Characterizing the processes

that drive intergroup conflict and discrimination

Intuitively, one of the consequences of conflict is an erosion of empathy. However, it is much less clear what this means in conflict situations.

  • What type of empathy matters most to intergroup conflict – ‘cognitive’ empathy?
    Affective empathy? How can these best be measured?
  • Do we fail to empathize with others’ physical pain, or does it have more to do with
    denying their grief, humiliation and social pain? Are these similarly processed in the
  • Can empathy for one’s own group actually drive conflict?

In the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab, we examine the cognitive roots of empathy, for
example by looking at neural responses to others’ physical pain and emotional suffering, and
we use behavioral research to determine what roles ingroup and outgroup empathy play in real intergroup conflicts.

Some of the darkest chapters in human history have been accompanied by one group denying full humanity to another. We have examined blatant dehumanization using a range of tools (a measure based on the popular ‘ascent of man’ diagram, a trait-based measure, a measure using the reverse correlation technique. We have used these tools to demonstrate the importance of blatant dehumanization to major socio-political issues, including the Iranian Nuclear Accord, the Refugee Crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Muslim and Mexican immigration in the U.S.
The tendency to collectively blame an entire group for the actions of individuals can license ‘vicarious retribution’, or revenge against innocent members of a group. We have examined the relevance of collective blame to a number of real-world intergroup contexts, including the collective blame of Muslims for terror attacks, the African American Community for drug abuse, and the Roma community for drug trafficking.
We think of ourselves as rational beings, but our reason is heavily influenced by unconscious biases: We are Naïve Realists. If these biases are unconscious, how can they be measured? We explore ways in which neuroimaging and other subtle measures can be used to measure and assess high-level reasoning biases in a range of ideological settings, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the conflict between American political partisans. Ultimately, we hope that these measures will give us a window into not just what people think, but how they think in ideologically fraught settings.

Designing the interventions

to reduce intergroup conflict and discrimination

A common technique in intergroup settings is to have members of each group take the perspective of an individual from the other group. However, particularly in the context of asymmetric intergroup conflict, perspective-taking has been shown to fail or backfire. We have examined the benefits of playing the opposite role: Being given the opportunity to speak and be listened to: Perspective-Giving. We have examined this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the conflict over Mexican immigration in the American Southwest.
One factor that contributes to our negative views of others is how we think they view us, which we call ‘meta-perception’. Since these meta-perceptions are often inaccurate, we are exploring the ways in which updating these meta-perceptions can reduce intergroup hostility. We have examined this in the U.S with respect to Muslims, using text and video stimuli.
The human brain contains a host of unconscious biases that help to shape our views of other groups. We are examining if inducing people to pull these unconscious biases into conscious awareness can reduce the effects that these processes have on people’s responses to other groups. We have examined this in the U.S. and Spain, with respect to Muslims, African Americans and the Roma.