The Making of an Upstander

By Jason Marsh | September 1, 2006 | 0 comments

In a 2002 report on “Altruism and Compassion in War,” Harvard University researchers Nancy Briton and Jennifer Leaning identify some possible explanations for why people display compassion and altruism in the midst of war, when many other people serve as mere bystander, or even collaborators in violence.

Their report was based on thousands of hours of interviews with people living in 12 of the most war-torn regions on earth, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. Here are the four main factors they uncovered. (For more on their work, please see “In Search of the Moral Voice” in the Spring 2004 issue of Greater Good.)

1. Feelings of group affiliation

People tend to favor members of their own group over others, but Briton and Leaning found that some people were able to find common ground with people they could have easily dismissed as enemies. The trick, said Briton, is helping people in war find a “thread of similarity” with others. “They’re little threads, but there are so many that are available to us.”

2. Feelings of self-efficacy

If people felt they had the tools to help someone, the authors found, they were more likely to act on altruistic motives that might otherwise have remained dormant. The report quotes a Palestinian ambulance driver who said that because of his professional responsibilities, he would rescue a wounded Israeli soldier, even if that soldier had killed a relative of his. It also mentions a Christian Lebanese journalist who used his press ID to rescue Muslims from danger.

3. A desire for reciprocity

Combatants who performed altruistic acts often attributed their behavior to reciprocity—the idea being that they treated their enemies the same way they wanted to be treated in return. Other interview subjects explained reciprocity as a way to try to stem cycles of violence.

4. A desire to recapture one’s moral identity

Some people simply seemed sick and tired of violent conflict, and wanted to regain the moral identity that war had eclipsed. But how can people be reminded of their moral identities when they are stuck in the moral vacuum of war? Leaning said she believes that international NGOs play an important role. If people in warfare have lost touch with their own moral voice, she said, “Perhaps they’ll have a shock of recognition when they see someone coming out of a Land Rover and holding a white flag.”

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About The Author

Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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