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Posts from ‘Kulani Dias’


News Flash: Are We Really Aware of What We’re Saying?

What do we really mean when we say it?

There is an alarming lack of awareness in political rhetoric nowadays. When I say political rhetoric I refer to discussions on events such as conflicts around the world, be in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the events in Gaza reaching a height in the news recently), the Sri Lankan civil conflict, or the events in Rwanda, Bhutan, or –yes, America. Wars and conflict do not necessarily have to be confined to the parameters of large-scale artillery shellings and the bombings of civilians in Palestine, Israel, or Sri Lanka. Rather, as most of us know, political discourse and conflict can center on elections –most notably the recent American elections, and more ‘minor’ instances of disagreement and debate such as the passing of various State Laws – or even the celebration of various national holidays (for example: Thanksgiving: a national feast or celebration of mass genocide? Discuss).

Recently, I realized first-hand the alarming lack of awareness that people seem to have when debating political issues. From reading news reports on the attacks on Gaza (or Gaza’s attacks on Israel, depending on your political and personal preference), to watching Twitter feeds to reading UN briefs to going through Facebook statuses, I see an alarming lack of understanding that prevails. To me, whether a rocket is launched in response to a rocket that was launched in irrelevant. To be more precise – to justify the launching of your rocket(s) in response to whatever attack in the past, which will inevitably kill, is irrelevant. Bottom line, you kill civilians. War is war. But the justifications people give, to support their side, to support their views, is fascinating.

A disclaimer here. I have been asked, time and time again, what my own personal political views are. I must be biased, right? I must have some political leaning? However, my staunch stance, having seen the atrocities of war first hand, is that – these justifications are irrelevant. Voltaire once said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. To me, some of the political justifications given behind the attacks on people around the world are absurd. I stand with people, not political affiliations. Nationalism comes at a cost, and when that cost is that of blindness to the atrocities the ‘other’ group is subject to, it’s too much for me. One can have beliefs, and inclinations. However, they become detrimental to oneself, and society at large when one lets these views narrow one’s ability to empathize with the other. Furthermore, my role as a researcher is to navigate pitfalls such as attaching myself to one worldview, one viewpoint. My job, as I see it, is to design experiments, scenarios, situations, in order to see what behavior/responses individuals exhibit under certain conditions, and what influences this behavior, how certain behavior can be changed and be better informed.

The most basic, and most poignant case of justification for atrocities I have seen recently is that which myself am studying: how one justifies moral transgressions, or atrocities committed by one’s own group by advantageous comparison and/or competitive victimhood. When Albert Bandura proposed the concept of Moral Disengagement in 1996, he delineated the following categories: Euphemistic Labeling, Advantageous Comparison, Diffusion of Responsibility, Displacement of Responsibility, Attribution of Blame of Victim, Dehumanization, and Disregard or Distortion of Consequences. The strong prevalence of Advantageous Comparison in the rhetoric pertaining to conflicts around the world – more specifically, pertaining to justifying one’s side in conflicts around the world was both alarming, and fascinating to me as a young psychologist.

Perhaps this is because of my own ongoing work in coding the interview data collected in Sri Lanka over the past year. Interestingly enough, there is a strong prevalence of Advantageous Comparison, as well as Competitive Victimhood, in the ongoing coding of the interviews. “We are only doing this is retaliation to what they did to us – do you remember when they bombed this area? Well, they did, so we bombed there.” This is advantageous comparison versus the Competitive Victimhood paradigm of  “We have suffered much more than them – they killed fifty of our children whilst we killed only eight of theirs”. Does it really matter? When did putting numbers on lives ever alleviate the gravity of death? Does the killing of a hundred justify the killing of a thousand more?

What seem like basic premises, alarmingly basic premises to me are rampant in official and unofficial political discourses around the world. This is why I believe researchers in political and conflict psychology are so integral in the national and international policy making and negotiation tables. The study of intergroup relations, and ethnic conflict is so important, not just to identify solutions but to identify the problem. The problem sometimes is how we actually talk about it, which becomes how we rationalize atrocities. The mass rationalization of atrocities. If this is not an alarming issue in the world today, I don’t know what is.


