Standing before members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 1977, then President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, declared that a barrier had been built between Israel and the Arab nations: ‘This wall constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination around any action, deed, or decision. A barrier of cautious and erroneous interpretations of all and every event or statement’.[i]

Traditional conflict resolution approaches largely centre on rationality, suggesting that conflicts are mainly driven by conscious intentions and that parties can negotiate a suitable outcome if they rely on logic while advancing their own interests. This approach is necessary, but it fails to adequately acknowledge the role played by unconscious motivations.

As President Sadat recognised, psychological factors can shape conflict dynamics. Logic therefore dictates that conflict resolution efforts must also take these into account. There is an ongoing academic debate advocating for a much-needed analysis of the psychological drivers of conflicts, with key figures such as Mari Fitzduff, John Paul Lederach, Herbert Kelman, and Daniel Kahneman focusing respectively on the role of instincts and emotions in driving societal conflicts; the importance of building relationships and fostering communication to address conflicts; the role of identity in intractable conflicts and the importance of humanising the ‘other’; and the role of cognitive and behavioral psychology in addressing conflicts.[ii]

Among myriad complex factors, unconscious biases can wield significant influence in a conflict, fostering categorisation, alliances, and perpetuating division. Understanding these biases is paramount for understanding the dynamics of conflicts and can provide key information for their mitigation. 

What is ‘unconscious bias’?

The concept of unconscious or implicit bias has gradually taken a central space in scholarly, practical, and policy discussions around discrimination and the overall human inclination toward stereotyped behaviours.[iii] The term refers to attitudes or stereotypes that influence our judgments and decisions about people or situations without our awareness. These biases are often rooted in social and cultural factors and can potentially affect our perceptions, actions, and interactions with others.

One of the most popular tools to measure unconscious bias is Banaji and Greenwald’s Implicit Association Test (IAT) which works by asking individuals to sort words, images, or concepts into categories. For example, in a race-related IAT, the terms might be ‘African American’ and ‘European American’, while the categories might be ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. This tool measures implicit biases by assessing the speed of associations, and it is based on the premise that faster responses indicate stronger unconscious associations. It is important to note that the IAT is not without its criticisms and limitations. Critics of the test highlight concerns related to its validity, its accuracy, and its reliability.[iv] Nevertheless, it continues to be widely used as a tool to measure the prevalence of implicit bias in society.

Unraveling unconscious drivers of conflict

Research on unconscious drivers of conflict is still in its infancy, but findings from the field of psychology have shed light on possible avenues for future research. Studies have shown that humans have developed a tendency toward group bonding, which caters to needs such as security and a sense of belonging.[v] Given that bonding implies a certain degree of belonging, we have a tendency to define an in-group, and the construction of this in-group often necessitates the designation of an out-group, which can either be a friend or foe.

Boundaries delimiting the inside from the outside are themselves based on categorisations, whether it be ethnicity, gender, religion, or ideology. These differences can then be mobilised and manipulated by opposing groups in a conflict. While working as a psychiatrist with Vietnam War veterans, Jonathan Shay noted the extent to which ‘Vietnam era military training reflexively imparted the image of the demonized adversary, so inhuman as to not really care if he lives or dies’. As one of the veterans he quotes pointed out, ‘Well, he’s the enemy, ain’t he? You couldn’t kill them if you thought he was just like you’.[vi] One common characterisation of the Vietnamese enemy put forward by the military commanders was that they were ‘enemies of God’, hence morally justifying their deaths.

Evidence of this tendency to see someone else as an ‘other’ has been provided by social psychology experiments such as Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment. In studies like this, fostering awareness of group membership and the existence of competing goals between groups generates hostility. It seems that the existence of categories or the mere act of categorising someone is enough for a division between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ to arise.[vii]

Discourses shaping the beliefs of certain in-groups during periods of heightened conflict or tension can bear significant responsibility for ensuing violence and the dehumanising attitudes belligerents hold toward one another. Between 1941 and 1945, for example, thousands of civilian Serbs were massacred in Croatia by Ustaše militias, people who had previously been their friends and neighbours.[viii]

The reshaping of perceptions based on group affiliation serves as a driver, intensifier, and justification for violence altogether. It deeply influences perceptions and becomes ingrained to the extent that it solidifies unconscious biases toward the designated ‘other’. In the case of Vietnam, this appeared to serve the function of personal survival and military efficiency, both at the expense of human life.

