|Title:||Dealing with the Past of Intergroup Violence: Psychological Reactions to Collective Wrongdoings|
Assistant Professor of Political Psychology Department of Political Science and International Relations Sarajevo School of Science and Technology Sarajevo, BIH email@example.com
In light of the horrendous genocides of the 20th Century, an important topic in social
science has been how perpetrator groups in a post-conflict era psychologically deal with
their own crimes. The ultimate goal of this line of enquiry was to examine which processes
might contribute to an increase of acknowledgment of responsibility for committed
atrocities and consequently what are the psychological consequences of knowing that ones
group has committed grave harm against other people. My work in Bosnia Herzegovina
has focused on these questions from a social psychological perspective.
Using interviews and extensive surveys of Serbian adolescents living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the research has shown that people are, in general, reluctant to publicly acknowledge that members of their group have committed grave atrocities in the past such as killings of innocent people, mass deportation, rape etc. People are more inclined to employ different psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, moral justifications, and victim dehumanization. For example, two experimental studies showed that people, when reminded of their group's responsibility for committed harm, dehumanized the victims to a higher degree in comparison to people who were not reminded that their group was responsible for commission of atrocities (Cehajic, Brown, & Castano, 2009).
Two further studies showed that perpetrator group members' propensity to acknowledge their group's responsibility is correlated with the amount and type of contact they subsequently have had with the victim group. The findings suggest that this is most likely because contact increases the ability to look at the conflict from the victim group perspective and decreased the belief that one's own group has suffered more than anyone else (Cehajic & Brown, 2010).
Even though people were more inclined to deny or justify their group's moral violations and levels of acknowledgment of responsibility were rather low, findings of this research show that such acknowledgment has the capacity to increase the emotion of collective guilt through increasing personal acceptance of collective responsibility and the emotion of collective shame through increasing a perception of threatened group image. In other words, people who are willing to accept responsibility for what their group has done to others in the past might end up feeling guilty for their group's past behavior and people who think that their group reputation has been damaged might end up feeling ashamed.
Future work will need to investigate two questions: first, it needs to be experimentally examined how we can increase peoples' readiness and willingness to publicly acknowledge and also accept their group's responsibility for hurting other groups' members. Second, further research needs to focus victim group responses to different perpetrators' reactions to their wrongdoings such as denial, acceptance of responsibility, emotions of guilt, shame etc. On a more general level, research needs to examine which reaction will lead to re- humanization of the perpetrator group, trust, and ultimately reconciliation.
Cehajic, S., Brown, R., & Gonzalez, R. (2009). What do I care? Perception of ingroup
responsibility and dehumanization as predictors of empathy felt for the victim group. Group
Processes and Intergroup Relations, 12(6), 715-729.
Cehajic, S., & Brown, R. (2010). Silencing the Past: Effect of intergroup contact on acknowledgment of ingroup atrocities. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1(2), 190-196.