Now What? Coping with post-field-research-problems (PFRP)

Now What? Coping with post-field-research-problems (PFRP)

With a new semester brings new books, new classes, and new conversations. For me it brought on new questions. My period of data collection ended in August, and I am now back in the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich & Democratic) world, one might say, of Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. Let the data analysis begin.

Where to start? Balancing 5 classes, a research assistantship and a host of other responsibilities while writing two Honors theses is no easy task. However, this is where ‘real’ learning comes in, in my opinion. Time management and knowing where to start, when you’re faced with an overwhelming schedule and an even more overwhelming set of data to analyze. I remember sitting down, after I had gotten back, opening my laptop, and staring blankly at the 75 interviews I had to transcribe. Where to start?

The end of a research trip is only the beginning of the entire ‘research experience’. You learn the importance of delegation and time management. “Do one thing at a time,” Dr. Vollhardt advised me. Perhaps the most important tool you can have, in my opinion, is a positive outlook. Even when you are bogged down with exams, papers, research proposals and countless interviews to transcribe on top of that, you just have to breathe, and believe that you can do it, and do it well. That is part of motivation. And if all else fails, make a pot of tea and eat some chocolate!

The data itself

 So far, a lot of attention has been paid to my Psychology Thesis work. I thought in this post I would focus on the preliminary work for my English thesis. After much discussion, Dr. Lisa Kasmer helped me formulate my outline for the thesis. Another skill you learn in college – sorting through the myriad ideas and hypotheses and articles you are interested in order to narrow it down to one – or a few – concepts that are navigable and useful to work with in the long run. I have finally settled on using 3 of the 75 interview narratives I collected as ‘texts’ in my plan to write a quite ‘unconventional’ English thesis. I’ll be analyzing the prevalence of Michel Foucault’s ideas of panoptic surveillance within our society along with Louis Althusser’s iterations on theology i.e. how do people entrench themselves in a certain mindset or ideology – or specifically in my thesis, propaganda, by not even knowing it? How do we subscribe to the “system” that is set up by the mechanisms of propaganda that are at work around us, all day, every day?

This goes hand in hand with my Psychology thesis which is aimed at exploring how people justify moral transgressions that they or their group commit. Thus the overarching framework of my project is studying how people rationalize injustices that they may commit. How do good people do bad things? Hopefully I can add to this literature in a few months to come!

The continued learning experience

I remember looking at the LEEP workshop emails and thinking, “I wonder what on earth they could be trying to teach us now.” You tend to question the use of these workshops, because there are so few people (if any) in your field! Perhaps, you think, the time could be better spent talking to your professor, or working on data analysis itself. How much more reflecting can be done?

The surprise for me was that I found that I really enjoyed the workshops because I learned a lot from the variety of the projects themselves. Sometimes one can get entrenched in one’s own line of research and then get focused on one perspective, one lens. Hearing about the other projects really made me think – and really it gave birth to my idea of launching a platform for discussion of research, where students working on Political/Conflict Psychology can get together to write about their experiences, in a language that can be understood by a greater audience, and not just psychologists themselves. There seems to be a lack of political/conflict psychology in today’s policy making world and one reason may be that this research needs to be translated in a language that can be understood by a wider audience. One of the key skills I learned at the LEEP workshops was the importance of articulating my project in a language that could be understood by individuals not versed in academic terminology. This, I’ve realized during the past few weeks, is a key skill that can be extrapolated onto life after college – when you need to describe to your friends, family, and potential employers about what it is you actually did!


If you’re interested in my research and its findings and implications, feel free to join the conversation tomorrow at 1.30pm on Spreecast: You can also tune in after the interview! 