Addressing unconscious bias in conflict resolution

With an increased understanding of the drivers of conflict comes an increased understanding of how to mitigate it. There are a number of strategies, including awareness-based interventions, individuation, perspective-taking, mindfulness practices, and inter-group contact, which show promise in reducing unconscious bias.[ix] For instance, techniques of individuation, which means encouraging people to view individuals holistically beyond their group identities, can combat stereotypes effectively. When facing death penalty cases, research shows that introducing nuance and presenting the defendant’s life story and challenges can lead to greater success for defence lawyers. In these cases, ‘individuation’ helps overcome jurors’ unconscious bias and stereotypes.[x]

Similarly, perspective-taking strategies, such as being asked to write about or imagine a person’s experience of a particular situation, play a significant role in understanding the impact of biases and promoting empathy. The German mediation program R3solute has attempted to address implicit bias through exercises such as storytelling, in order to foster interpersonal dialogue in the context of heightened social tensions. R3solute notably applied this work to the refugee crisis in Germany by promoting dialogue aimed at deconstructing mutual stereotypes and bias between German citizens and refugees.[xi]

Increasing intergroup contact can, under certain conditions, also contribute to reducing bias by fostering empathy and diminishing fear. Contact theory posits that prejudice between groups can be reduced if members of the groups interact with each other. The organisation Interpeace has acknowledged the significance of this theory in mitigating prejudice and bias in recently-released guidance to help practitioners integrate Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) into peacebuilding efforts. The guidance underscored that identifying a shared goal, advocating for collaboration to achieve it, and reaffirming equal status, especially with the support of authoritative figures, can help dismantle stereotypes through building ‘social cohesion’.[xii]

Conflict resolution approaches that emphasise dialogue, empathy, and comprehension thus align well with strategies to tackle unconscious bias, helping to promote unity and reduce prejudice.

Unintended consequences of unconscious bias interventions

Yet, while there are increasing calls by peacebuilding actors for the use of bias reduction methods in conflict resolution efforts, there is a growing recognition that such interventions have the potential to backfire.

Research suggests that seemingly straightforward interventions, like diversity training – a type of workshop designed to increase awareness and understanding of stereotypes, biases, and their impact – can yield temporary and counterproductive outcomes.[xiii] Such training might reinforce stereotypes by inadvertently validating them. Conversely, interventions focusing on fostering understanding between groups through perspective-taking exercises tend to yield better results than stereotype-centric approaches.

There are also concerns surrounding contact theory, with evidence suggesting that poorly managed intergroup interactions could amplify bias, leading to increased prejudice, anxiety, and avoidance.[xiv] In everyday life, negative intergroup contact may outweigh the benefits of positive contact, a phenomenon known as the ‘contact caveat’.[xv] This phenomenon suggests that the negative impact of such contact on intergroup attitudes is stronger because negative contact increases the salience of group categories, causing individuals to see others as representatives of groups rather than unique individuals. These findings emphasise the need for a more nuanced approach to facilitating these interactions.[xvi]

Research has also found that the efficacy of bias reduction interventions can be influenced by factors such as their scale (individual or systemic intervention) and duration (long-term or short-term). Findings point towards favoring more comprehensive, systemic approaches to bias reduction rather than those targeting individuals. While brief interventions can be effective in the short term, sustained schedules predict greater long-term success. Despite the potential for adverse effects, the current criticisms of implicit bias interventions point researchers and practitioners towards a new direction. As stated by Helen Winter and David Hoffman, ‘the next frontier – measuring the impact of long-term, multi-faceted interventions in the field – has barely begun’.[xvii]

The way forward

It is natural to question why time is being dedicated to exploring an intangible, complex concept that yields conflicting results. Why not prioritise the study of conflict drivers that we can directly observe, identify, and quantify? Proponents argue that, while there is a need for further exploration, our evolving understanding of unconscious bias and its influence offers practitioners and researchers valuable data that can contribute to positive change. Knowledge of unconscious bias can raise awareness among mediators and conflicting parties regarding their own implicit biases, and it may enable practitioners to better address the intricate, unseen, and often unspoken, dynamics at play in intergroup conflicts.

