How Former Enemies Can Develop Trust
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Policy Aug 1, 2022

How Former Enemies Can Develop Trust

A simple intervention can help diffuse animosity toward onetime armed foes, a study shows.

Based on the research of

Emile Bruneau

Andres Casas

Boaz Hameiri

Nour Kteily

For groups that have been in armed conflict for years, trust rarely develops overnight. Wariness toward former enemies can linger long after formal peace processes conclude. Indeed, continued mistrust can undermine those very processes, reviving the same fights again and again.

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Colombia offers a prime example of this phenomenon: Violent conflict between the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the government dates back to the 1960s. Despite a peace deal approved in 2016, ex-FARC members have struggled to reintegrate into society. This is likely due in part to the fact that many Colombians have never met a current or former FARC member, and that lack of contact has allowed animosity to flourish.

Nour Kteily, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, wanted to explore how this animosity could be diffused. He and coauthors found that a simple intervention can help overcome some misgivings about former foes. Watching a five-minute video featuring interviews with FARC ex-combatants increased support for peace and reintegration among non-FARC Colombians—a shift in attitude that persisted for three months after seeing the video.

The research was coauthored by Andrés Casas, at the United Nations University, and Boaz Hameiri, while at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Emile Bruneau, who died last fall, who was also at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This research is proof of principle,” Kteily explains. “It’s not to say that all we need to do is show Colombians a five-minute video and we’re going to solve the problem. But what it does show is there is a potential for media interventions to change minds.”

Understanding Mistrust of the FARC

To design a video that would most effectively change attitudes toward ex-FARC members, the researchers first wanted to understand how non-FARC Colombians thought about them. So they surveyed a demographically representative group of 435 non-FARC Colombians.

“There were a variety of things that emerged reliably in people’s responses, but one of the things that seemed to matter a lot was the belief that former FARC members weren’t able or willing to change their violent ways,” Kteily says. This belief strongly correlated with high degrees of dehumanization toward ex-FARC members, low support for the peace process, and low support for reintegration policies such as scholarships for ex-FARC members and their families.

With the survey data in hand, the researchers partnered with a production company to develop videos that would specifically target the belief that former FARC members are unwilling to change. The production company interviewed ex-FARC members living in a demobilization camp and non-FARC members from a nearby town. The clips described mutually positive experiences, such as ex-FARC and non-FARC Colombians coming together to form soccer teams, hosting bingo nights for charity, and collectively repairing a local road after a flood.

“Whereas politicians broker peace, it really falls to the populace to implement it.”

— Nour Kteily

Colombia offers a prime example of this phenomenon: Violent conflict between the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the government dates back to the 1960s. Despite a peace deal approved in 2016, ex-FARC members have struggled to reintegrate into society. This is likely due in part to the fact that many Colombians have never met a current or former FARC member, and that lack of contact has allowed animosity to flourish.

Nour Kteily, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, wanted to explore how this animosity could be diffused. He and coauthors found that a simple intervention can help overcome some misgivings about former foes. Watching a five-minute video featuring interviews with FARC ex-combatants increased support for peace and reintegration among non-FARC Colombians—a shift in attitude that persisted for three months after seeing the video.

The research was coauthored by Andrés Casas, at the United Nations University, and Boaz Hameiri, while at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Emile Bruneau, who died last fall, who was also at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This research is proof of principle,” Kteily explains. “It’s not to say that all we need to do is show Colombians a five-minute video and we’re going to solve the problem. But what it does show is there is a potential for media interventions to change minds.”

Understanding Mistrust of the FARC

To design a video that would most effectively change attitudes toward ex-FARC members, the researchers first wanted to understand how non-FARC Colombians thought about them. So they surveyed a demographically representative group of 435 non-FARC Colombians.

“There were a variety of things that emerged reliably in people’s responses, but one of the things that seemed to matter a lot was the belief that former FARC members weren’t able or willing to change their violent ways,” Kteily says. This belief strongly correlated with high degrees of dehumanization toward ex-FARC members, low support for the peace process, and low support for reintegration policies such as scholarships for ex-FARC members and their families.

