Peace Science Digest

Brain and Behavioral Science-Informed Peacebuilding: The Work of Beyond Conflict

This post appears in the Special Issue on Countering Hate and Violent Extremism of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Thought Partnerships. 

Innovation in peacebuilding has left brain and behavioral science largely unexplored. Beyond Conflict seeks to change that. With the ultimate objective being sustainable social and behavioral change (e.g., a reduction in violent, prejudicial behavior), we translate insights from neurobiology and social psychology into practical, necessary interventions to shift related attitudes and beliefs.

Anchored in learning from social psychology, neurobiology, and 30+ years of peacebuilding experience in conflict-affected countries, our framework and tools address a range of critical issues related to violent conflict. In collaboration with partners, we utilize a science-informed design process to:

  1. Diagnose the neurobiological, psychological, and behavioral factors that drive conflict through initial research;
  2. Design interventions and rigorously test them; and
  3. Re-Define the problem using the findings to scale up programming and provide results to practitioners, policy-makers, and decision-makers to re-define discourse, practice, and policy.

As one example, our work in Nigeria is a multi-year collaboration with local partners to reduce intergroup conflict between Christians and Muslims. We co-created radio and television programs that have reached millions of people and conducted rigorous impact assessments to determine whether they reduced dehumanization, identity-based threat perceptions, and support for violence against the opposing group. The storylines utilized behavioral science-informed humanizing approaches, such as showcasing the characters—in this case, a Christian and a Muslim—sharing common group membership and recognizing their shared experiences of suffering. Researchers and script-writers carefully crafted the storylines to be authentic and relatable while touching upon messaging shown in studies to reduce intergroup conflict. In a randomized control study, the results found that both of the programs reduced support for interreligious violence. In fact, the TV drama audience reported interacting more with someone from the other religion than they had previously. This result held true four to eight weeks after the drama aired.

This is just one example of Beyond Conflict’s programming. The research-based results showcase the need for more attention to brain and behavioral processes within the peacebuilding field as a means of more effectively reducing and preventing intergroup conflict.


Written by Karen Bernstein, International Peacebuilding Program Manager at Beyond Conflict, and Michelle Barsa, Program Director at Beyond Conflict

Editorial note: Research to Action posts highlight the ways that individuals and organizations use academic research to inform their program design and implementation. By showcasing real-life examples of how research informs action, we demonstrate how to bridge the gap between research and practice.

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