DANCING WITH DEMONS
Researchers Probe the Psychology of Ethnopolitical Conflict
The past decade has seen a proliferation of vicious warfare between ethnic groups. Within a given year during that period, about 30 ethnic skirmishes were underway somewhere in the world. The battlegrounds are usually within the communities themselves. Over 90 percent of casualties are noncombatants--usually women and children, and the aged--while the killers almost always are men. In some cases, whole neighborhoods become killing fields as one group carries out a murderous campaign against another. The destruction can spawn poverty and hunger throughout entire regions, and great waves of refugees fleeing the carnage exacerbate the volatility. Feelings of safety and well being vanish along with the routines of a once-ordinary life. Jobs disappear (as do entire villages); neighbors turn against neighbors; grief and loss are wide spread; uncertainty reigns. Those who survive do so immersed in a culture of brutality and come to see themselves along with their group as innocent victims of an evil and inhuman foe, thus sowing the seeds for future cycles of violence and death.
"It's very easy to imagine that there's something wrong with the people who get involved in doing ugly things to one another under the banner of ethnicity, that there's some kind of psychopathology. I believe it's entirely normal psychology." Clark McCauley, Gr'70, an adjunct psychology professor at Penn and codirector of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, is offering a psychologist's view of the atrocities many observers have found so difficult to wrap their minds around.
McCauley, a faculty member at Bryn Mawr College, is a social psychologist who explores the mental structures and processes that motivate groups of extremists and more moderate collectives afflicted with "groupthink." He heads the Asch Center along with Penn psychology professor Paul Rozin. Both work closely with executive director Roy Eidelson, a clinical and research psychologist, as well as associate directors K. Etty Jehn, professor of management at Wharton, and political science professor Ian Lustick.
Solomon Asch Center
"In psychology," Rozin points out, "we have a clinical arm, and we're interested in both the causes and the consequences. The consequences usually require a therapeutic response, which would not be touched by other [academic] disciplines." The center aims to provide psychologists and other academics and professionals with specialized knowledge based on a broad perspective--to train scientific practitioners to understand, to discover further knowledge, and to intervene at points around the globe before, during, and after outbreaks of ethnic strife.
A ten-week Summer Institute for postdoctoral fellows is offered every other year. The first, in 1999, drew 20 fellows from seven nations. The intensive program is taught by an international faculty of scholars and practitioners, some with experience in the world's hot spots. The curriculum deals with case studies, theories of conflict and its resolution, training for dealing with related mental health issues, instruction in methods of field research, and other topics pertaining to research and intervention.
The Asch Center is linked to an international network of sites on the front lines of ethnic struggle. Five postdoctoral fellows from the first Summer Institute are receiving continuing support for research in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Israel/Palestine, and the Niger Delta. "Psychologists' current weakness in helping victims of ethnopolitical wars stems directly from their lack of first-hand experience of the phenomenon," states McCauley. "That's why we want our postdocs to go live in the culture, learn about it, and then apply their training directly."
Psychology of Us and Them
"It's a pretty complicated world," observes Rozin. "People generally try to simplify their world, and one way to do it is to divide things into the good and the bad." In the process of group identification, the tendency to simplify may abet an ethnic group's selective and favorable reconstruction of history, which typically aggrandizes the group while vilifying the adversary. It's a play of perceptions--a dance of substance and shadow.
"The critical thing," notes Rozin, "and that's where psychology comes in, is what people believe is the issue not what is the case."
Self-glorifying myths can serve as powerful triggers for ethnic warfare. Eidelson speculates that the propensity of groups to construct and embrace "worldviews" is an important factor in predisposing them to violence. "Core beliefs," he explains, "are the stable cognitive patterns--believed to form relatively early in life--that an individual employs to understand a situation, producing regularity in the interpretation of events. Many of these organizing beliefs revolve around the individual's view of self, others, the world, and the future." He thinks group beliefs parallel the patterns psychologists have long detected in individuals. Just as an individual's mindset can lead to dysfunctional behavior when it is unrealistic, so too can a shared and strongly held worldview set a collectivity on a destructive course.
The "superiority worldview," for instance, which is comparable to individual narcissism, is often manifest in an ethnic group's history. Groups frequently remember past events as a story of how they have been somehow "chosen" or of having had a special destiny short circuited by a past injustice, despite the valor of some martyr. "This mythical and heroic past," notes Eidelson, "which often demonizes other groups, is available for political entrepreneurs to call upon in their efforts to mobilize support for a nationalist agenda."
Self-aggrandizing beliefs can be even more deadly when savvy leaders evoke the group's "injustice worldview." Adds Eidelson: "Rhetorical appeals to action can be especially effective when they engage issues of innocence and victimization," whether real or perceived.
Human beings, says McCauley, are "ready and even eager to pour themselves into persons and things outside themselves. The power of an ethnic group is precisely the degree to which individuals will sacrifice their narrow self-interest--even their lives--to the group interest." Why is the ethnic group, abstract and fuzzy though it may be, deemed a worthy vessel for members to drain their very selves--and offer up the burnt sacrifice of others?
Researchers don't know the answer; few psychologists have studied the causes and consequences of this kind of warfare. "The challenge for psychology," declares McCauley, "is to understand the nature of this group feeling, its origins and manipulations."
At the Solomon Asch Center scholars are posing some of the critical questions that will go toward understanding and relieving the misery inflicted by ethnopolitical strife. The greatest hope is that by working with other social scientists, psychologists might contribute to preventing future wars instead of just trying to heal the wounded. "At the very least," urges Eidelson, "directing more psychologists toward examination of these pressing issues is a step in the right direction."