President, Carnegie Corporation of New York


President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Thank you very much, Jessica. It is a privilege to be introduced by you. I, like Jane, am a long-time admirer of Jessica Tuchman Mathews. I want to congratulate Jack Gibbons and Jane Wales. This is a very farsighted program, and I think it will open up major opportunities.

What the scientific community does first and foremost is to provide understanding, insight, and stimulating ways of viewing important problems. I want to address a fundamental (but at the same time a very difficult) part of this whole problem area: What are the actual and potential contributions of the bio-behavioral sciences and the social sciences to conflict resolution and conflict prevention? Particularly, what are the ways in which these contributions might increase substantially in the years ahead?

High standards of systematic objective inquiry simply have to be applied to this field, involving in a variety of combinations and collaborative ways, the biological, behavioral and social sciences. Such crucial world problems as those involved in human conflict do not come in neat packages that fit the traditional disciplines.

In point of fact, this terribly important area of human experience has not been, a major subject for scientific inquiry. Even now, it is largely a marginal subject, both in research and education, even in the world's greatest academic institutions. Nevertheless, some interesting and potentially useful approaches have emerged. Let me first just very briefly mention some of the areas of active inquiry and then focus in on one.

The topics under study include: (1) The neuro biology of aggressive behavior, (that is, cell circuits and chemistry mediating such behavior); (2) biomedical aspects of individual violence, including the role of drugs in precipitation, exacerbation, and therapy; (3) child abuse and its effect on subsequent development; (4) the study of conflicts at various levels of organization (such as families, communities, and nations) in the search for common factors and principles so that discoveries at one level may illuminate issues at another level; (5) detailed, systematic inquiry into the origin and resolution of past conflicts and ongoing efforts in relation to contemporary ones; (6) formulation of fundamental concepts pertinent to a wide range of conflicts, such as ideas about justice; (7) experimental research on simulated conflicts; (8) the study of various intergroup and international institutions and their relation to conflict; (9) the study of negotiations, both in real-life and simulated circumstances; and (10) research specifically focusing on war and peace, including ways to diminish the likelihood of nuclear war. These studies flourished during the Cold War and are in a somewhat peculiar position at the moment.

The needs and opportunities for major contributions in understanding human conflict and paths to conflict resolution are simply immense, but there is much to be overcome. The inherent complexity of the subject matter is one obstacle. Old conceptual rigidities like the heredity-environment dichotomy constitute another. Proper ethical limitations on experimental control in human research are yet another obstacle. There are also ancient prejudices against objective inquiry into human behavior, dogmatic social ideologies, and institutional inertia regarding any kind of major change.

One of the great challenges is for science policy to organize a much broader and deeper effort to understand the nature and sources of human conflict, and above all, to develop more effective ways of resolving conflict short of disaster, as Jane Wales just said. Let me give a very brief perspective from research on evolutionary biology, anthropology, and history regarding this problem area.

First, a quick word about research on nonhuman primates, a field in which I used to be very active. Research on nonhuman primates in the past few decades, both in natural habitats and in experimental settings, has turned up three very interesting convergent points on this subject. In most nonhuman primates, the more complex monkeys and apes, the strong bonds of attachment between individuals are crucial to survival and reproductive success, and protection of such bonds is a major context for aggressive behavior. A second important context for aggression is competition for limited and highly valued resources, especially the crowding of strangers in the context of premium resources. Third, in most species, individuals show a strong attachment to one group and are antagonistic toward strangers from other groups.

The Human Group, Adaptation, and Deadly Conflict There are powerful links between human groups and human survival. The basic facts have implications for conflict resolution and mutual accommodation. There is a very long evolutionary background of human groups. As I said, monkeys and apes typically live in groups whose internal structure is based upon intense and persistent attachments between individuals. They have long-term, complex relationships that are crucial for their survival and reproduction. Those observations, to some degree, foreshadow what has been learned about the simplest human societies, the hunter-gatherer societies.

The hunter-gatherers--the earliest form of human societies in which our ancestors lived for some several million years--typically lived in groups of about 20 to 50 members. Reciprocity was crucial in their relationships, both within and between groups. Disapproval by the group was enforced by jeopardy to sharing in the future and by the threat of rejection. Powerful sanctions reinforced conformity to group norms. The importance of sharing was conveyed to children from infancy onward. The primary group, the small society, changed slowly in the lifetime of an individual and was the main locus of problem-solving for adaptation. In other words, belong to survive, as group membership is a key to survival.

