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Naïve Realism: The Psychology of Conflict


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“Muslim or Hindu?”, asked my driver, Aamaal, just moments into our undulating 5-hour journey through the Himalayan foothills from Dharamsala to Amritsar. So close to the conflict-ridden Kashmir, a region symbolizing the religious and national tensions between India and Pakistan, it seemed an important, if not routine question. Noting the crescent-shaped moon flag wedged between the back passenger seats, I misleadingly explained, in broken Hindi, that I come from a Muslim family. It was clearly an answer Aamaal approved of as he proceeded to complain in a jovial fashion about Hindus. Nattering on through the stomach-churning mountainside roads and numerous chai breaks, it became clear that his aversion to Hindus was based on an almost instinctive suspicion, rather than any particular bad experience.

Hours into the banter-fuelled drive, Aamaal said that he simply didn’t think he could enjoy a Hindu person’s company. Hailing from an Indian-Hindu background, I had clearly proven him wrong. Yet, in a fractious borderland, it was almost understandable that the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality was so entrenched within him. Even with the pivotal role of peace deals, ceasefires, and post-conflict justice mechanisms, through my short interaction with Aamaal, it was quite obvious that truly sustainable peacebuilding relies on transforming the very visceral sentiments, and narratives, that drive the emotions of division.

Naïve realism is the term psychologists use for the tendency of individuals to believe their perception of reality as the only objective reality, while those who disagree with that vision are perceived as irrational. This was central to Aamaal’s thinking. Given the pervasive anti-Hindu rhetoric he had been exposed to, he felt that there was a fundamental disconnect in the way people of the Hindu faith reason. This cognitive bias is central to the creation of polarization between opposing groups, and it ultimately drives a wedge in effective peacebuilding processes. That is because it creates a mental barrier that prevents conflicting groups from assessing things from the other perspective.

A study of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students on Stanford University’s campus, published in 1985, highlights how this phenomenon impacts the psychology of people in conflict by creating opposing narratives of the same event. Both sets of students were shown the same news coverage of the 1982 massacre of largely Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite refugees at the hands of a Christian Lebanese militia, an act in which Israel Defence Forces were accused of being complicit. But when the students were asked to reflect on the footage, both the pro-Israeli and pro-Arab contingents felt that it was biased against their group, despite watching the same report. They each appeared to judge the fairness of facts and arguments differently, and also recalled more negative references against their side.

Simply put, naïve realism wires us into black and white, victim and oppressor thinking. And it takes us further away from the values of empathy, compromise, and self-reflection. So, even in the face of contradictory facts and evidence we are stubborn. We maintain our hardened version of reality through cognitive dissonance, a mental bias which drives us to avoid a violation of our beliefs. In effect, we ‘search’ for reasons, or selectively ignore information, in order to confirm our biased perception of reality. This may partly explain how both pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli viewers can watch the same footage, yet both feel afflicted by it. And, when it comes to armed conflict, cognitive dissonance is often how the affirmed human moral not to kill is often justified, by dehumanizing the opponent. Or less extremely, it can explain why even reasonable attempts to engage in dialogue from one side can be met with hostility. Overall, this helps to drive the ethos of conflict with emotions such as resentment, mistrust, envy, triumphalism ,and Schadenfreude.

The question is: can these biases be assuaged? Psychology has so far largely fed into researching the drivers of violence, but the discipline will become growingly important as we develop a cognitive understanding of conflict. In fact, initial studies suggest that divisive mindsets can be transformed. In a 2011 investigation, a group of Jewish-Israeli undergraduates and Palestinian citizens of Israel were each given comprehension tasks, some were given a reading that focused on the ability of violent groups to change over time. While a control group, for both Israelis and Palestinians, were given an opposite reading, which suggested that violence was intrinsic to certain people. None of the readings explicitly referenced the conflict. The readings that aimed to induce a conciliatory mindset actually lead to more positive cross Israeli-Palestinian views, and a greater willingness to compromise. While the reading that suggested violence is inherent, entrenched divisive viewpoints. More generally, a 2015 study suggested that instilling hope, as oppose to directly attempting to transform the opinions of group dynamics, also has peace building potential.

Clearly, education-based psychological interventions can play an important role in transforming the emotions of conflict, particularly by exposing students to alternate viewpoints. National and international leaders also have a part in voicing the narrative of hope and creating a vision for reconciliation. While an independent and unbiased media is also important in providing diverse and balanced reporting. Unfortunately, these are often hard to find in divided conflict geographies, where state leaders stoke conflict to drive nationalist support and control institutions, including the media, in order to sustain the narrative of a common enemy. This makes the role of social media, civil society, NGOs, and the international community ever more important in helping to deliver alternative narratives to division. After all, once I revealed to Aamaal that I was not in fact a Muslim, he was very apologetic. “You’ve made me think differently,” he added, refusing my offer of a tip. If the psychology of conflict tells us anything, it’s that conflict transformation is not only in the hands of grand interventions, it’s also in the grasp of individuals who desire to challenge perspectives.


Tej Parikh is a global policy analyst and journalist. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on international development. His work is archived at The Global Prism. He Tweets @tejparikh90.

Written by Tej Parikh and published on 20-June-2017




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