Psychologist logo
Violence and trauma

Understanding powerful instincts and emotions are key to managing modern conflicts

Deputy editor Shaoni Bhattacharya talks to Professor Mari Fitzduff about psychology’s role in global peacebuilding, Trump and Brexit, and the crisis in Afghanistan. Now with postscript on the Ukraine invasion.

07 September 2021

You've worked on conflict programmes in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and elsewhere – could you tell us a bit about your work on peacebuilding? 

During the 1980s I was living in a place called 'The Killing Fields' – a rural area so called because it had the second highest murder rate in Northern Ireland – the highest was one square mile in Belfast city where 600 people had been murdered. At that time, I had two young boys. One morning, finding myself between a group of young IRA men, who were fighting with violence for a united Ireland, and a group of young British soldiers tasked with preventing such violence, I decided enough was enough – we had to end this crazy war that was killing so many, and particularly so many of our young men.

I was a trained family and relationship mediator, so I decided to see if we could extend such skills to the sectarian and political problems we were having. At that stage the conflict resolution/peacebuilding world was relatively new - when I first set up a mediation class in a university in Belfast half the people who turned up thought it was a meditation class! However, subsequently, a few colleagues and I set up 'Mediation Northern Ireland' in 1988, which eventually became the go-to institution for many of the community mediations leading up to the Belfast agreement in 1998, which effectively ended most of the violence. Given the confusion and fear involved in reconciliation work, I also wrote a book called Community Conflict Skills which had a hundred ways of talking about difficult issues and which became the go-to book for much of the work.

In 1990, I was appointed chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, that with the assistance of the European Union and the British government, became the main funder and developer of dialogue and relationship building work with politicians, paramilitaries, prisoners, churches, youth and women's groups etc. Much of such work was subsequently deemed instrumental in achieving the peace deal (Fitzduff and Williams, 2007).

In 1997, as the Peace Process moved to a political agreement, I moved to direct UN/INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute), an outpost of the United Nations University at the University of Ulster. We developed close ties with colleagues assisting peacebuilding in the Basque country, the Middle East, Sri Lanka, the Caucasus, Indonesia, the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, Colombia etc.  We assisted each other's work and shared and learned from the best practices among us – as well as from our failures!

Subsequently, in 2004, I became the founding director of the Master's programme in Conflict Resolution and Co-existence at Brandeis University in the USA. This was a programme for mature international professionals who were involved in trying to solve over 70 conflicts around the world. The course was based on what I and many international policymakers and practitioners would have liked to have known about conflict and peacebuilding before we were thrown in at the deep end of the work.

What is your academic background; how has psychology informed your work on conflict?

My own background is in Social Psychology. For my PhD, I researched what had effected positive change in people who had once been involved in sectarian activities - including murder, but who were later committed to dialogue as the way forward in searching for a solution to the conflict. Interestingly, my research indicated most of my subjects had not reasoned their way out of their beliefs, which surprised and worried me somewhat, as the little reconciliation work that was ongoing was based mainly on rational discussions. What my research revealed was that the majority of those who had changed had done so because of emotional dissonance i.e. experiences which changed their emotional and instinctual senses about their erstwhile enemies.

Through my research I also grew to know paramilitaries from all sides, who had had no compunction about murdering or maiming those whom they had considered their enemy, but who, in their own communities were often the most caring about developing youth activities, assisting the elderly and anyone in need in their community. None were psychopaths. Trying to understand why so many were willing to give up their lives for a cause, and to be able to disassociate their best selves in pursuing hatred and the murder of others – even those who had been neighbours for decades - was a key incentive behind my work.

In a nutshell, what's your latest book Our Brains at War about?

Many of our physiological and genetic tendencies, of which we are mostly unaware, can all too easily fuel our antipathy towards other groups, make us choose 'strong' leaders over more mindful leaders, assist recruitment for illegal militias, and facilitate even the most gentle of us to inflict violence on others. The book examines and draws upon emerging areas such as behavioural genetics, biopsychology, and the social and cognitive neurosciences​ to investigate ​the sources of these compelling instincts and emotions​ which can make the emergence of international, national, and societal conflict so easy - and so difficult to manage and end. The book suggests that if we can acknowledge, understand and better manage such forces, we can develop our conflict prevention and peacebuilding programming more effectively.

