Violent groups, social psychology, and computing

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Mon, April 25, 2016 - 2:55:08

About two years ago, I participated in the first Build Peace conference, a meeting of practitioners and researchers from a wide range of backgrounds with a common interest in using technologies to promote peace around the world. During one session, the presenter asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they had lived in multiple countries for an extended period of time. Most hands in the audience went up, which was at the same time a surprise and a revelation. Perhaps there is something about learning to see the world from another perspective, as long as we are receptive to it, that can lead us to see our common humanity as more binding than group allegiances.

It’s not that group allegiances are necessarily negative. They can be very useful for working together toward common goals. Moreover, most groups use peaceful methods toward constructive goals. The problems come when strong group allegiances intersect with ideologies where violence is a widely accepted method, and dominion over (or elimination of) other groups is a goal.

A recent Scientific American Mind magazine issue with several articles on terrorism highlights risk factors associated with participation in groups supporting the use of violence against other groups. A consistent theme is the strong sense of belonging to a particular group, to the exclusion of other groups, in some cases including family and childhood friends, together with viewing those from other groups as outsiders to be ignored or worse.

Information filters or bubbles can play a role in isolating people so they mostly have a deep engagement with the viewpoints of only one group, and can validate extreme views with people outside of their physical community. These filters and bubbles are not new to the world of social media, but they are easily realized within it as competing services attempt to grasp our attention by providing us with content we are more likely to enjoy.

At the same time, interactive technology and social media can be the remedy to break out of these filters and bubbles. To think about what some of these remedies may be, I discuss some articles that can provide motivations, all cited in the previously mentioned Scientific American Mind issue.

The first area in which interactive technologies could help is in making us realize that our views are not always broadly accepted. This is to avoid a challenge referred to as the “false consensus effect”, through which we often believe that our personal judgements are common among others. Perhaps providing a sense of the relative commonality (or rarity) of certain beliefs could be useful.

Sometimes we may not have strong feelings about something, and it seems that if that is the case, we tend to copy the decisions of others we feel resemble us most, while disregarding those who are different. It’s important in this case, then, to highlight experts from outside someone’s group, as well as helping us realize that people from other groups often make decisions that would work for us too.

Allegiances to groups can get to the point of expressing willingness to die for one’s group when people feel that their identity is fused with that of the group. Interactive technologies could help in this regard by making it easier to identify with multiple groups, so that we don’t feel solely associated with one.

As I mentioned earlier, being part of a tight group most of the time does not lead to problems, and can often be useful. But what if the group widely accepts the use of violence to achieve dominance over others? One way to bring people back from these groups is to reconnect them with memories and emotions of their earlier life, helping them reunite with family and old friends. Social media already does a good job of this, but perhaps there could be a way of highlighting the positives from the past in order to help. With a bit of content analysis, it would be possible to focus on the positive highlights.

There is obviously much more to consider and discuss within this topic. I encourage you to continue this discussion in person during the Conflict & HCI SIG at CHI 2016, on Thursday, May 12, at 11:30am in room 112. See you there!

Posted in: on Mon, April 25, 2016 - 2:55:08

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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