How to avoid war and conflict – with a little help from social psychology

The posturing of US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un gave rise to a terrifying realisation: that we are moving closer to a nuclear war. The recognition that such a war could be our last raises the most serious questions about human behaviour.

Can we prevent war? If so, how? Can we can make our world a safer place to live in? Fortunately, social psychological research provides some answers.

One insight is provided by Social Identity Theory (SIT), originally formulated by the psychologist Henri Tajfel. He believed that people are naturally inclined to self categorise into an “ingroup” (us) and an “outgroup” (them).

According to SIT, the ingroup seeks to distinguish itself from the outgroup by attributing them with negative qualities. The theory has been used to account for discrimination and hostility towards different groups. Outgroup members of a different race, culture, and political affiliation are seen as less trustworthy than ingroup members.

Distrust of outgroup members, and the hostility it creates, provide fertile grounds for conflict. But SIT also provides potential for intervention strategies. Specifically, the major goal of any intervention should be to promote trust.

One way is through third party mediation. This involves the opposing parties meeting in the presence of a neutral person, with the goal of finding solutions to the dispute, and resolving the conflict. Social psychological research has shown that mediation is effective in restoring the victim’s sense of power as well as the perpetrator’s moral image. The use of mediation (among other forms of peacekeeping) has been used by the United Nations with some success in resolving international conflicts, such as the one in Cyprus during the 1970s.

The aim of mediation is to build trust by encouraging communication. But its effectiveness depends in part on the extent to which the conflicting parties trust the mediator. This poses a problem for mediation between warring nations because the mediator has to be trusted by both countries.

Another approach involves a group of strategies involving what is known as “structured reciprocally cooperative interactions”. This approach is shown in the work of the American psychologist Charles Osgood, who was concerned with the cold war and the arms race of the 1960s.

He suggested that hostile nations engage in a strategy of “graduated reciprocation in tension reduction” (GRIT) to achieve disarmament. The strategy involves the first nation making a modest reduction in arms, which, crucially, is verifiable. They then wait until the other nation reciprocates with a similar reduction.

Seeking psychological solutions. Shutterstock

The first partner then engages in a greater reduction in arms which is matched by the other. As a consequence of these reciprocal exchanges, a trusting relationship emerges between the nations, and mutual disarmament is achieved.

Outgroup distrust can be reduced and peace promoted if conflicting nations or groups are engaged in specific cooperative ventures with mutual benefits. These interventions are most effective when they involve interactions which involve equal status, common goals and cooperation. Using such an approach, social psychologist Miles Hewstone found that cross religion friendships promoted trust between Catholic and Protestant adolescents in Northern Ireland.

Prevention is better than cure

Unfortunately, by the time that conflict arises and there is a threat of war, the nations or groups involved have usually already made significant progress on this path. More attention needs to be given to developing and implementing prevention strategies that remove the conditions for conflict and war.

Adopting preventative strategies based on cooperative ventures with mutual benefits is invaluable, and would help us to make the world a safer place to live. It must be hoped that world leaders will draw upon the recommendations from social psychology.

Tweeted threats can simply fuel the fire of conflict. Well thought out strategies for mediation and cooperation may well help to extinguish it.

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