Beyond Identioty

Later this week, I’ll be heading to Oberlin to help plan my fiftieth college reunion. I’m actually going out a day early so I can sit in on Cindy Frantz’s social psychology class both because I’m currently writing about that subject which she and her students know a lot more about that I do. In short, I’ll be a very old student.

Peacebuilders’ interest in social psych has a long history. During the Cold War, we learned a lot about concepts like the image of the enemy. After it, we had to deal with qualitatively different kinds of conflicts that revolved around race, religion, ethnicity, language, gender, and other “identity” issues. We made huge progress during the 1990s as we developed analytical tools and embarked on programs that attempted to bring people on all sides of these emotionally charged issues together.

Those kinds of conflicts still are the ones we focus on. However, our understanding of what makes them so difficult to resolve have led us to explore some ideas that were already well-established in social psychology but have just begun to make our programs more nuanced—and seemingly more effective.

So, here are the leading ones I’m working which will be at the heart of what I want to learn about from Cindy and here students:

  • Mindsets. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck first popularized the term in a book with that title she published in 2006. On one level, she and others use the term as the individual’s equivalent of a societal paradigm. On another level, her own work focused on the difference between what she called a growth rather than a fixed mindset. In particular, how do we get the people we work into a way of thinking in which they look upon everything they do—especially times they spend with their political opponents—as learning experiences. I’ve been working on personal paradigm shifts since the 1980s, but Dweck’s notion of a growth mindset has lots of potential.
  • Unconscious/Implicit bias. Social scientist have also discovered that many stereotypes and prejudices are so deeply ingrained that we are not even aware that they exist let alone that they are changeable through, to cite but one example, the adoption of a growth mindset. The logic here is quite simple but hard to demonstrate empirically. Whatever we might say about our beliefs about identity based issues, most of us also have prejudices that lurk below the surface. Biases of that sort matter in conflict resolution and peacebuilding as well as most other areas of our social lives. Certainly, as we deal with the continued problems of race and, now, the #metoo movement in this country, we have to develop programs that address these deeply held but often hidden values.
  • Empathy and Compassion. Of the topics we have borrowed from social psychologists , empathy and compassion probably had the most important concrete impact on our work. As is the case with everything covered here, these are not new concepts even in our communities. However, as we explored the intra- and inter-personal aspects of the field and new research was published in related disciplines, both of these terms took on new levels of meaning while also giving us new reasons to feel optimistic about the future. We start with compassion because it is among the most important motivations that lead people to want to work in this field. Perhaps even more important is empathy for one simple reason. How can I realistically hope to find common ground with you if I can’t first understand how and why you think the way you do.
  • Neuroscience. At the Alliance for Peacebuilding, we have been working on the relationship between neuroscience, spirituality, and peacebuilding for the last few years. That work recently culminated in the launch of a new website, Peace Rewire. It is now quite clear that there is a relationship between the way our brains are “wired” and the ways we act both as a result of conscious thought and through reflex, instinctual action. Our team is beginning to explore how we can adjust those patterns, both in the conscious side of our behavior as suggested in everything in this blog post so far but also in the ways we can circumvent the instincts all or most of us have to lash out and otherwise deal with conflict in a less than constructive way.
  • Social Evolution. One of the colleagues I met through the neuroscience projects convinced me to read the work of a growing number of psychologists who view evolution through a mental lens. As they see it, one of the main themes in our history as a species has been the gradual shift away from those instinctual tendencies toward violence and the like that grow out of the “fight or flight” wiring of our brains. Instead, we have learned a lot about how we can build on the other key theme of our social evolution—our ability to cooperate with each other. If the evolutionary psychologists are right, social progress has occurred in large part because we learned to rely on that part of our brain more and more over the centuries and millennia. The question now is how—or perhaps if—we can speed up that evolution.

When I look out at the work my colleagues have done over the last twenty years or so, I can see echoes of each of these psychological insights. Rarely, however, have we incorporated them consciously or explicitly called on the expertise of people like Cindy.

My co-author Doug Irvin-Erickson and I certainly plan to stress these themes in the last sections of the textbook we are writing. Between now and then, it’s certainly worth talking through with Cindy and her students—even if it costs me an extra night’s lodging at the wonderful new Hotel at Oberlin.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 

Also published on Medium.