Political ideology may explain why despair spreads faster than hope during times of conflict, study suggests

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that messages of hope and despair during times of conflict differently affect people depending on their political ideology. While Leftists are more influenced by these messages, Rightists appear more difficult to sway.

In times of enduring conflict, it appears that despair circulates more quickly and more easily than hope. This is important, study authors Smadar Cohen-Chen and colleagues say, since despair typically leads to apathy, whereas hope promotes conciliation. The researchers wanted to explore why despair seems to proliferate more than hope and proposed that it may have something to do with political ideology.

“I initially became interested in hope and despair during my PhD, and have continued to study this topic over the years, because I believe hope and despair are the story of peace and conflict,” said Cohen-Chen, an associate professor at the University of Sussex Business School.

“Hope and peace are intertwined, they feed into one another, as do despair and conflict. That’s why I think it is so important to understand these emotions; their role in conflict and peace processes, what behaviors and attitudes they lead to, how we can regulate them, and how we can utilize all this knowledge to promote positive intergroup relations.”

Previous research suggests that when it comes to conflict, those with right-wing beliefs experience less hope and are more rigid in their attitudes. By contrast, those with left-wing beliefs are more hopeful and open to changes in perspective. Cohen-Chen and team propose that, “while messages of despair would reinforce Rightists’ existing beliefs, messages of hope would not affect Rightists’ attitudes. Simultaneously, while hopeful messages would reinforce Leftists’ existing beliefs, messages of despair would significantly reduce hope for peace.”

Two studies were conducted among Jewish-Israelis: one involving a sample of 105 participants, and a second study with a larger sample of 141 subjects.

Both studies had participants read a text, supposedly written by a fictional research team, that analyzed the likelihood of a resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Participants were split into three groups, and each condition was identical apart from the results section of the fictional report. In the hopeful condition, the results section concluded an 85% likelihood that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be peacefully resolved. In the despair condition, the report concluded that the likelihood of resolve was near zero. Finally, in the control condition, the text did not include a prediction and instead expressed that the results were still being worked on.

After reading the texts, participants completed several scales, which measured their degree of hope concerning a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their degree of urgency to resolve the conflict, and their support for concessions within the conflict. Subjects also completed an assessment of political ideology, ranging from 1 (Extreme Right) to 7 (Extreme Left).

In both studies, it was found that in the control condition, Leftists had stronger inclinations towards hope than Rightists. As expected, for Leftists, reading the despairing message reduced their hope for peace, their sense of urgency in resolving the conflict, and their support for concessions, compared to the hope condition and the control condition. For Rightists, however, neither the despairing message nor the hopeful message had any effect on these three outcomes.

“Thus, at least according to the current data, while Rightists are hard to sway directly from their baseline of despair using messages of hope, Leftists are susceptible to messages of despair that significantly reduce hope for peace,” the authors wrote.

“One of the paradoxes of conflict is why there is so much despair when hope would promote conflict resolution. We found that people with Hawkish political orientation (Rightists) inherently experience more despair, and are not influenced by direct messages of either hope or despair. On the other hand, Doves (Leftists) are inherently more hopeful, but are influenced by direct messages of despair, which reduce hope, urgency to resolve the conflict, and support for concessions,” Cohen-Chen told PsyPost.

Further, mediation analysis found that both sense of urgency and the experience of hope mediated the role between the despair manipulation and participants’ support for concessions.

“The main question I take from this moving forward is how can we use this to promote conflict resolution? We found that people with Dovish ideologies are affected by direct messages of hope and hopelessness, but that Hawks are affected by neither. So what does affect Hawks? How can we instill hope in people with Rightist ideologies? Can we frame these messages in a way that will help Rightists to experience hope for peace? For example, my work on indirect interventions for inducing hope shows they affect both Leftists and Rightists,” Cohen-Chen said.

“Hope is a fascinating emotion, because on the one hand it is self-focused (people feel hope for things they think would be good for them), but it leads to conciliatory behaviors. It makes people behave in a prosocial ways, but it also feels good which makes them motivated to experience it. Overall, it is my belief that this makes hope a pivotal and extremely useful emotion in contexts of conflict.”

The study, “The prevalence of despair in intractable conflicts: Direct messages of hope and despair affect leftists, but not rightists”, was authored by Smadar Cohen-Chen, Ofir Lang, Shira Ran, and Eran Halperin.

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