George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Overcoming ethnic hatred

November 16, 2018

Picture of a professor in glasses, who is wearing a brown suit, a blue shirt, and a patterned tie.

Dr. Daniel Rothbart, Professor at S-CAR

By Dr. Daniel Rothbart

Hatred, fear, and vengeance—these are emotions that fuel the downward spiral of conflicts, locking the protagonists in patterns of mutually destructive behaviors. In many conflict settings, the negative emotions are deeply embedded in the collective sense of ingroup identity, typically enforced by notions of victimization and notions of the other as representing an existential threat. To reverse this downward spiral, many conflict resolution practitioners seek to transform the relationships in ways that foster positive emotions. In particular, interactive conflict resolution techniques are deployed to foster trust, empathy, and compassion. On such aspirations rest critical questions of social psychology. For example, what exactly are the psychological preconditions for reversing negative emotions in a group of people to positive ones? Can distrust among conflict acts turn to trust, enmity to sympathy, and vengeance to compassion through a limited series of interactive conflict resolution interventions?

Surprisingly, these two questions of psychology have been given scant attention among scholar-practitioners in our field, aside from skimpy anecdotal evidence on a case-by-case basis. In general, the field of conflict analysis and resolution has failed to integrate the enormous body of recent discoveries in social psychology with serious reflection on the modes of relationship-building that are critical to many modes of intervention. So, a critical pillar of our field—that certain sorts of intervention attend to “the whole person”—currently functions as an unproven article of faith, lacking the reliance on critical psychological findings.

Motivated by this critical gap, I am working with two GMU professors and a graduate student on a research project called “Overcoming Ethnic Hatred: Developing Character among Conflict Actors.” S-CAR professor Karina Korostelina, psychology professor Thalia Goldstein, and I designed a plan to determine if and how a group of young people can transform their perceptions of perceived adversaries in a conflict setting. In this current project, we focus on two character traits: (1) compassion for the suffering of their adversaries and (2) perspective-taking regarding an accurate understanding of them. Our primary objective is to discover the preconditions for these two traits in conflict settings. Such preconditions will then be deployed in effective conflict resolution interventions. The result of the long-term study will be two academic articles, a conference at GMU, and three or four academic presentations.

Regarding our methodology, we deploy a psychological measurement of these traits called Interpersonal Reactivity Index. For our study group, we selected a cohort of 15 young people, ages 18–29, who have lived in conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent. These people are currently immersed in a two-year conflict resolution program in Tuscany, Italy called Rondine. Although they were not engaged directly in hostilities, these young people were involved in the social-political systems of hatred and demonization of the so-called enemy.

In September of this year, I carried out the first of three phases of research at Rondine; the second phase will take place in 2019 and the third in 2020. An S-CAR graduate student, Ziyoda Crew, is assisting in the data-gathering process. I expected the interviewees to evince a sense of hostility towards their adversary group, which might then be followed by their positive relationship building following participation in the conflict resolution program. But as in many research projects, their responses to my interview questions did not always conform to expectations. Collectively, their responses were wide-ranging, nuanced, and subtle. One theme that emerged among all the interviewees was the complexity of their notions of compassion and perspective-taking. Rather than being inherently individual, these ideas were deeply social processes that could spread, like a current, through social interactions. As we move to the second and third phases of this project, we expect to gain further insight into these two character traits. This may help us better understand this group of interviewees and perhaps others who live in conflict zones.