Intergroup Conflict Self-Perpetuates via Meaning: Exposure to Intergroup Conflict Increases Meaning and Fuels a Desire for Further Conflict

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Abstract

We investigated whether violent conflict provides individuals with a sense of meaning that they are hesitant to let go of, thus contributing to the perpetuation of intergroup conflict. Across a wide variety of contexts, we found that making intergroup conflict salient increased the meaning people found in conflict and, in turn, increased support for conflict-perpetuating beliefs, ideologies, policies, and behaviors. These effects were detected among participants exposed to reminders of intergroup conflict (the American Revolutionary War and the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS; Studies 1A and 1B), participants living through actual intergroup conflict (the 2014 Israel–Gaza war; Study 2), and participants who perceived actual intergroup conflicts to be larger versus smaller in scope (the November 2015 Paris attacks; Studies 3 and 4). We also found that directly manipulating the perceived meaning in conflict (in the context of the 2014 NYC “hatchet attack”; Study 5) led to greater perceived meaning in life in general and thereby greater support for conflict escalation. Together, these findings suggest that intergroup conflict can serve as a source of meaning that people are motivated to hold on to. We discuss our findings in the context of the meaning making and threat compensation literatures, and consider their implications for perspectives on conflict escalation and resolution.

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