Why did you write it now?

I have been thinking about these issues for about a decade. However, the advent of Donald Trump, and the struggle to understand why so many had voted for him was the impulse behind my last book, an edited volume called 'Why Irrational Politics Appeal' which looked at the instinctive appeal of Trump, particularly to people who often could not explain why they responded so positively to him.

Simultaneous to the Trump campaign, in the UK we had the bitter divisions over Brexit. That debate was very worrying as it was 'dominated not by sober analysis and evidence based reason, but by hysteria, hatred, savage emotions, and the sinister monster of exclusionary, ethnic nationalism' (Foster 2016). To me it was evident that in both the Trump and Brexit campaigns the leaders did not appeal to their followers' rationality, but emotionally to their instinctual fears and emotional biases. Without understanding why it was so easy for these campaigns to succeed through such appeals, I believe we can find ourselves at a loss as to how we can usefully address such divisions in the future, nationally and globally.

Do you think the Western world is at a particular point of conflict given internal disunity in countries like the USA over Trump, and the UK over Brexit? If so, how?

Yes. Encouraged by Trump, we may face a future where, by following his example, any national leader can declare a victory in an election, despite agreed upon democratic processes.

In addition, many of the old certainties about war are now under threat. The horrific cost of the failures in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya have proven the lack of utility of the old paradigms of war, and these failures are raising huge questions about the utility of military force in what  we now call, in the words of a British General Sir Rupert Smith  (2018), 'war amongst the people'. The supposedly sophisticated and intensive training in the Army colleges of e.g. West Point and Sandhurst has proven to be almost useless in the face of these 'new' wars, which are mostly within national borders – although other nations often do try to influence such wars for their own agenda. We now know that spending even trillions of dollars cannot buy us military weapons that are useful in creating and preserving the peace in such conflicted contexts.

As noted in the book, we are also increasingly immersed in social media that can change our emotions with clicks or bots, and whose strength in fomenting and continuing wars appears already to be proving infinite.

How can understanding and harnessing psychology help governments and international agencies strive towards harmony where military force fails?

How could our politicians and military ever have believed that sending cruise missiles into Afghanistan would oust tiny groups of extremists from Saudi Arabia, from where the 9/11 perpetrators had come? Twenty years later, trillions of dollars poorer, and countless lives wasted, we are back where we started with the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. And we continue our massive spending on ever more powerful and more expensive weapons. Have we forgotten that 9/11 was carried out though the use of pepper spray and paper cutters by a small group 19 militants?

Here in Ireland the presence of over 40,000 security forces were helpless to end the murder and mayhem of a few hundred Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries dedicated to their causes.

Understanding the emotions both positive and negative that drive such militants' groups across the globe is crucial to ending such violence. While killing them may give momentary pause to their violence, it often serves only to recruit more 'martyrs' and the conflicts will recur unless their contexts are changed. As the book shows, such groups are not driven by psychopaths, but by people whose logic and emotions make evident sense to them in terms of their context. If the trillions of dollars spent failing to oust extremists from their lairs were spent helping to ensure inclusive and fair social development within their societies and nations, and by thoughtful and proportionate security processes where necessary, we might achieve a safer world. The processes however would be much less dramatic than wars – and, unfortunately, as the book suggests, we quite like wars and violence for all sorts of personal and group reasons.

What are the limitations of psychology and neuroscience in conflict resolution? 

My work is complementary, and not contrary to existing 'realist' theories in International Politics work, which explain conflicts as being about the national interest, and the balance of power between states. Nor is it contrary to proportionate security force work to contain violence where necessary. However, understanding the power of unexamined instincts and emotions is also critical to such approaches particularly in today's new wars which are assisted in their development by many of the instincts that have made us successful as human beings in developing functioning communities and nations. But unexamined, these same instincts can easily trap up into emotive processes that are a legacy of what may have been useful to us in our past but may be the very opposite of what we need today to create and maintain peaceful societies, and a fruitful interdependent world.

How could psychology/conflict resolution help in Afghanistan at this current moment of crisis?

The most obvious need for most people in Afghanistan at the moment is safety, a first basic need, both for those who are fleeing and staying, and how much such safety is assured is still in question. However, Afghanistan is also one of the poorest countries on Earth, and will remain so without a continuance and expansion of external food aid and development help. Without such, it could soon be facing a massive food emergency, poverty will worsen, and restlessness against the new Taliban government will increase. It will thus be in the interests of the Taliban (and Pakistan their backstop ally) to avoid mass hunger, and they will have to negotiate to retain such humanitarian aid as  people are willing to give them. Most non-profit development agencies now have local representatives, many of whom are now trained as mediators, and these will be cognisant of the need to distribute aid in a way that it can increase rather than decrease local trust between local communities. They may also be able to mediate some more positive social contexts in return for aid and development assistance.

Also, the Taliban are from the Pashtun tribe, but they number only 42 percent of Afghans, and there are serious differences between 'included' Pashtuns and 'excluded' non-Pashtuns such as the Tajiks in the Panjshir valley, and Uzbeks, Hazaras, Aimaqs and other small ethnic groups. Feelings are very deep indeed in many communities, and murder is not uncommonly spurred by  grievances associated with identity differences. In order to govern, the Taliban will need to make alliances with other non-Pashtun tribes and with many of the Afghan government representatives who have been part of the mediation processes in place before the Taliban takeover. While many of the international agencies assisting the peace process will have had to leave, local conflict resolution practitioners, who have been helping many of the ongoing discussions over the last few years about a possible unity government, will probably reframe their work to take account of the new needs for co-operation. They will continue to assist processes that can facilitate the reduction of violence, and  ensure where possible that the work of health and other governmental agencies can reinstate themselves without which chaos will ensue, and without which the new Taliban state will not be able to function. Ultimately, what the last few decades have shown us is that any Afghan peace process must be led by the Afghans themselves if it is to be lasting and the next few months will be crucial for the work of local and national mediators.

While it is difficult to hope for much social freedom as yet from the rule of the Taliban, it has been interesting to note their initial overtures contained assurances about e.g. the continuance of women's education, and the wearing of the hijab, rather than burkas, and to project some semblance of liberalism if they are not to become a pariah state. Also, 20 years on from the US/UK invasion they face a more highly educated citizenship in Afghanistan and a wide cadre of young women who have been pursuing careers that will probably be vital to harness if they want to move Afghanistan beyond its appalling poverty.

In addition, despite the Taliban destruction of journalistic freedom, most middle class Afghans have and will continue to have access to social media, which will be impossible to control. It will continue to expose their citizens to freedoms and resources available elsewhere, which will be a continuous pressure on any conservative Taliban-dominated government.

What is the likely psychological fallout from the events in Afghanistan in the short- and long-term?

Obviously, in the short-term, the coming months will be anxious ones, especially for those in fear of retribution for their assistance to the US and other governments during the last two decades. Ironically, however, some communities may find themselves feeling safer after a Taliban takeover. The  previous Afghan government in both its local and national forms was perceived as unstable and corrupt by most people, and my research suggests that people are often willing to accept a strong group in charge of their communities if they provide stability, which they often prefer over freedom. In many parts of Afghanistan, particularly the rural parts, little may change.

It should also be noted that the main message of the central leadership is that the Taliban can deliver a return to law and order based on Islam, and this has broad familiarity and resonance across the country whose population is approximately 99.7 percent Muslim. Over a third of countries in the world today have some version of Sharia Law, either alongside other civil law, or as one in which authoritative Islamic sources are central. It is likely that Afghanistan, if the Taliban government survives, will become a firm theocratic state like Iran, with all the political and social problems that come from being a theocratic state that is also trying to unite and serve its people, and thrive economically in a globalised world.

Mari Fitzduff is author of Our Brains at War: The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding, published by Oxford University Press. She is also Professor Emerita at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.


In March, Shaoni went back to Mari to ask…

What are your thoughts on the current conflict in Ukraine, and how does it compare with some of the issues you highlighted in your book? 

I was in Tallinn in Estonia in the early 1990s when it was breaking away from the Soviet Union. I watched with interest as it very enthusiastically held its first theatrical performance in the Estonian language. Behind me sat a group of Estonian Russians, who then constituted 30 per cent of the population, and I could hear them asking – in genuine puzzlement – as to why there would be a performance in the Estonian language when everybody in Estonia spoke Russian. It was a foretaste of the issues that were to come to the fore in future decades in many ex-Soviet countries, Ukraine in particular, where language and identity conflicts have proved to be a key factor in the current unfolding situation.

At the beginning of the war this year, circa 17 per cent of Ukrainians identified as Russian. Russian-speaking local separatist forces from the Eastern states of Luhansk and Donetsk have been violently asserting their rights to having their Russian identity recognised since 2014. Spurred by feelings of exile, nostalgia, and exclusion, these  local groups have given Putin an excuse to intervene in Ukraine on their behalf. Their feelings have intensified since a controversial language law was approved by the Ukrainian parliament in 2019, just a few days before President Volodymyr Zelensky came into power. 

This law makes the Ukrainian language obligatory for the public sector which effectively means that minority languages are relegated to personal life, or religious events. Notably, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) High Commissioner on National Minorities said that this language policy violates the rights of minorities in Ukraine. When he came into power, Zelensky said that he planned to review the law to ensure that it respected the rights of minorities, but separatist feelings deepened and the violence continued, unlike in the Baltic states where the OSCE worked long and hard to ensure the rights of minorities were to be protected. 

This week, as the Ukrainian members of parliament sang the national anthem in their parliament – even knowing that the building is a prime target for Russian forces – it appeared to me that the feelings of many Ukrainians have changed or increased. Ukrainian citizens are now bolstering themselves with positive feelings of belonging, inclusion and courage, which have been evidenced in the swift growth of emotional contagion over the last week, when trust in the leadership of Zelensky has grown ever stronger. There's new consolidation and identity felt by Ukrainian citizens and soldiers who have been fighting well above their weight, thus proving the power of belonging, and of a newly adrenalized group. Current polls show a 90 per cent approval rate for Zelensky, suggesting that when push came to shove, many Ukrainians with lingering affection for their Russian identity have now consolidated their identity as Ukrainian – which of course is the opposite of what Vladimir Putin had intended!

What might these identity concerns mean for what happens from here?

Well, it seems that few of the Russian troops now rolling through Ukraine, many of whom have apparently been forcefully conscripted, are similarly energised. This will give the Ukrainian citizens as least some superior emotional and purposeful energy and continuing heft against the Russian army. How long such emotional courage will last against the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops is not yet clear. However, even if the Russian troops capture key cities and institutions in Ukraine, it will be impossible for them to easily occupy it given the new consolidation of identity engendered by the war. If the war is pursued, Russia may in the end gain no more than a minor Russian occupation of Ukraine in the Donbas region, perhaps mirroring the 20 per cent rate of the occupation now in place in Georgia following Putin's last sortie into that region. And Putin's dream of recreating a Soviet dominated empire will have taken a serious setback. 

It is not surprising that Putin has been able to hold to such hopes, given the isolation in which he has lived for the past two years. Leaders are more likely to change their minds when those around them whom they trust, feel free to murmur concerns, caveats and cautions in their leaders' ears. The lockdown, and Putin's strict adherence to it, have given little space for such thoughtful murmurs to prevail. Given that he is also inured against significant personal loss, it may take crucial Russian opposition – particularly from the Russian military – to the eventual economic and human cost of the war to send him searching for ways to save face in the light of an occupation that he cannot easily win.


Foster, R (2016) 'I just want my country back'. Emotion and Identity at the Brexit Ballotbox', in D. Jackson and E. Thorsen (eds.), UK Referendum Analysis 2016. PSA-CSJCC.

Fitzduff, Niall and Williams, Sue, (2007) Cumulative Impact Case Study How Did Northern Ireland Move Toward Peace? CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2007.

Smith, Rupert (2018) The Utility of Force: The art of war in the modern world. London Vintage.