Entering war-torn Trincomalee; August 2012

What makes the destruction of one life more acceptable than the destruction of a thousand? The answer may seem obvious to some – even most. But I disagree. The destruction of one life, to me, is not less terrifying and condemnable than the destruction of a thousand. As mortars and landmines take the lives of hundreds at a time, headlines are printed. 100 dead here, 60 dead there. Those far away from these explosions may shed a tear or two, and talk about the atrocity that is war over a scrumptious dinner with the family. But the reality of it all never hits you until you actually visit the field of war, where broken families still live in broken homes.

A last minute change in travel plans afforded me one more week in Sri Lanka. My family agreed to a trip to Trincomalee, another war-afflicted area towards the North-East of Sri Lanka, where they would enjoy the beautiful turquoise beaches and I could talk to natives and do more research. This is the paradox of Sri Lanka. A beautiful paradise island with a tumultuous history of violence and ongoing prejudice and political power struggles.

I am collecting mostly ethnographic research on my observations of the destruction of the war, coupled with some of the “resettlement” that is going on. I put this within quotation marks because it was the word generously thrown around by a military official we are travelling with. I thought I’d add some pictures to this post, of the ongoing resettlement of war-afflicted people in the area. I applaud those who have built homes for these people. But post-war efforts need to go beyond simply the provision of homes, war and electricity. Indeed, am emphasis needs to be placed on reconciliatory efforts at educating children and adults alike, moving towards a change in attitudes from attention to difference to movement towards integration.

Resettlement homes, Trincomalee; August 2012

You may think – how?

But the more compelling mindset in Sri Lanka seems to be – “impossible.”


“…the Tamil people who live in Jaffna, they’re very strong-headed people, very brainy people, they’re born to study…And… they’re also… I mean, they also, they don’t give in? Type? So… that led to lot of disaster.” –(007A) – Sinhalese participant, referring to Sinhalese perpetrator, Tamil victims incident.

“And there – I don’t think there was much of a difference between in those areas who was LTTE and who wasn’t. Because they were all for it. Majority of them.” –(022B) – Sinhalese participant, referring to Sinhalese perpetrator, Tamil victims incident.

“They are the majority. They are selfish. It’s not in them, in their blood, to help us…” –(071B) – Tamil participant, referring to Tamil perpetrator, Sinhalese victims incident.

Essentialist attribution. I’ve found that the minority, or disadvantaged group tends to essentialize themselves in a bid for disavowal of agency at their position of being victimized. The majority group also tends to essentialize the disadvantaged group in justifying why they acted/discriminated as they did. Essentialist beliefs are embedded deep into the mentality of individuals here, in justifying large scale ethnic conflict to explaining domestic quarrels. When one believes that the other is born in a certain way, it becomes the ultimate justification for defending oneself, or acting the way s/he did, as attempting to change the behavior of the individual is ‘impossible.’ It is only through the circulation of ‘facts’ that show that such stereotypic traints are not necessarily qualities that individuals are born with that can move individuals towards a change in their view of the other. I hope to study such essentialist attribution in my Psychology thesis, while deconstructing it further in my English thesis to explore its role in the politicization of trauma through propaganda under the guidance of Professor Lisa Kasmer and Professor James Elliott.

Reconciliation must go beyond resettlement. And more importantly, individuals of power need to understand that a misrepresentation of events and half-truths only serve the needs of those cushioned in air-conditioned cars and million dollar homes. The misunderstandings between the West and the politicians of this island can be resolved better if one stops focusing on the ‘big picture’ of infrastructure and tourism that would boost the ‘overall economy’ of the country, and instead look into the social education of the people themselves. Sri Lankan may nurture some of the most driven, school-oriented children in the world, but its population is sadly illiterate when it comes to understanding the vicious cycle of social prejudice (both Sinhalese and Tamils alike) that hinders reconciliation in such a multi-ethnic setting. Opportunities need to be provided for all, and the discrepancy between the ‘development’ that is printed in the media and the actual state of the individuals needs to be addressed. This is again is only possible if the people understand that change is, in fact, possible.

