Remembering Your Tribe’s Misdeeds Boosts Willingness to Reach Out


One of the challenges of getting warring groups to reconcile is the deep sense of victimhood each side can feel. Because one group can point out atrocities committed by the other, and vice versa, a vicious cycle develops that perpetuates violence. It’s one of the most enduring features of conflict.

Now researchers have found that just thinking about atrocities committed by one’s own side boosts the desire to reach out.

Past research has shown people who feel like “victims” have a need for empowerment but people who feel like “perpetrators” have a need for social acceptance, said Agostino Mazziotta at the University of Hagen in Germany. The perpetrators want acceptance because their self-image as good and moral people is threatened by the things that have happened.

The new research wanted get at a big problem: A lot of conflicts have victims and perpetrators on both sides. So how do you bridge the impasse?

Current Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Image: Shealah Craighead.

Current Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Image: Shealah Craighead.

“In conflicts with reciprocal harmdoing, such as civil wars or even personal partnerships, it might be a very promising strategy to think about the harm that one, (or one’s fellows) have inflicted upon others, because it activates the need for acceptance. This might motivate you to approach the other in an effort to restore the relationship,” Mazziotta said.

To test their hypothesis, Mazziotta and his fellows talked with folks from different ethnic groups in Liberia. The country experienced two brutal civil wars in 1989-96 and 1999-2003. Multiple ethnic groups took sides in the fighting.

“We asked participants in a safe context to think and briefly describe an episode of how their ethnic group were harmed by other ethnic groups or how their group inflicted harm upon others,” Mazziotta said.

Not only did the latter group empathize with others more, they were more willing to engage in contact with them.

We should also keep in mind that different situations might make it easier for people to recognize their own group’s wrongs, he said. For example, after the hot phase of the conflict has ended and some basic healing has already taken place.

The study, “Does Remembering Past Ingroup Harmdoing Promote Postwar Cross-Group Contact? Evidence from a Field-Experiment in Liberia,” was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Featured Image: A young Liberian woman preparing for a dance in 2006. Credit: Arddu.