Can we end war by changing how we think?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2003, 12:00am

War is no more natural than peace. It is a man-made matrix of behaviour and beliefs, actively invented and reinvented by people to serve the purposes of their time. Now, say a growing number of psychologists and other theorists, it is time to devote our energies to inventing peace.

Psychologists are better known for contributing to war by developing psychological warfare, such as blanketing enemy cities with leaflets or manipulating the media.

Now, they are aggressively pursuing alternatives to the psychological conditions that lead to war - and ways to contribute to inventing peace have emerged.

One example is the newest developments of the 'contact hypothesis', as refined by psychologists working in Northern Ireland. Essentially, the hypothesis states that increased contact between people will ultimately lead to reduced conflict - and more chance of lasting peace. It has already influenced Northern Ireland policymakers and helped bring opponents to the table. Failures in peace plans over the years have helped psychologists hone the theory further, breaking it down into three carefully orchestrated processes.

The first stage is decategorisaton. This is when individuals from opposing groups are given the chance to get to know each other and begin to identify less strongly with a particular group (for example, Protestants). This is not as obvious as it seems, because years of cyclical hurt often make such contacts impossible or too loaded with significance to progress naturally.

But this has to be accomplished before moving on to the second stage, inter-group contact. Here, the two groups are given opportunities to spend time together in non-threatening circumstances to validate the fact that they are, indeed, opposing groups. Even though this is the case, the personal links created in the first stage can remain.

Only when this is achieved can the recategorisation stage begin. Participants are encouraged to try to forge a common psychological group identity - Christian, rather than Protestant versus Catholic, for example.

For this system to work, the individuals involved - those best equipped to be future negotiators or 'ambassadors for peace' - must be as representative of their group as possible, so they are not dismissed as forming a 'subtype' when they reintegrate.

The psychological premise is that group identity is part of who we are and affects how we think, feel and behave. Trying to defuse entrenched conflict by appealing to logic does not work. Nor is it how we rationally think about groups that matters. What counts is how we experience life as an individual and as part of different groups.

Another example of attempts to invent peace is conflict-resolution theory. These techniques, developed by Herbert Kelman, were taught to negotiators in the Middle East and were instrumental in helping Israelis and Palestinians reach the Oslo peace accord in 1993. Professor Kelman brought together politically influential Israelis and Palestinians in private, unofficial, problem-solving groups. Participants were encouraged to explore each other's perspective and find ideas for mutually satisfactory solutions to their conflict. Professor Kelman emphasised an understanding of personal perspectives in these small groups that could be used to promote change in a larger, politically charged context.

In one particular conflict-resolution process, which Professor Kelman calls interactive problem-solving, a third party is used to help the two sides explore feasible, fair resolutions - ones that, again, address human, rather than political, issues.

In South Africa, psychology has been instrumental in efforts to short-circuit cycles of violence and heal wounds inflicted by years of conflict. Here, the guiding principles are based on social-identity theory, which was used to inform a key part of the 1998 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Essentially, the theory focuses on the patterns of behaviour we adopt when we are part of a group. South Africa was a typical example of how people act destructively, not because of what they are like as individual personalities, but in terms of their social identities - in an 'inter-group' rather than an 'inter-personal' context.

Hence, it makes sense to bring together those people to break down the group divides. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is scientifically wrong to say humans are inherently prone to violence and war, according to the 1991 Unesco-sponsored Seville statement on violence: preparing the ground for the construction of peace. This project, and many psychologists working in other areas of 'peace invention', aim to promote the idea that peace is not a weak abstract concept or a negative one (the absence of war). In fact, it is more accurate and useful to perceive peace as an active state - a long-term commitment requiring at least as active an engagement as war inevitably commands.

We have witnessed the end of the war in Iraq, a war reinvented to suit new realities and purposes. It is time, according to this vigorous new school of psychology, to put our force into inventing new cultures of peace.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer