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To Talk or to Punish?


In the most recent issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Bernhard Leidner and colleagues posit a relation between perceptions of sentience (defined as the capacity to experience emotions) in other disputants and the forms of justice that parties seek in intergroup conflicts. In particular, they contend that the degree of sentience attributed to the opposing party should positively predict a desire for restorative justice and negatively predict a desire for retributive justice. Restorative or retributive notions of justice should then lead parties to prefer diplomatic or aggressive conflict resolution strategies, respectively.

Researchers tested these predictions through two separate field studies in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the first study, a random sample of Palestinian adults was asked to what extent having compassion for someone else’s suffering was a typical trait of the average Jewish Israeli. They were then asked questions regarding support for retributive (e.g. do you agree that the only way to restore justice is to punish the Israelis?) versus restorative (e.g. do you agree that to restore justice, Israelis and Palestinians need to agree on rules of a peaceful world?) notions of justice. As predicted, higher perceived sentience positively predicted restorative justice and negatively predicted retributive justice. Furthermore, this differentially predicted adherence to diplomatic (i.e. support for peace deals – in the case of restorative justice) versus aggressive (i.e. support for bombing attacks and campaigns – in the case of retributive justice) conflict resolution strategies. Overall, the pattern of results suggests that perceived sentience influences different conflict resolution strategies, and that these effects are mediated by participants’ notions of justice.

In the second study, Leidner et al. partially replicated these findings in a sample of Jewish Israeli adults (regarding perceived Palestinian sentience). Although there were important differences between the two studies, authors point to dehumanization of the opponent as one of the universal themes of protracted conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and reveal that disparate notions of justice might underlie ensuing resolution attempts. Another common element of protracted conflicts is the deep sense of victimhood experienced by both sides of the conflict. Authors contend that when both sides identify themselves as victims in intergroup conflict, retributive justice risks being disruptive to the peacemaking process, while restorative justice becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. Finding ways to circumvent this pattern by increasing perceived sentience among opponents could foster efforts towards restorative justice and potential reconciliation. The topic begs more systematic research, such as these studies, to uncover the precise mechanisms by which it can be effective.

Leidner, B., Castano, E., & Ginges, J. (2013). Dehumanization, retributive and restorative justice, and aggressive versus diplomatic intergroup conflict resolution strategies. PSPB, 39(2): 181-192.


Christine Webb

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University. Broadly, her research interests include reconciliation, individual differences, evolution, and motivation. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Emory University, where she studied the social behavior of brown capuchin monkeys for two years. The following year, she worked as… MORE >

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