists and cognitive scientists that address how a better understanding of human behavior might help us prevent or mitigate violent conflicts.

The special issue was organized by me and colleagues Klaus Oberauer, Alexandra Freund, Werner Stritzke and Joachim Krueger. All articles were subject to the regular editorial process of American Psychologist.

This first post on our initiative provides an overview of the articles and links to their online appearance and to the authors’ homepages. Future posts will focus on particular issues within the article(s) and provide a bit more background information that, for space reasons, could not make it into the printed article(s).

Lewandowsky, S., Stritzke, W. G. K., Freund, A. M., Oberauer, K., & Krueger, J. I. Misinformation, Disinformation, and Violent Conflict: From Iraq and the “War on Terror” to Future Threats to Peace.

In a world of unprecedented technology, information can spread across the globe in a matter of seconds. As both an instrument and an object of war, psychocultural influence increasingly defines modern warfare. The ways in which people respond to misinformation and disinformation are examined in a retrospective case study of the Iraq war of 2003 and in a prospective study of the destabilizing effects of climate change.

Christie, D. J., & Montiel, C. J. Contributions of psychology to war and peace.

American psychologists have contributed to war efforts in various ways over the past century. Breaking with this tradition, about 50 years ago some psychologists in the United States and around the world began focusing scholarship and activism on preventing war and promoting peace. Contemporary scholarship and practice in peace psychology focus on the prevention and mitigation of episodic and structural violence and the promotion of peace, human well-being, and social justice.

Leidner, B., Tropp, L. R., & Lickel, B. Bringing science to bear—On peace, not war: Elaborating on psychology’s potential to promote peace.

Only a fraction of human history has gone unmarked by violent conflict. Is war inevitable? While violence has its starting points in the human mind, an inherent human capacity for peaceful relations challenges the inevitability of war. Building on this capacity with approaches that foster empathy and understanding of outgroups and increase critical evaluation of ingroups, the authors emphasize the importance and use of psychology to reduce war.    

Al Ramiah, A., & Hewstone, M. Intergroup contact as a tool for reducing, resolving, and preventing intergroup conflict: Evidence, limitations, and potential.

History is rife with incidents of violent, long-term conflict, and postconflict societies often remain fragile and prone to civil wars. Among conflict resolution approaches, intergroup contact-based approaches, derived from Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis, can play a pivotal and complementary role in reducing, resolving, and preventing conflict. Highlighting some conflict zones around the world, this review explores how and when intergroup contact can most effectively aid lasting peace.

Jonas, E., & Fritsche, I. Destined to die but not to wage war: How existential threat can contribute to escalation or de-escalation of violent intergroup conflict.

Our higher cognitive capacities bring about unique awareness of our own mortality. Research emanating from terror management theory has shown that existential anxiety is heightened when people are presented with reminders of death. Defense of one’s cultural ingroup is a natural coping mechanism but can result in hostility when accompanied by derogation of outgroup members. The authors discuss possible approaches to overriding adverse consequences of existential threat.

Kruglanski, A. W., …. Sharvit, K. Terrorism—A (self) love story: Redirecting the significance quest can end violence.

The same motivation that when directed favorably may inspire people to their most constructive conciliations can, when misguided, drive them into mutual destruction. Rousseau’s diametric concepts of self-love, the quest for personal significance, and love of self, a focus on self-preservation, present a model for understanding terrorist motivations. Insight into the psychological processes involved in becoming a terrorist and leaving terrorism behind can yield nonviolent paths to personal significance.

Staub, E. Building a peaceful society: Origins, prevention, and reconciliation after genocide and other group violence.

Recent human history has been profoundly marked by genocide, mass killings, and civil war. Understanding the origins of intergroup violence—difficult life conditions, psychological factors, and social processes—can open possibilities for psychological intervention. Research suggests that early interventions, such as promoting positive regard for others, helping groups heal from past victimization, public education, and raising children to become inclusively caring and courageous people, might offer the best potential to avert violence.

Cohrs, J. C., Christie, D. J., White, M. P., & Das, C. Contributions of positive psychology to peace: Toward global well-being and resilience.

Peaceful societies are associated not only with the absence of violence but also with the presence of positive characteristics such as social justice and harmonious relationships. Positive psychology, with its focus on sanguine experiences such as happiness, hope, and fulfillment, appears to offer peace psychology useful concepts, while peaceful societal conditions may enhance well-being. The interrelationships between these fields, however, are found to be complex.

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  1. This promises to be a very rich vein indeed.
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