What lies at the root of long-standing conflicts? Often, both sides feel compelled to continue punishing the other side out of a sense that they have been wronged. Each party’s desire to show that he or she has endured greater suffering than the other can lead to competitive victimhood—a win-lose mind-set in which each side believes that he or she is the victim and the other side is the perpetrator. Recent violent conflicts in Israel, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Chile highlight the tendency of groups to cling to past grievances and resist looking for solutions to their destructive conflicts, write researchers Ilanit SimanTov-Nachlieli and Nurit Shnabel of Tel Aviv University and Samer Halabi of Tel Aviv–Yaffo Academic College.
In a new study, SimanTov-Nachlieli and her colleagues examined whether parties would become more willing to move toward reconciliation if their status as victim was acknowledged. Would recognition of their past pain bring the closure they need to actively strive for peace?
Who’s the true victim?
The researchers recruited 50 Palestinian students and 50 Jewish students at an Israeli university for their study. All the students read a short paragraph about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict that noted that each side tends to view itself as experiencing greater injustice and suffering than the other. Students in the control group (both Israelis and Palestinians) then answered some questions, such as which group is the real victim in the conflict and which had faced greater injustice and suffering. The researchers also assessed participants’ willingness to forgive and reconcile with the other side, their relative pessimism regarding the future of the conflict, the extent to which they felt that their group could help to resolve the conflict, and their willingness to personally work toward ending the conflict.
Before answering these same questions, Israeli and Palestinian participants in the experimental condition read a statement saying that recent studies (actually fictitious) had determined that their own group (Jewish or Palestinian) had experienced “greater injustice and suffering on both the national and individual levels” on measures such as casualties, trauma, economic loss, and human-rights violations.
The results showed that participants who were told that their group was the greater victim were more willing to forgive and reconcile, and also held a less pessimistic view of the conflict, relative to those in the control group. In addition, Jews, but not Palestinians, who believed that their group was the true victim were more likely than those in the control group to think their group could promote reconciliation and that they personally could play a role in the peace process.
Clearing the air
Overall, the findings suggest that individuals may be more open to peace negotiations when they feel that their group’s past suffering has been acknowledged and legitimized. Of course, in the real world, openly declaring one party to be the true victim could backfire. Mediators and other third parties might instead acknowledge the victim status of both sides, encouraging them to view the victim role as divisible rather than zero-sum. For business negotiators, the results imply that explicitly acknowledging a counterpart’s experience of victimhood and expressing a desire to make amends may be a key step in resolving conflict.
Resource: “Winning the Victim Status Can Open Conflicting Groups to Reconciliation: Evidence from the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” by Ilanit SimanTov-Nachlieli, Nurit Shnabel, and Samer Halabi. European Journal of Social Psychology, 2015.