The Psychology Of Tribal Hatred

Tom Bartlett explores the field of intergroup-conflict scholarship, or research that examines questions like “What makes humans capable of horrific violence?” and “Why do we deny atrocities in the face of overwhelming evidence?” Bosnian social psychologist Sabina Cehajic-Clancy is among the researchers profiled:

In perhaps her most intriguing study, Cehajic-Clancy and her co-authors asked Serbian high-school students to rate their level of agreement with statements like “Although I am not personally responsible for what has happened, I am ready to take on the responsibility for the behavior of my group” and “I think that my group should feel responsible for their crimes.” Before they were shown those statements, some subjects were asked by the researchers to write about a personal achievement, while others were asked to write about a group achievement. A third group, the control, received no prompt. Those who had written about a personal achievement were more likely to acknowledge and take responsibility.

It’s an odd result, but it jibes with previous studies suggesting that admitting group failure is a threat to a person’s sense of self-worth. Perhaps reflecting on a personal achievement makes people feel confident enough to view their group in an unflattering light. Meanwhile, reminding people of the pride they take in their group may make them more defensive and less open.