The drive to Trincomalee; August 2012

Girihandu Seya -- a Buddhist Stupa with military personnel; August 2012

Research can be exhausting!; August 2012




Real People, Real Experiences

Real People, Real Experiences: Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

“I had walked away, and just 30 seconds later, I heard an explosion. I looked up from the lottery ticket in my hand and saw glass shattering, and little shards of it raining down – as I started running, I saw a man in front of me struggling with a larger shard of glass at the back of his neck. It was chaos, I tell you… Buses were on fire, with people packed in them, and the drivers were still driving onward – driving over people who were still alive, who were missing half their limbs, who were screaming as the tires ran over their bleeding bodies…”

Real experiences. Real voices. From real people. You can pick up a newspaper and read numbers. 6, 905 people dead. 100 people dead as a result of this bomb. 10, 000 people dead in the North. However, hearing it from just 1 who has actually experienced the panic, the brutality, and the actual futility of war is a completely different story.

I have two more days of research before I leave Sri Lanka. As I near the end of this research trip, I can’t but look back at the amazing stories I have heard and be thankful for this incredible opportunity. What started as a research trip has become an experience that has colored my future plans, my career goals. I have made some amazing connections – I have met individuals from the United Nations, various ambassadors, government and military personnel among others. I have enough research to write a book on my experience here.

This is not to say that it has been smooth sailing throughout the past four weeks. I remember a frantic email I sent my Honors advisor and LEEP Co-Mentor, Dr. Johanna Vollhardt, when I fell ill in the middle of my trip and had to undergo a surgery. Days were lost – days when I could have been interviewing people. I even cut my recovery period short, to make up for lost time – I would preface my interviews by informing participants that I had had surgery in my mouth which is why my face was abnormally swollen! I have three days more to go and there are STILL MANY logistics to coordinate. Tapes need to be transcribed. I have eight interviews lined up for tomorrow – three of them with Army personnel. Have you ever tried interviewing six people, one after another, on the same extremely sensitive topic, over and over again? There are many ‘landmines’ to step over. As the interviewer, you must build a rapport, and say as little possible to sway the interviewee. You must show the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers. In a country where there are political disappearances and killings every day, one must choose one’s words carefully when in company. But my background as a student allows people to be more open with their responses to my questions to them. What begin as responses to a semi-structured interview with three predetermined scenarios become recollections of trauma, of life experiences that to me, have colored my research experience in a way I couldn’t have envisioned in the classroom. I find myself more passionately inclined towards working to inform reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I have made plans, started my work. This has, in a way, been that invaluable first step towards enriching my future career plans. And I can’t even begin to describe the amount of experience in terms of organization, coordination of logistics, and people skills, I have learned and earned during this trip. These are real experiences that I will carry back with me, and will inform future studies I will design and run, and future classroom discussions. I always make it a point to note any criticisms or suggestions participants have about my questionnaires or interview questions. These are valuable field notes that will further inform the results of my study.

There are many people whose voices go unheard every day. There many who have experienced the consequences of conflict, of separation and of various political decisions, whose stories are vivid and important. These real world, personally felt and expressed, experiences help color our understanding of how to foster reconciliation among those groups that were hurt during this conflict that has lasted over thirty years now. I have received details and personal accounts that go far beyond what I initially hoped and planned for. I have listened to individuals from all over the country, of all socio-economic strata and backgrounds give their opinions on the same scenarios, in the very same conflict, and yet each account is personalized in the understanding and rationalization of the conflict. As this research period comes to an end, I can’t help but nod in exhaustion, but also get excited about the wealth of information this trip has afforded me. Real people, real voices — that struggle to be heard in a sea of numbers and statistics. From the fisherman to the Army General to the businessman to the clergyman – you’d be surprised at how much they all have in common, regardless of the various racial, ethnic, political religious affiliations that have propelled this conflict for over thirty years… (and counting)?


The true anecdote at the beginning of this article is published with the consent of the respective participant. 


