‘Who am I? Who are you?’ Kids’ understanding of social categories has implications for conflict resolution. How and when children recognize names, symbols and social cues influences how they understand and identify with relevant social groups. How they identify with one group also affects their attitudes and behaviours toward ‘others.’ This effect can be even stronger in settings with a long history of conflict.
Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Macedonia, for example are rooted in a history of conflict. The two dominant social groups in each setting have remained notably segregated across neighbourhoods and schools. Although the overt conflict has ended, it has left a lasting effect on post-accord generations. Understanding these effects can help research-based reconciliation and peace-building projects. In the long-term, this can build a healthy and cohesive society.
The Helping Kids! project explored how children from five to eleven years old in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Macedonia perceive prevalent social cues – such as names or icons – associated with conflict-related groups. Across all three settings, children readily recognized cues belonging to conflict-related categories. This recognition increased with age. For example, in Northern Ireland, children identified the poppy as belonging to the Protestant/British community, while the shamrock represented the Catholic/Irish community; in Macedonia, children distinguished between celebratory foods as Macedonian or Albanian; and in Kosovo, children recognized various murals and pop artists as either Albanian or Serbian.
The more aware children were of conflict-related group markers, the more they preferred their own groups’ symbols; those who preferring in-group symbols also shared fewer resources (e.g., stickers) with the outgroup. Thus, the way children thought about conflict-related groups had behavioural implications even at early ages. The bright side is that children’s previous experience seems to counteract this pattern. If a child reported more positive experiences with outgroup children, he/she was more likely to share resources with the outgroup.
Previous work in Northern Ireland has identified similar patterns. Children from segregated neighbourhoods in Belfast distributed more resources to ingroup members, especially when they held a strong group identity. Moreover, youth in Belfast who had higher quality and quantity contact with outgroup members had higher peacebuilding attitudes and civic engagement.
From this we know that children know about and have preferences for social cues related to conflict-related groups. This knowledge and preference has influences how resources are shared with others, an important first step in peacebuilding. Fostering more positive outgroup attitudes and opportunities for outgroup helping may have promising, long-term implications for more constructive intergroup relations.
The Helping Kids! lab is working to apply these findings in other contexts. As such, these findings may have implications for the 350 million children living in conflict-affected areas.
- Guest post by Dr. Laura K. Taylor, Dr. Jocelyn Dautel, Risa Rylander MSc, Dr. Ana Tomovska Misoska, and Edona Maloku Berdyna MSc.
*This phase of the Helping Kids! project was funded by the School of Psychology Research Incentivisation Scheme (RIS) and the Department for the Economy (DfE) - Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF) Award [DFEGCRF17-18/Taylor].
* This post is part of a series based on talks given at the Trajectories of Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Conference held at the University of Queensland in 2018.
Recent research suggests that identity fusion, a visceral sense of oneness with the group, is capable for motivating extreme self-sacrifice for others, even willingness to lay down one’s life in order to protect them. The link between fusion and self-sacrifice has been demonstrated in a wide variety of different groups, from rural tribesmen to football hooligans and from religious fundamentalists to revolutionary insurgents.
Can identity fusion help to explain the phenomenon of suicide terrorism? In a recent target article due to appear in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, I have argued yes. The article attracted a deluge of commentaries from which twenty-nine were accepted for publication, along with a substantial response from me. The debate is lively but the potential costs for not taking it seriously are high. If I’m right, instead of trying to de-radicalize terrorists we should be trying to de-fuse them. Rather than directly challenging the religious convictions or other kinds of beliefs held by extremists, the idea would be to focus attention instead on their personal experiences, and initiating a process of reframing self-defining memories that give rise to identity fusion in the first place. If such an approach were to work, it would likely need the support of the terrorists’ relational networks, including members of their families, school friends, workmates, and others.
Winnifred’s commentary (with Emma Thomas, Craig McGarty, Catherine Amiot, and Fathali Moghaddam*) also makes the argument that people fused with peaceful groups are not at risk of becoming violent extremists, so norm change may be a more relevant path forward for violent groups. I agree that violence condoning norms are likely to be part of the problem, and research we have done on fusion and violence with football hooligans supports this, but changing norms may not be the easiest or most effective starting point in tackling extremism. What we do know from previous research is that fusion is a necessary, even if not a sufficient, condition for certain forms of violent self-sacrifice so de-fusion certainly appears to be one of the options we should be considering in our efforts to tackle the problem.
Research on identity fusion has other potentially valuable applications to reduce criminal violence in society. In some cases, there may be benefits in fostering processes of fusion in persons who lack socially desirable group alignments, for example, convicted felons. If a legitimate goal of any criminal justice system is to reform prisoners, to reintegrate them into society as loyal and law-abiding citizens, then one way to do this might be to facilitate fusion with mainstream groups and values. Yet another potential application of fusion theory would be neither to create nor to obstruct group alignments but to harness existing ones, for example, to rebuild societies devastated by conflicts or natural disasters or to redirect the destructive urges of football hooligans into more socially desirable activities. Again, the research to test and translate the theory into application is only beginning to be conducted – and there is plenty of room for more researchers to become involved.
- Guest post by Professor Harvey Whitehouse, the University of Oxford.
* Louis, W. R., McGarty, C., Thomas, E. F., Amiot, C. E., & Moghaddam, F. M. (in press). The power of norms to sway fused group members. Brain and Behaviour Sciences. Accepted for publication, 11 June 2018.
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