It is also important that interventions targeting unconscious bias are viewed as part of a comprehensive strategy. This strategy should address both individual biases and systemic societal factors, such as discriminatory attitudes and popular and political discourses that foster division. By combining unconscious bias interventions with complementary approaches, we can work towards conflict resolution processes that lead to more sustainable, equitable, and effective outcomes.

On a final note, in her book ‘Our Brains at War’,Mari Fitzduffreminds us that, while our ancestors’ tendencies to form groups that compete with one another can prevail in our intergroup relationships, we, as ever-evolving human beings, have proven our ability to move beyond our own tribes to interact with others in an increasingly interconnected world. In his work on ‘moral imagination’, John Paul Lederach also emphasises that peacebuilding is an artistic endeavor that demands creativity, continuous innovation, and a deep understanding of the essence of conflict. Though unconscious biases tend to be perceived negatively, it is important to recognise them as features, not flaws, of our human brains in order to understand, and mitigate, their impact on conflict dynamics.[xviii]

Emma Ciccarella is a freelance conflict researcher and junior consultant at TrustWorks Global. She has experience in conflict analysis, mediation, and psychology, through her work on West Africa and the Middle East in organizations such as the International Crisis Group and Promediation. She holds an MSc from the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences department of the London School of Economics.

This blog was originally published by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation: read it here.

[i] Dan Jones. (2016). Untying the hardest knots. Accessed at:

[ii] Mari Fitzduff. (2021). Our Brains at War – The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding. Oxford University Press; John Paul Lederach. (2010). The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press; H.C. Kelman (2007). Social-psychological dimensions of international conflict. In Zartman, I. W. Peacemaking in international conflict: methods & techniques. United States Institute of Peace Press; Daniel Kahneman. (2012), Thinking, Fast and Slow. Penguin.


[iv] Jesse Singal. (2017). Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job. The Cut

[v] Mari Fitzduff. (2021). Our Brains at War – The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding. Oxford University Press.

[vi] Jonathan Shay. (1995). Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Scribner.

[vii] Henri Tajfel. (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations. Academic Press.

[viii] Mari Fitzduff. (2021). Our Brains at War – The Neuroscience of Conflict and Peacebuilding. Oxford University Press.

[ix] Helen Winter & David Hoffman. (2022). Follow the Science: Proven Strategies for Reducing Unconscious Bias. Harvard Negotiation Law Review, 28(1).

[x] D. O’Brien & Kathleen Wayland. (2015). Implicit Bias and Capital Decision-Making: Using Narrative to Counter Prejudicial Psychiatric Labels. 43 HOFSTRA L. Rev. 751, 772–80.


[xii] Interpeace. (2023). Mind the Peace: Integrating MHPSS, Peacebuilding and Livelihood Programming: A guidance framework for practitioners, February.

[xiii] C. Chavez & J.Y. Weisinger. (2008). Beyond diversity training: a social infusion for cultural inclusion. Human Resource Management. Vol. 47 No. 2, pp. 331–350.

[xiv] Shelley McKeown & John Dixon. (2017). The “Contact Hypothesis”: Critical Re- flections and Future Directions, Soc. & Personality Psych. Compass. Vol. 11.

[xv] Barlow, F. K., Paolini, S., Pedersen, A., Hornsey, M. J., Radke, H. R. M., Harwood, J., … Sibley, C. G. (2012). The contact caveat: Negative contact predicts increased prejudice more than positive contact predicts reduced prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[xvi] Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2010). Negative intergroup contact makes group memberships salient: Explaining why intergroup conflict endures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

[xvii] Helen Winter & David Hoffman. (2022). Follow the Science: Proven Strategies for Reducing Unconscious Bias. Harvard Negotiation Law Review, 28(1).

[xviii] Dan Sperber & Hugo Mercier. (2017). The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press. Daniel Kahneman. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.