Understanding Minds to Win Over Hearts

The phrase “hearts and minds” was first widely heard in U.S. living rooms during the Iraq War. Military strategists came to understand—and cable news readily reported—that in order to achieve victory, the United States and its allies would have to convince the Iraqi people of the justness of the cause, the harm posed by insurgents, and the U.S.-led coalition’s goodwill. That’s a difficult charge for a military steeped in combat and trained to engage and destroy.

“We’re coming around to [the idea of] the civil dimension of strategy becoming prominent. Strategy has to ultimately be as concerned with peace as it is with war.” —Karen Guttieri

Figuring out how to meet that challenge—to win over hearts and minds—requires input from a different kind of expert: social scientists. But for them, too, it’s an awkward fit. Social scientists are trained to understand human nature and its implications, not to wage wars.

This article is part of this week’sspecial issue on , which traces the trajectory of violence and war throughout history, exploring racism, ethnic conflicts, the rise of terrorism, and the possible future of armed conflicts. This week’salso considers our innate capacity to mediate conflict and our ability to achieve-and live in-peace.

Science Careers spoke to three scientists who work in various aspects of “hearts and minds” research—although in one case it’s the hearts and minds of U.S. soldiers after they return home. What they share is a desire to provide a scientific, evidential foundation for important decisions related to human conflict and its consequences.

Culture and conflict

Michele Gelfand, a cultural psychology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, studies the motivations underlying conflict—losing and regaining honor, taking revenge, and so on—and how those motivations vary across cultures. When war breaks out and American soldiers attempt to negotiate with foreign militias or civilians, culture-based notions of honor and revenge can lead to deadly misunderstandings. Training soldiers to recognize those differences could prevent or mitigate conflict.

When people assume implicitly that their own values, beliefs, and norms apply to the people they’re dealing with, conflicts arise and efforts to restore peace usually fail. It’s a cycle you see repeated every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gelfand says: Incompatible cultural assumptions undermine negotiations even when both sides pursue them in good faith.

Gelfand receives much of her funding from the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and the Army Research Laboratory. Her funders’ goal is to better understand the cultural beliefs and norms that spur conflict among the various ethnic and religious factions across many Middle Eastern cultures, including Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as how those factions view American intervention and military action. Middle Eastern notions of revenge and honor are not understood well in the West. Until recently, studies on cultural motivations for conflict have focused on Western nations and Southeast Asia, Gelfand says.

Gelfand decided she wanted to study other cultures during a semester abroad in London. Upon returning to her home institution, Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, she sought a mentor who could help her enter the field of cross-cultural psychology. She found Caroline Keating, a psychologist at Colgate who had studied under Marshall Segall, one of the first scientists to study the influence of culture on human perception. Keating urged Gelfand to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and to study under cultural psychologist Harry Triandis, an expert in negotiation and conflict. It wasn’t long before Gelfand was co-authoring articles with Triandis about how culture shapes decisions.

In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Army and Air Force noticed Gelfand’s work and invited her to speak at conferences about the implications of her research for the conflicts the United States and its allies were engaged in. She applied for and received grants from the Department of Defense, the Army, and the Air Force to continue her studies.

After the battle is won

Karen Guttieri, an assistant professor of global public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, also models conflict. She studies how lawlessness and weak or destabilized governments affect the behavior of their populations.

Guttieri traces her interest in military conflict to her childhood. Her father was drafted to serve in the Army during the Korean War, but Uncle Sam valued his musical talents over his fighting ones so he spent his time in the service playing piano at Fort Benning in Georgia. One of her early memories is playing with plastic green army figurines with her older brother and being castigated by her mother for their too-violent play. American boys were dying in the Vietnam War, her mother told her. War is no game.

Guttieri studied economics at San Francisco State University and then did a Ph.D. in political science at the University of British Columbia in Canada, focusing on political and organizational psychology. After a postdoc at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, she was hired by the Naval Postgraduate School to continue her research, which is funded primarily by the Office of Naval Research. Like Gelfand, Guttieri says that despite her military connections she is free to publish and present her findings without restriction.

Guttieri says that military strategists have only recently begun paying more than lip service to the idea that a lasting victory requires long-term planning that focuses on the period after the battles are won—and that social science research is a necessary foundation for planning. “We’re coming around to [the idea of] the civil dimension of strategy becoming prominent,” she says. “Strategy has to ultimately be as concerned with peace as it is with war. I think that connection is very obvious, but a lot of leaders have failed to make it.”

It is now clear, for example, that planners for the early stages of the Iraq War weren’t concerned about what the United States and its allies should do after toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime, Guttieri says. More recent military leaders seem to have taken that lesson to heart, which Guttieri finds encouraging. Today’s leaders also seem much more interested in developing evidence-based models to help calm turbulence and reduce postconflict chaos.

But models are only as good as the data they’re based on, and both Guttieri and Gelfand say that more data is needed. Data collection in conflict zones is difficult and dangerous. Furthermore, studying cultural bias doesn’t make you immune to it. “I’ve been doing research cross-culturally for over 20 years,” Gelfand says, adding that she has to constantly remind herself “to check my American self at the door.”

That’s two good reasons to let someone else collect your data. Gelfand relies on a network of international researchers who can more easily, safely, and—perhaps—objectively survey populations that might be less receptive to an American scientist going door to door. Guttieri, too, has worked with international data-collectors: For a study on civilian reactions to Nigeria’s 2003 presidential election, she and her colleagues trained Nigerian researchers to survey their fellow citizens using rigorous academic protocols for human subjects. “It’s actually capacity-building of other researchers in the world that I feel good about, even if selfishly I wish I could have done it myself,” she says.

Guttieri also teaches a 12-week class for civil affairs and psychological operations workers in the military. About 90% of her students are reservists, she says, which means they don’t have the luxury of spending 2 years at the Naval Postgraduate School earning a master’s degree in security and development. She and her colleagues must condense the material into 8 weeks of online instruction and 4 weeks of in-person class time. Hopefully, she says, the students will learn enough that when they are deployed overseas, they’ll have a decent, evidence-based understanding of the cultural attitudes they’re working with.

Supporting hearts and minds back home

Nina Sayer, a psychologist and the director of Department of Veterans Affairs research into polytrauma and blast-related injuries for returning veterans, says that if the United States wins overseas but fails to care for its soldiers back home, it’s a hollow victory, indeed.

In recent years, the military has ramped up its efforts to understand how injuries from improvised explosive devices—the most common category of serious injury to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—affect soldiers and their networks after they return home. “I think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have really spurred a great deal of research and have increased … interest in the value of evidence-based treatment for these veterans and service members,” she says.

But if evidence is to provide a solid foundation for decision-making, more of it is needed. “You’ve really got to understand what’s underlying before you proceed to the beautiful models you might build,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s garbage in, garbage out.”

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