So over many millennia in simple societies of human origin, a sense of personal worth was built upon one's sense of belonging to a valued group. A sense of belonging in turn depended on the ability to master the traditional tasks of that society to engage in social interactions that are mutually supportive. All of this was further reinforced by participating in deeply meaningful group rituals where a social identity was shared (this is my group, these are my people) and invested with deep emotional significance.

All of these traditional experiences occurred within the context of the small, enduring, face- to-face group of great intimacy that provided the security of familiarity, support in time of stress, shared coping strategies, and enduring attachments to sustain hope in the face of adversity. That is how we evolved. That is how we got here over millions of years the small group in adaptation.

The evidence of modern biological, anthropological, and historical research indicates that these basic facts of small-scale, traditional life that applied during the several million years in which our ancestors organized in hunting and gathering societies also applied to the extended family of agricultural village society that began to appear about 10,000 years ago, as well as to the primary group of the homogeneous neighborhood in pre-industrial towns within historical times.

As times have drastically changed, especially since the Industrial Revolution throughout the past two centuries, and as people have flowed over the earth like flood waters, they have fervently sought to maintain social support networks similar in basic functions to the small societies in which our species evolved. Such social support systems facilitate the development of coping strategies that help us make a living, keep distress in bad times within limits that are tolerable, maintain self-respect, preserve human relationships, meet the requirements of new situations, and prepare for the future. There is a tremendous amount riding on group membership, on identification with a group, and on the identity of a person with a group.

During the past few decades fruitful insights about these matters have come from experimental research on the psychology of intergroup behavior. Social psychologists, as well as anthropologists and sociologists, have been interested in the truly pervasive human propensity to distinguish between "in groups" and "out groups." Both in field studies and in experimental research, the flow of evidence is very impressive. Human beings find it exceedingly easy to learn "in group" favoritism or "in group" bias.

People are remarkably prone to form partisan distinctions between their own and other groups, to develop sociometric preferences for their own group, to discriminate against other groups, to accept favorable evaluations of the products and performances of the "in group," to accept unfavorable characterizations of other groups that go far beyond the objective evidence or the requirements of the situation.

This is true, by the way, not only of long-standing group commitments like families, but even in experimental situations where only a brief orientation is given to distinguish a newly- formed group. In fact, experimenters find it difficult to avoid invidious distinctions, even when the experimenter wishes to do so.

Overall, it is very easy to stimulate a strong sense of "my people," or the "in group." This easily learned response may well have had adaptive functions in human evolution over a very long period, but now our circumstances have changed rapidly. They are much more complex, and very different than those in which we evolved. So these "in-group, out-group" responses are, to say the least, highly problematic in their consequences. It is important to note that invidious distinctions can be readily and powerfully exacerbated by political demagogues, as we have seen so vividly in this century. Such exacerbation can have disastrous consequences--such as Nazi Germany, Stalin's Russia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and plenty more on the horizon.

Many different political, social, economic, and pseudo-scientific ideologies have been utilized in support of these hostile positions. Groups have been specified in many ways. Although we often speak about ethnocentrism, it might be better to speak of "groupocentrism," because groups have been specified by religion, race, language, region, tribe, nation, and various political entities.

The worldwide historical record is full of hateful and destructive activities based on such invidious distinctions, often associated with deeply felt beliefs about superiority, or a sense of jeopardy to group survival (a very important consideration) or justification by supernatural powers, as in "holy wars." All that is an ancient part of the human legacy and now more dangerous than ever before.

There is a probability of mass violence in contemporary circumstances by conjunction of several factors that bear on these "in-group, out-group" distinctions. Consider the background of underlying ethnic tensions, religious tensions, and inter-group tensions, waxing and waning over centuries. Against that background comes a circumstance of economic deterioration or free-fall which elicits great fear. Consider also erosion of social norms and in the most extreme case, the failed state, with exacerbation by political demagogues.

This conjunction of circumstances underlying intergroup tensions, economic deterioration, the erosion of social norms, and exacerbation by political demagogues we see now in the former Soviet Union. We also see it in the former Yugoslavia, and we see it in many parts of Africa and Asia.

Prejudice and Ethnocentrism in Child Development and Education Now let us briefly consider prejudice and ethnocentrism in child development and education. The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development last year sponsored a research symposium on this subject, in which we had strong representation of the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and various private and public research granting agencies. We all realized that we had not paid much attention in recent years to the formation of highly prejudicial and damaging attitudes and behavior in the course of growth and development through childhood and adolescence. I think we are taking a new look at that whole subject in terms of research opportunities.