With the survey data in hand, the researchers partnered with a production company to develop videos that would specifically target the belief that former FARC members are unwilling to change. The production company interviewed ex-FARC members living in a demobilization camp and non-FARC members from a nearby town. The clips described mutually positive experiences, such as ex-FARC and non-FARC Colombians coming together to form soccer teams, hosting bingo nights for charity, and collectively repairing a local road after a flood.

Then, the researchers recruited about 2,300 non-FARC Colombians to complete an online study. Participants were shown one of 11 different videos that varied in several ways, including whether they stressed ex-FARC members’ willingness to change or focused on humanizing them. (A control condition saw no video at all.) Then, participants answered a series of questions designed to assess their levels of empathy, dehumanization, and prejudice toward ex-FARC members; how much the participants believed that ex-FARC members were willing to change; and their support for the peace process and reintegration.

The researchers followed up with the same group of participants 10–12 weeks later and asked them to answer the same set of questions again.

After collecting these data, the researchers identified the video that was most effective relative to the others they tested. Because this cut had a slight edge over the others they tried, the researchers focused on it in their statistical analysis and in subsequent studies.

Participants who saw this video had improved attitudes toward ex-FARC members compared with the control group—not just in the short term, but also weeks later. Participants who saw the video rated FARC members as being more willing to change (by 18 points on a 100-point scale). The participants also exhibited more empathy and less dehumanization, and expressed more support for peace and reintegration. (While participants who saw the video initially showed decreased prejudice toward ex-FARC member, this effect disappeared during the second phase of data collection.)

To Kteily, the persistence of the improved attitudes was especially important. All too often, interventions appear to work, but “it’s fragile,” he explains. “People leave, they go out into the real world. What seemed like a robust, reliable effect dissipates quickly.” Seeing that participants still felt more positive toward ex-FARC members not just immediately after watching the video, but also 10–12 weeks later “gave us confidence there was real ‘there’ there.”

Changing Attitudes and Behaviors

In a subsequent study, in order to confirm that the effect could be repeated, the researchers reran the initial experiment using only the most successful version of the video and got similar results.

In a third study, they tested how these improved attitudes affected real-world behavior. This time, participants in the video and control groups were asked to imagine they were hiring for various open positions, such as bank teller, taxi driver, and nurse. For each position, participants saw a resume that indicated the applicant was a former FARC member. Then, for each position, participants rated how likely they were to hire the candidate.

In addition, at the end of the study, participants had the option to donate a percentage of their roughly $1 study compensation to an ecotourism organization founded by ex-FARC members.

Seeing the video affected both choices, the researchers found. Compared with the control group, video group participants expressed more willingness to hire ex-FARC members and donated 11 percent more of their compensation to the ex-FARC nonprofit organization.

This study showed that the videos had practical effects beyond improving attitudes. “It’s one thing to ask in the abstract, ‘Do you think that you support reintegration efforts?’” Kteily explains. “It’s another to actually look at a variety of resumes and endorse hiring someone.”

Building Trust, Increasing Peace

Videos alone can’t end conflict, of course. But Kteily says it’s important to remember that “whereas politicians broker peace, it really falls to the populace to implement it. If people are unwilling to support it on a day-to-day basis, if they’re not willing to hire members of a group they were formerly in conflict with, if they’re not willing to forgive them, then peace is not sustainable.”

After all, he points out, there are high rates of recidivism for civil conflict around the world, not just in Colombia. A peace treaty that seems promising in theory can easily erode. That’s why it’s so crucial to focus not just on treaties and policies, but also on hearts and minds.

“It’s really important to think about how you can shape people’s attitudes towards creating sustainable peace, beyond just banking on the fact that there was a political process and a peace deal,” he says. “That’s not the end of the story. It’s actually just the beginning.”

Featured Faculty

Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Bruneau, Emile, Andres Casas, Boaz Hameiri, and Nour Kteily. 2022. “Exposure to a Media Intervention Helps Promote Peace in Colombia.” Nature Human Behaviour.

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