Culture & Society

Give Peace a Chance… Eventually

A new study suggests that we’re cognitively wired to regard the end of conflict as a distant abstraction.

June 17, 2022

| by Lee Simmons
People holding protest signs on a cloudy day in an unknown city. The foremost sign says "stop war now." Photo by iStock/FilippoBacci

“As a slogan, ‘peace now’ just does not make intuitive sense to people,” Nir Halevy says. | iStock/FilippoBacci

The misery and devastation caused by wars, like the one now raging in Ukraine, demand that world leaders spare no effort in trying to stop the madness. But paradoxically, a rush to broker solutions could undermine the prospects for peace.

That’s the startling implication of a new paper by Nir Halevy, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Yair Berson, a professor of human resources and management at McMaster University. The problem lies in the human mind itself: In the midst of conflict, it seems, we instinctively view peace as something belonging to the dim and distant future.

The researchers were inspired by a framework in psychology known as construal level theory. “The idea of CLT is that we tend to match our level of reasoning — whether it be concrete thinking or abstract ideation — to our perception of distance,” Halevy says. “That can mean distance in space, but also in other senses like probability or time.”

Basically, our minds form concrete representations of things that are present, imminent, or likely, and abstract representations of things that are absent, far off in time, or unlikely. And it works in reverse, too: Increasing our distance from something makes us think about it more abstractly. When the level of cognition matches our sense of distance, there is said to be “construal fit.”

And perhaps nothing, Halevy says, is more searingly immediate than war. Peace, on the other hand, is the absence of all that sensory overload — an ideal state that must seem especially remote and impalpable to those fighting for survival in a combat zone.

Working from the idea of construal fit, Halevy and Berson thought people might be more confident in the promise of peace — and perhaps more willing to take steps to get there — when the destination was set far enough in the future. Then they set out to test that idea in a series of six experiments.

Halevy says the results have real implications — not just for ending wars but also for resolving nonviolent conflicts and even common business challenges. “It’s absolutely fundamental,” he says. “If you want to create change, you need to clearly distinguish near-term actions from long-term end states.” Want to achieve peace? Start with concrete steps like a ceasefire.

Beyond the Present Tense

To be clear, this is all based on individual psychology. The mechanism works like this: When our cognitive construal level matches the perceived distance of some new thing, it’s easier for us to process, and that “fluency” is satisfying — much like when we hear something that fits our preconceived notions. This causes us to regard new information as accurate, trustworthy, and persuasive. When there’s a lack of fit, people are uncomfortable, skeptical, resistant.

These effects have been widely documented in the field of cognitive psychology. But Halevy and Berson hoped to extend the theory to study the social phenomenon of conflict. “Part of our aim,” Halevy says, “was to see if this model could provide insights for inter-group processes.”

Their first experiment, conducted in 2019, enlisted a panel of 200 people who were told to think about the Middle East in either 2020 or 2050. Then they read a series of statements (e.g., “In [year], Israelis and Palestinians will coexist peacefully side by side”) and rated them on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Those given the longer time horizon were significantly more optimistic, with the average score rising from 2.9 to 3.9.

In the second experiment, the researchers shortened the time gap, with horizons of either 2020 or 2030, and focused on the conflict in eastern Ukraine (which predates the current war). Once again, using the later target year significantly strengthened people’s beliefs in the prospect of peace.

Of course, those results could be driven by factors other than the construal-fit effect. You might reasonably think, for instance, that any change from the status quo would seem more likely in the long term, if only because change takes time. So Halevy and Berson designed four more experiments to isolate and rule out other explanations.

They next focused on relations between the U.S. and Iran, and this time they asked about the chances of either peace or an escalation into full-scale war. The subjects once again thought peace was more likely in 2030 than in 2020, but the prospect of war was judged less likely in 2030 than in 2020 — consistent with the idea that we associate concrete things with the near future.

Also, in this test and another on British-European relations during the Brexit referendum, the authors used research participants who belonged to one of the groups or nationalities involved in the conflict. It made no difference, supporting the idea that cognitive routines, not personal interests or affiliations, were at work.

Finally, since the participants might have been influenced by prior beliefs about international conflicts, Halevy and Berson made up a fictional land called Velvetia, inhabited by two tribes. Some people were told the tribes were currently at war; others were told they were at peace. They then evaluated statements about the likelihood of war or peace in one year or 20 years.

As you might expect, a continuation of the status quo into the future was judged most likely. And any change of status, from peace to war or vice versa, was seen as more likely in the distant future than the near future.

But once again, an asymmetry emerged: Extending the horizon from one year to two decades had a stronger effect when people considered a move from war to peace than from peace to war. “What that means is that temporal distance was more important to lend credibility to a forecast of peace than to one of war,” Halevy says.

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Pulling these threads together, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we humans simply regard peace as a thing of the distant future. We may rationalize that belief in numerous ways, but if Halevy and Berson’s theory is correct, we don’t arrive at it entirely by facts or logic. To some degree, it just feels right to us — it “resonates.”

“To be clear, we definitely don’t claim that the construal-level effect explains all of the variance we observe,” Halevy says. “But by playing around with the setup of these experiments, I think we’ve demonstrated that it’s really there, and that it explains a portion of what we see.”

We’re not saying don’t aspire for change. Just the opposite. But you have to do it in a way that is mindful of how people think.
Nir Halevy

Obviously, this is not encouraging news. If people expect violence to continue in the near future, that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It could be part of the reason so many conflicts drag on long after any chance of benefit to either side is extinguished.

On the other hand, Halevy says, we can use this insight to improve how we handle conflict. “For world leaders or groups who want to forge a path to peace, it’s vital that they understand how to shape their language and proposals to different time horizons.”

Halevy mentions the Israeli group Peace Now, which has long advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Israelis, like people everywhere, want to live in peace. That’s the dream. But as a slogan, ‘peace now’ just does not make intuitive sense to people.”

“We’re not saying don’t aspire for change,” Halevy continues. “Just the opposite. But you have to do it in a way that is mindful of how people think. When you’re presenting a vision of a better world, you need to frame that in terms of an eventual future. And then you need to lay out concrete actions for the immediate future, incremental things that people can do tomorrow.”

In a case like Ukraine, he says, the first step is to arrange a cease-fire. “That’s super concrete, and it can be beneficial right now. You don’t try to stop the shooting by resolving the issues — that might be the work of generations. But by stopping the violence, you start to change the default in people’s minds. You move them off the status quo and create space for other possibilities.”

These ideas can be applied to any kind of situation involving conflict or change, Halevy says, even business situations like mergers. The results dovetail neatly with his and Berson’s earlier work on social influence. “We showed that to influence followers, leaders must match their level of communication to their psychological distance from their audience,” he says.

Even when people in positions of influence can visualize solutions to major societal challenges, those outcomes may seem distant to many they’re trying to reach. Leaders, Halevy says, must bridge that gap. “You need to articulate the big picture so people know why they should follow you. That’s the abstract element. And you need to fill in the concrete details so they know what to do and how to move forward. You need both.”

For media inquiries, visit the Newsroom.

Explore More