Can Both Victims and Perpetrators of Trauma Think Differently About Repeating Violence?
In a world where violence is too often met with more violence, is it possible to convince victims and perpetrators to respond differently to future conflicts? And if it is, how can people be challenged or motivated to act differently, so that the violence of the past doesn’t repeat itself?
Can the shattered lives of trauma victims and perpetrators ever be repaired in a way that prevents future violence? A new BSF-supported study aims to find out.
These difficult questions are being raised as part of a BSF-funded collaboration that will look at the consequences of violent trauma for groups and nations, as well as investigate what victims and perpetrators can learn from it to avoid future trauma and conflict. The project is being led by social psychologists Bernhard Leidner, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Psychology of Peace and Violence Program, and Gilad Hirschberger, an associate professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
With grants from both BSF and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Leidner and Hirschberger will study how different perceptions of violence and trauma among both victim and perpetrator groups may escalate or de-escalate conflict.
“It is our hope that understanding such issues may help society develop more peaceful interactions between groups in conflict within a society as well as between nations,” said Hirschberger.
Most of the literature on past collective suffering and intergroup violence has focused on victims. This study will be different because it will also examine the effects of collective trauma on perpetrators. Leidner and Hirschberger hope that by providing alternatives to prevailing narratives of victimhood and guilt, they can put members of victim and perpetrator groups in a constructive mindset that will promote better intergroup understanding.
Research participants will come from Israel and the United States, as well as Germany. These nations were chosen specifically because each has their own history of violence and trauma among population groups.
“As a peace psychologist, I am definitely looking for interventions,” Leidner said. “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?”
Leidner and Hirschberger both hope the answer to that question will be “yes.”
During the initial phase of the project, Leidner and Hirschberger will use self-report questionnaires and survey experiments to ask victims and perpetrators of past violence about defensive attitudes, group history, and possible future threats. They expect most of the participants will start out feeling defensive, believing that future violence is an inevitable result of past group violence.
“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,” Leidner said.
They call this a “challenge view,” and said that “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.”
Once they collect their initial data, researchers will conduct laboratory studies to examine whether redirecting the perception of trauma among members of victim and perpetrator groups can have a positive effect. The idea is to see whether study participants can think of trauma as a challenge to overcome in a more constructive manner.
“If it works the way we think it works, then we can start discovering 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,” Leidner said.