How do we acquire our orientations of ethnocentrism, prejudice, dogmatism, and a susceptibility to hateful pseudo-solutions? Are there ways to foster more constructive orientations? The nature of parental care; child care; experience with siblings and with peers; exposure to hatred and violence in schools, streets, and the mass media; and the cumulative effect of severely frustrating conditions are all important factors in shaping prejudice and ethnocentrism. So, too, in some places are official propaganda and cultivation of religious stereotypes.

The extent of prejudice can be affected by all those factors via home, school, community, and media--as well as by opportunities to gain familiarity with other groups under constructive circumstances. This is a very interesting research area. It has been clarified by a fine research tradition over several decades, reflecting such contributors as Musafer Sherif, Gordon Allport, and Morton Deutsch. Yet, curiously enough, it has been out of fashion in the past decade. Very strange the low level of research in this field at a time when arguably the need is greater than ever.

How can contact between adversarial groups help in preventing violence? This is a very fundamental question. Putting together a great deal of laboratory and field research, it appears that the quantitative amount of contact between negatively-oriented groups does not have a high degree of relevance to the outcome. Much depends on whether the contact occurs under favorable conditions. If the conditions involve an aura of suspicion, if they are highly competitive, if they are not supported by relevant authorities, or if they occur on the basis of very unequal status, then they are not likely to be helpful, whatever the amount. Indeed such unfavorable conditions can exacerbate old tensions, can reinforce stereotypes.

On the other hand, there is a strong positive effect of friendly contact in the context of equal status, especially if such contact is supported by relevant authorities who recognize equal status, and if it is embedded in cooperative activity and fostered by a mutual-aid ethic, especially superordinate goals. By "superordinate goals" I mean goals that are important to both adversarial parties (the avoidance of nuclear war between us and the Soviet Union probably constituted such a superordinate goal) and cannot be achieved except by a high degree of cooperation. Under these conditions, the more contact the better. Such contact is associated with improved attitudes between previously suspicious or hostile groups, as well as changes in patterns of interaction between them in constructive ways.

Superordinate goals can have powerful effects in unifying disparate groups. In classic experiments, adolescent boys, strangers in a boys camp, were quickly made quite hostile to each other and then converted by superordinate goals, transforming enemies into friends. These experiments have been fundamentally replicated in work with many different kinds of groups. My favorite experiments are those involving business executives even business executives can be converted in this way.

Such effects are particularly strong when there are tangibly successful outcomes for cooperation; for example, clear rewards from cooperative learning, which is a major thrust of educational research of the past two decades. Indeed, this problem of inter-group relations importantly involves child and adolescent development and presents crucial new opportunities, not only in schools, but in community organizations and the media, both print and nonprint. In short, the scientific community can challenge pivotal institutions to consider how various groups of this global human species can at last learn to live together.

Education in all of its forms, from family to schools to mass media, can increasingly convey the facts of a pluralistic and interdependent world, not one that is strange and hateful. Yet today's education is ethnocentric on a worldwide basis. We bring up our children everywhere to be negative to some degree to some other group or groups. Education could convey an accurate concept of a single, highly interdependent worldwide species, a sort of vastly extended family sharing fundamental human similarities and a fragile planet. Perhaps it is something like learning that the earth is not flat. We may need a paradigm shift in our outlook toward human groups.

In fact, all research-based knowledge of human conflict, diversity, and mutual accommodation should be grist for the education mill. Research in the biobehavioral sciences can illuminate the ways in which we humans can at last learn to live together. This research is being drawn upon as one pillar of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, co-chaired by Cyrus Vance and myself. We are trying to build a preventive system that the international community might construct in the decades ahead and consider how it might be implemented, with a significant role for the international scientific community in constructing and maintaining the preventive system. But that is for another day.

I close now with a crucial question for the human future: Can human groups achieve internal cohesion, self-respect, and an adapted efficacy without promoting hatred and violence? The answer is not obvious. A deeper understanding of factors that influence "groupocentrism" could have much practical value in preventing deadly inter-group conflicts both within nations and across international boundaries.

Even though "in-group, out-group" distinctions are ubiquitous in human societies, including our own; even though they are easy to learn and hard to forget and to some extent a legacy of our evolutionary and historical experience in which such distinctions were related to survival despite all of that, there is the possibility that we can learn to minimize such harsh distinctions in the future.

The conditions for survival are in some respects very different than they were when these orientations evolved in human development. We must now find a basis for a fundamental human identity across a diversity of cultures in the face of manifest differences. We are indeed a single, interdependent worldwide species. That is one of the central facts for modern education and a great challenge for the scientific community.

Timothy E. Wirth
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