Ethnic and Religious Influences on Forgiveness for Mass Atrocities


National Science Foundation

Human history is replete with examples of groups committing mass atrocities against each other, the effects of some of the more recent such as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide committed by the Turks, and slavery in the United States can still be felt today. The scars from these tragedies run deep and across generations, with the capacity to breed negative emotions and mistrust that can prevent positive intergroup relation and even cause, increase, or exacerbate conflict between groups. Is forgiveness possible in such a situation? If so how? In what ways do religious and ethnic identities play a part?

The goal of this project is to generate new data-based insights into the role that ethnic and religious identities play in intergroup relations as well as enhancing understanding of a set of processes that have direct implications for the lives of individuals and groups across the globe. Combining insights from the fields of social psychology and religious studies, the project will focus on dissociating two intersecting kinds of cultural identities – religious and ethnic identities – and the role they play in forgiveness. Social psychologists have laid out a general theoretical framework that suggests that as the salience of ethnic identification increases, the willingness to forgive will be reduced because it highlights group’s boundaries. Insights from the study of religious traditions suggest that a strong association with religious identity may increase or decrease the propensity to forgive based on one's theology. Work carried out under this grant will seek to dissociate the effects of ethnic and religious identity in order to better understand the processes at work in forgiveness for mass atrocities.

There is a clear importance in understanding the cultural factors that contribute to forgiveness for mass atrocities. Using experimental techniques developed by social psychologists, the project will also investigate: (1) whether perceptions of time elapsed since the mass atrocity explains why groups are more or less forgiving and have more or less positive intergroup relations, and (2) the effects of apologies for the offenses offered by modern officials of the offender group, and whether strong group identification moderates the impact of such interventions.

Primary Investigator:

Adam Cohen, Psychology Department, Arizona State University

Project Team:

Joel Gereboff, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Arizona State University
Moses Moore, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Arizona State University
Ara Norenzayan, Psychology Department, University of British Columbia
Steve Neuberg, Psychology Department, Arizona State University