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Exploring ‘the science of hatred’

REUTERS/Chris Helgren
An elderly woman cries at her husband's grave in a snow-covered Sarajevo graveyard on Dec. 30, 1993.

“What makes humans capable of horrific violence?” “Why do we deny atrocities in the face of overwhelming evidence?”

Those questions are the focus of a fascinating article entitled “The Science of Hatred,” by science writer Tom Bartlett in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The issues explored in the article seem especially pertinent this week, as South Africa and the world remember and honor Nelson Mandela, a man who lived through a time of great hatred and injustice and yet left a legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Bartlett’s article focuses on the work of Sabina Cehajic-Clancy, a Bosnian social psychologist who studies intergroup conflict. She has a personal as well as a scholarly interest in the topic. In 1992, when she was 12 years old, Cehajic-Clancy was forced to flee Sarajevo, first to Croatia and then to Germany, to escape the siege of that city by Bosnian Serbs. She and her family are Muslim. When the war ended three years later, thousands of people had died, including 8,000 Muslim men near the town of Srebrenica. As Bartlett writes, the murdered men, who included teenagers and the elderly, were “lined up behind houses, gunned down in soccer fields, hunted through the forest.”

Cehajic-Clancy has made it her life’s work to try to understand the psychological sources of prejudice and violence — and guilt and forgiveness. But researching the topic in Bosnia and Herzegovina — getting people to talk about collective guilt and responsibility in a country still emotionally reeling from the war — has been incredibly challenging.

“Some Serbs do acknowledge the genocide,” writes Bartlett. “According to a 2010 survey, though, most Serbs believe that whatever happened at Srebrenica has been exaggerated, despite being among the most scientifically documented mass killings in history. They shrug it off as a byproduct of war or cling to conspiracy theories or complain about being portrayed as villains. The facts disappear in a swirl of doubts and denial.”

An evolutionary explanation

Some scientists have turned to evolutionary biology for explanations of why people are able to dehumanize and then commit atrocities against of other groups.

“It makes a sort of cruel sense,” writes Bartlett. “Wiping out competing tribes protects your women and therefore your current and future offspring, gives you access to more resources, increases your safety. Dead men don’t raid villages. Altruism benefits members of the same community, as numerous studies and books describe, but altruism may prove a detriment when dealing with so-called out-groups.”

“A 2009 paper published in Science cited archaeological evidence of violent clashes between hunter-gatherer groups more than 10,000 years ago,” he adds. “That combative bent may extend even further back. A recent study of rhesus macaques found that they display ‘greater vigilance toward out-group members’ and that male monkeys, in particular, ‘show positive attitudes toward those in their in-group and negative attitudes toward those in their out-group.’ If men really did evolve to band together and battle outsiders, then every conflict is about more than the details of that dispute.”

A possible path to peace

That sounds depressing. For how can we overcome such evolutionary hardwiring? But Bartlett believes the evolutionary-biology explanation is actually good news. “If there is an underlying cause of warfare and prejudice, if hate is part of our evolutionary heritage, then perhaps there are paths toward peace that apply universally,” he says.

One of those paths is called intergroup contact theory. Developed in the 1950s by the American psychologist Gordon Allport, the theory proposes that greater contact between members of different groups reduces prejudice — but only if certain conditions are met.

“The status of the groups must be respected as equal,” explains Bartlett. “Those in authority must be supportive. [And] the contact must be more than superficial.”

In the ensuing decades, many studies have supported Allport’s theory.

“A meta-analysis of 515 studies involving a quarter-million subjects concluded that intergroup contact fosters ‘greater trust and forgiveness for past transgressions,’” writes Bartlett. “The effects are evident regardless of gender, age, religion, or ethnicity. They seem to hold even when the contact is indirect — that is, you are less likely to be prejudiced against a certain group if a member of your group is friends with a member of that group. A 2009 study published in American Psychologist found, somewhat incredibly, that simply thinking about positive interactions with a member of another group reduces prejudice. Imaginary contact may be better than none at all.”

Acknowledging responsibility

Cehajic-Clancy’s research has lent credence to Allport’s theory as well, as Bartlett explains:

In a 2010 study, she found that Serbs who had regular and meaningful interactions with Muslims were more likely to acknowledge that their countrymen were responsible for genocide — more support for Allport’s contact theory.

In perhaps her most intriguing study, Cehajic-Clancy and her co-authors asked Serbian high-school students to rate their level of agreement with statements like “Although I am not personally responsible for what has happened, I am ready to take on the responsibility for the behavior of my group” and “I think that my group should feel responsible for their crimes.” Before they were shown those statements, some subjects were asked by the researchers to write about a personal achievement, while others were asked to write about a group achievement. A third group, the control, received no prompt. Those who had written about a personal achievement were more likely to acknowledge and take responsibility.

It’s an odd result, but it jibes with previous studies suggesting that admitting group failure is a threat to a person’s sense of self-worth. Perhaps reflecting on a personal achievement makes people feel confident enough to view their group in an unflattering light. Meanwhile, reminding people of the pride they take in their group may make them more defensive and less open.

“We ought to be able to take a critical view of our own group. Otherwise, we’re in a mess,” Cehajic-Clancy told Bartlett. “If we only justify our group leaders, if we only justify our group leader’s actions, then we’re in conflict. If we start taking a critical view — ‘Yeah, I’m still what I am, but, wait a second, you can’t do what you’re doing, it’s not right’ — then there’s hope. That’s what the study shows.”

You can read Bartlett’s entire article on The Chronicle of Higher Education website.

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