Research Shows Impact of Belief Rigidity in Ongoing Conflict, and How We Might Help Move Toward Peace | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

November 25, 2020by Natalie Davis

Summary of:

Slocombe, B., & Wastell, C. (2020). Belief rigidity as a viable target in the peaceful resolution of enduring conflict. New England Journal of Public Policy, 32(2), 1-19.

Background & Theory

This article examines how belief rigidity might contribute to ongoing conflict, and the ways that perhaps it can be lessened, even a little bit, to allow for an ease in the tensions. This may occur by the occurrence of less violent actions or through someone’s openness to be willing to reconcile. 

Research Questions

Slocombe and Wastell in “Belief rigidity as a viable target in the peaceful resolution of enduring conflict” (2020), seek to address the following questions:

    1. What are the contributing factors to belief rigidity (especially in regards to intangible/transcendent beliefs)?
    2. How might we break down this barrier in order to potentially help lessen/resolve ongoing conflict? 


The authors conducted a total of three studies. All three studies were done through Prolific (an online survey program). Participants were generally ~50% female, 50% male, and ~70% were white, with English as their primary language. Average age was between 30-35 years old. The data for all of these studies was then examined and correlated relationships explained in tables.

Study 1: This study primarily tested how participants would respond to scientific questions, and if their answers would include supernatural opposed to scientific responses. Specifically evaluated were the participants’ fusion in/with a religious community and their perceived threat about their beliefs, and how these factors might indicate the likelihood of their answer to be supernatural opposed to scientific.

Study 2: Specifically involved in this study were theists, and they were to answer mechanistic explanations for the same series of questions from the first study. This study again evaluated fusion in/with a religious community and perceived threat to one’s beliefs, but also included how central the belief is to their religion. The primary purpose here was to examine perceived understanding, and how much fusion/threat play a role in strong belief rigidity.

Study 3: This study was very similar to Study 2, but several factors were adjusted (the target content, dependent variable, and replacement of centrality with sacredness). Study 3 had 294 participants overall, who were to put themselves in a hypothetical situation that threatened their democracy and respond to certain measures as if they were in that situation. The factors evaluated here were fusion in/with a religious community, perceived threat to one’s beliefs, and also the sacredness of those beliefs. The purpose was to further examine perceived understanding and belief rigidity.


Study 1: The results of Study 1 showed that perceived threat and fusion with a religious group played significant roles in the likelihood one would respond to questions with supernatural answers (this was most prominently shown for high threat and high fusion). 

Study 2: The results of Study 2 showed that high fusion, high perceived threat, and high belief centrality together indicated a stronger belief rigidity/adherence. The “backfire phenomenon,” i.e., something suggested with goodwill that backfires and promotes the opposite of desired effect, was shown in this study, as the authors did not anticipate an increase in perceived understanding of the tasks; this resulted in further belief rigidity. Also examined were the individual nuances of how low and high threat perceptions contributed to belief rigidity in the context of fusion and centrality.

Study 3: The results do show a very strong relationship between fusion, threat, and sacredness, though as similar to study 2, when there is high fusion, high threat, but low sacredness, there is a decrease in belief rigidity. This is different from many other studies, which suggest that high threat and high fusion alone are enough for strong belief rigidity.

Overall, we can take from these studies that sacredness/centrality is critical in potentially reducing conflict, as having someone with high fusion and high threat may take time to think critically about the belief’s genuine validity, and whether their actions are thus justified. In other words, when a community has such a strong focus on sacredness of beliefs, but one never really stops to contemplate it and rather acts on only high threat and high fusion, the likelihood one would go to great lengths, even die or cause violence, is much higher. The greatest factor is shown to be sacredness/centrality, and having one contemplate the reality of this prior to acting. It may still be that high sacredness would result in violence, but when this is low, it may prevent it. 

What This Means

  • The point we can all learn from this is taking time to contemplate; not only our beliefs, but our actions on a daily basis. The more we understand why we act and react, and what is pushing us to do so, the more we can engage in peaceful practices.
  • There is nothing wrong with adhering to a belief system; however, when that belief system begins to harm others, it may be worth contemplating why it is leading to that, and what might be done to promote peaceful engagement instead.
  • Some well known intractable conflicts are primarily caused over strict adherence to multiple groups’ belief systems; this is not easy to resolve, as there is validity to one’s beliefs. However, peace is always a possibility, it’s simply a matter of finding a willingness to reconcile. Perhaps finding ways to encourage this behavior may be of help.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Conflict resolution is not always easy. Encouraging clients to understand themselves, their beliefs or perceptions about the conflict, and how they might be able to reconcile can be a helpful part of this process. As a practitioner, finding ways to help clients do this is critical, and also may need to be individualized.

For everyone: Knowing yourself and what really matters to you, and why, can make all the difference in your life overall, and when you find yourself in conflict. Seek to know yourself, and then seek to know those different from you.

Natalie Davis

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