ASU faculty find religion may shape conflict

ASU professors’ recent findings about weak groups engaging in conflict with stronger groups were published this month in the journal “Psychological Science.” Their findings indicate religion may correlate with these weaker groups engaging in conflict with stronger groups.

Political science professor Carolyn Warner said the published research primarily looks at intergroup conflict and some of the factors that contribute to it, such as limited resources or incompatibility of values.

The study, which began years ago, found that religion tended to increase this intergroup conflict.

“We began because a lot of previous work that had been done had been prompted by 9/11 and measured religion in a crude manner,” she said. “We wanted to develop a study that would have a more nuanced view of what religion is and different kinds of conflict. We set up this study to do that.”

Warner said the study, which is part of the Global Group Relations Project, differed perhaps from others in its scope, because it includes countries from nearly every continent.

Psychology professor and lead researcher of the study Steve Neuberg said the correlation between religious infusion, or shared values, in a society and conflict prompted by disadvantaged groups were proven.

Researchers were aided in large part by social scientists and scholars who had on average 20 years of experience studying one of the selected 97 study sites. Scholars provided data and qualitative conclusions from the sites for the research.

“They provided data and gave us some estimates of the variables that we wanted to know what the relationships were,” he said. “To what extent is this group advantaged? To what extent is this group disadvantaged? How much is this group engaged in violence with this group?”

Religiously infused groups can be motivated to alter their resource circumstance and to no longer be disadvantaged, Neuberg said.

“They may be more likely by virtue and morality of religion to act on the thought that they are deserving of more than they have," he said.

Neuberg said, however, that the study did not find that stronger or less disadvantaged groups were more likely to engage in conflict.

“Religious infusion is not making more powerful groups more conflict-prone,” he said. “It only has that effect on groups that tend to be less powerful.”

Biological sciences senior Mark Egidi said he believed there were examples of conflict between weaker groups and stronger groups in the U.S. He said he was skeptical of the role of religion in the lives of weaker groups.

“Some acts you see at a domestic level are all religiously motivated,” he said. “I think that in a sense religion may tend to prey on vulnerable people who do end up turning to conflict.”

Neuberg said he hoped the study would lead to a much better understanding of the causes of group conflict.

“If we know what the circumstances that create conflict are we should know what one might use as an intervention in this conflict," he said. "It has to do with forecasting and intervention.”

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @katie_calderon

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