Not long after the September 11th attacks, a Newsweekcover story famously purported to explain “why they hate us,” they being militant Muslim extremists. But there might be a problem with that thinking. According to a new study, it’s not hatred of outsiders that motivates opposing sides in a conflict. To some extent, it’s love for each other.
Psychologists have known for quite a while now that we interpret others’ actions rather differently than our own, even if they’re the very same actions. There’s a simple reason for that difference, variously called the fundamental attribution error and correspondence bias. While we experience our own internal responses to the situations we encounter, we can only see the external actions that others take. It’s not that we’re incapable of empathy—who hasn’t heard the aphorism that you can’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes?—but it’s harder when we don’t know what others are thinking and feeling. It’s harder still when political or military conflict is involved: That idea is often illustrated by the hostile media effect, in which both sides in a dispute view media coverage as biased against them.
It’s not that we’re incapable of empathy—who hasn’t heard the aphorism that you can’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes?—but it’s harder when we don’t know what others are thinking and feeling.
That’s all fairly well understood, but psychologists Adam Waytz, Liane Young, and Jeremy Ginges wondered whether they could get at the specific emotions that conflicting parties felt toward their comrades and their enemies. To do so, they first asked 285 Americans to rate, on seven-point scales, whether either their political party or the opposing one was motivated by love (empathy, compassion, and kindness) or hate (dislike, indifference, or hatred toward those in their own party). On average, study participants rated their own parties as being 23 percent more motivated by love than hate, while they rated those in other parties as being 29 percent more motivated by hate than love.
Things got a bit more interesting when the team asked similar questions of 497 Israelis and 1,266 Palestinians. Asked why some of their fellow citizens supported bombing in Gaza, Israelis reported they were 35 percent more motivated by love for fellow Israelis than hate, while they thought just about the reverse for Palestinians’ motivations for firing rockets into Israel. Palestinians, meanwhile, ascribed more hate than love to Israelis, though they thought fellow Palestinians were about equally motivated by love and hate. An additional survey of 498 Israelis found that the more they perceived differences in the two parties’ motivations, the less likely they were to support negotiations, vote for a peace deal, or believe that Palestinians would support such a deal.
Such perceptions are “a significant barrier to resolution of intergroup conflict,” the authors write in a paper published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. From an additional study of Republicans and Democrats, the team concludes that monetary incentives might ameliorate the problem, though “the strength of this particular intervention might vary for conflicts of a more violent and volatile nature.”