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Changing the consequences of national trauma

October 13, 2016

AMHERST, Mass. - New research led by social psychologist Bernhard Leidner at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will look at the consequences of violent trauma for groups and nations and investigate what victims and perpetrators can learn from it to avoid future trauma and conflict.

"Understanding such issues may help society develop more peaceful interactions between groups in conflict within a society as well as between nations," say Leidner and his Israeli co-investigator, Gilad Hirschberger at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and UMass Amherst social neuroscientist Jiyoung Park.

Leidner, an assistant professor in UMass Amherst's Psychology of Peace and Violence program, and Hirschberger recently received a three-year, $444,583 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $210,000 from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation to study how different perceptions of intergroup violence and trauma among both victim and perpetrator groups may escalate or de-escalate conflict. The team plans to eventually test whether an intervention that redirects how people think about historical trauma can change people's support for military versus diplomatic approaches to conflict.

Research participants will be from several countries that have experienced collective trauma, including Israel, Germany and the United States. The study's international component was supported by the NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering.

Most of the literature on past collective suffering and intergroup violence has focused on its negative consequences for victims, Leidner points out, and the role of past trauma experiences as an obstacle to conflict resolution. He wants to extend this literature by examining the effects of collective trauma on perpetrators as well as victims, and possible positive consequences, such as de-escalating current violence and preventing it in the future.

He says, "If your group has witnessed a trauma such as the Holocaust, for example, our idea is that we can look at both the trauma of suffering violence, for example by Jews, and the trauma of perpetrating the violence or this suffering, for example by Germans." If people interpret past trauma as a perpetual threat to their group, existence, worth or reputation, they may get to a defensive psychological state and may be more likely to engage in violence against others. But if people learn to interpret past trauma as more of a challenge to ensure that this never happens again, they may be less likely to act against others.

He adds, "We hypothesize that an outcome of this 'challenge view' of violence might be that perpetrators wish to prevent future violence against others, and victims wish to not let what happened to them happen to anyone else. There could be a positive, altruistic outcome of past trauma from the perspectives of both perpetrators and victims."

In a series of four opening studies, Leidner and colleagues plan to use self-report questionnaires and survey experiments to ask about defensive attitudes, group history and threat vs. challenge perception, for example, related to past trauma among Germans and Israeli Jews after the Holocaust, Americans and European Arab-Muslims after the September 11 attacks and after prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

In the latter four laboratory experiments of a total of eight studies, the researchers will compare trauma narratives and test whether a different set of people from these groups can change their attitudes about the meaning of past violence and trauma. Studies will test the idea that the determining factor in perceiving trauma as threat vs. challenge is within-group glorification, that is, peoples' tendency to view their own group as superior to others. Earlier studies will document attitudes at baseline, and later studies will test whether intervention can change attitudes in a new set of people.

"We hope to find differences in how participants feel about the history of their nation in terms of the trauma," Leidner says. They expect that most people will start out feeling defensive and accept a standard threat narrative as a result of past group violence. "Such a perception of history through the lens of threat can be detrimental to group interests in the long term." They will test whether people can change attitudes in a way that they perceive the trauma as a challenge to overcome in a more constructive manner. They will ask whether "such lessons of the past are not just particular for victim groups but if there are universal lessons that can benefit all of humanity," he adds.

The researchers will also take a neuroscientific approach by obtaining cardiovascular data such as electrocardiography, impedance cardiography and blood pressure responses from participants to identify cardiovascular markers of challenge and threat states. They suggest that challenge-related states may be more beneficial for intergroup behavior than a threat response and may open avenues to a more peaceful world.

Finally, Leidner says, "As a peace psychologist, I am definitely looking for interventions. The question is, can you communicate with people who have suffered or perpetrated violence and trauma and, for good or understandable reasons, subscribe to entrenched, threat-based narratives of the trauma? If it works the way I think it works, how can we open those trenches and use alternative narratives to challenge or motivate people to not let a violent past repeat in the future, to anyone, anywhere?"

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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