Matheson, K., Branscombe, N., Klar, Y., & Anisman, H. (2019). Observer perceptions of the justifiability of the actions of nations in conflict: The relative importance of conveying national vulnerability verses strength. PLoS ONE, 14(7), 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220303
Background & Theory
This article delves into how nations in conflict might persuade other nations to sympathize with them, sometimes through being seen as an underdog, and sometimes through showing their strength to overcome the conflict at hand. This article looks at how a 3rd party nation might observe those situations, the role of shared identity, and the larger implications at hand.
Matheson, Branscombe, Klar, and Anisman, in “Observer perceptions of the justifiability of the actions of nations in conflict: The relative importance of conveying national vulnerability verses strength” (2019), seek to address the following questions:
- What is the role of a nation’s strength or vulnerability on observer nations’ views of international conflict and the justification of actions as a result of said conflict?
The authors conducted three studies over the course of 11 years, all of which included surveys and were restricted to only Canadian participants.
Study 1: Study 1 was performed in 2007 and included 91 participants from a Canadian university (57 female/34 male; ages ranging from 18-54 years old; varying ethnicities) who were asked to complete a questionnaire. There were 2 versions – one focused on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and one focused on the U.S./Iraq conflict. Evaluated were a nation’s vulnerability, a nation’s strength, and justifiability of conflict actions. The data was evaluated through statistical analyses and models.
Study 2: Study 2 was performed in 2009 and included 315 participants who were recruited through advertisements and Canadian websites (215 female/100 male; ages ranging from 18-66 years old; varying ethnicities). The participants were asked to complete a questionnaire. This study also included two versions of the questionnaire based on either the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or the U.S./Iraq conflict. This study also evaluated a nation’s vulnerability, a nation’s strength, and justifiability of conflict actions. Also evaluated was the shared identity of the participants with either Israel or the U.S. (based on the questionnaire). The data was evaluated through statistical analyses and models.
Study 3: Study 3 was performed in 2018 and included 300 participants who were recruited through Amazon MTurk (215 female/100 male; all above age 18; varying ethnicities). Study 3 included three questionnaires this time, focused on either: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the U.S./Iraq conflict, or the U.S./North Korea conflict. Evaluated were a nation’s vulnerability, a nation’s strength, and justifiability of conflict actions, as well as shared identity with the country in question. The data was evaluated through statistical analyses and models, and was compared to data from Studies 1 and 2.
The results showed that an observer country often shapes their views on an international conflict based on the country’s perceived strength or perceived vulnerability. For instance, it was found that if a nation was seen as potentially victimized or threatened by the conflict at hand, an observer nation might view them as being more justified in their actions to protect themselves from said threat. This remains the view even when the country in question is considered to be a strong nation (i.e., Israel and the U.S. are both perceived as “stronger” than the countries they were in conflict with, yet they still were viewed as vulnerable and threatened in the conflict at hand).
Shared identity played a unique role. Thoughts toward justification of actions were not to be found indicative of whether there was strong shared identity or not. A stronger shared identity of a strong nation might include ingroup bias, which could lead to justification of actions; however, even a decreased sense of shared identity may not necessarily lead to different results, because if the country in question is viewed as more vulnerable, it is thus also justified in its actions. Ideas may shift with time, but overall the results show that a country’s actions in a conflict may be legitimized by a 3rd party nation, even if they are not the underdog in the situation, should they be viewed as vulnerable and threatened.
Vulnerability and threat are key, though – without these being genuinely perceived, a strong nation claiming to be a victim might instead be seen in a negative light. The narrative a country shares with their allies may mean the difference between perceived justification of actions and condemnation on the world stage.
What This Means
- How we view conflict varies greatly depending on the information we have and the role we ourselves play. We all experience very different perceptions of conflict and the actions taken in the conflict depending on whether we are directly involved, what information we are given, what narratives we are aware of, and whether we have any stake in the groups involved.
- It appears we are often moved to empathy for a situation and the consequential actions, regardless of shared identity or how strong someone (or a country) is, if we feel that there is a genuine threat to them.
- Trying to be aware of our own bias and getting details from all sides of a story may be helpful in how we handle conflicts we are involved in or are near to us.
For consultants: Being aware of the perspectives shared by those in a conflict can greatly help in strategies to resolve the conflict at hand. Finding ways to legitimize all parties’ feelings in a conflict may elicit empathy by those involved may also be helpful.
For everyone: We’re naturally inclined as humans to have bias; discovering where we have that bias and why is helpful for many life situations, and especially in understanding how we feel and think about conflicts.