Are you a Robot or an Animal?: Investigating Automatic Attitude Activation

One study, many answers

Today I interviewed and surveyed an ex-LTTE cadre, a military official, a professor, a housewife, and an esteemed businessman. This is why I love what I do.

They had the most amazing stories to tell. There are of course many things that I am barred from writing about here, for the purposes of participant confidentiality [and my own well-being]. But there are some things that I am allowed to share with the consent of my participants. Take for example the businessman I interviewed today. A respected Rotarian, he engages in a lot of community service around Sri Lanka and was recently part of a group that donated several artificial limbs to ex-LTTE cadres who’d lost their limbs during the war. I felt myself tearing up when he showed me the pictures of an ex-LTTE commander, a woman, who’d lost both her legs towards the end of the war, walking again with her newly acquired artificial limbs. She was crying as she pushed her wheelchair away from herself. She could walk again.

All this in a sixty minute long interview and questionnaire session investigating Moral Disengagement, Ingroup Glorification and Essentialism in post-war Sri Lanka for an undergraduate double Honors thesis project. This is why I love what I do.

This further goes to show how important this kind of work is in reconciliatory efforts. I am personally very interested in the theory of Automatic Attitude Activation (Fazio). Automaticity in attitudes and social cognition can be a tricky thing to study. If one is primed for certain stimuli, and if the self-concept is shown to automatically activate certain attitudes in the presence of relevant stimuli, then one could argue that change in attitude is impossible? [I put in this question mark because it is unbearable for me to even make that statement without questioning it outright!] While I do agree with the socio-intuitionist model of behavior in the literature that follows that people make judgments based on intuition, and then find justifications after, I firmly believe that changes in attitude are possible, that we can change our mental schema to accommodate and assimilate new knowledge in order to change our behavior and automatic attitude activation towards respective stimuli. And the key to this change in behavior is through exposure to the ‘other’ side. It’s like the professor I interviewed today said, it’s not about doing away with the differences that are part-and-parcel of another person of another culture, but about acknowledging and respecting those differences – and simple appreciation. Why are human beings so threatened by something that is different to them? Because that difference may be an edge, a trait that may threaten their own livelihood, their own existence? I believe so.

So this ex-LTTE commander, who had previously commanded soldiers to shoot in the direction of the enemy, us, them, they, we… She posed a threat to the ‘other.’ The boundaries that are created are social constraints that then instigate automatic attitude activation for respective stimuli in developing children, perhaps even in grown adults who undergo severe trauma [another interesting avenue to explore!] But the stereotype, the label, of her being “the other,” was broken down by this businessman, who is as different from her as can be, and still wanted to help, and alleviate her suffering – alleviate the suffering of someone who had, in essence, killed hundreds of his own “kind.” But such “beliefs” can be changed, and this is what is possible with education, with learning, with travel, with research. After all, if we were all beings driven by solely automated or unconscious wills, we’d either be robots or carnal animals. What makes us human is our ability to change. So why don’t we? Isn’t it worth finding out?


*Fazio, R.H. (2001). On the automatic activation of associated evaluations: An overview. Cognition and Emotion, 15(2), 115-141.



Things They Don’t Teach You In The Classroom

A questionnaire: For everyone?

“This is just futile. What is the point of my answering this?”

Let me tell you, conducting a study in the comfort of your campus, within its premises, or even in a Western “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) country, is nothing like conducting research in a country such as Sri Lanka. Forget the lack of accessible public transport that inhibits quick travel from participant to participant when conducting interviews. Forget the change in climate that may induce some sickness or jetlag. Forget the different languages (and sometimes, communication barrier) and time constraints that one may have in conducting the research.

What do you do when your participants do not understand the premise of a questionnaire itself?

It seems to me that psychologists take for granted that people understand the notion behind a questionnaire. You are presented with statements. And you agree, or disagree. On a scale of 1 to 7 if you use Likert scales. But that’s the trick of actually doing field research. A student in a classroom can suggest the use of a Likert scale if a professor asks what type of scale should be used for a certain study. That’s what my group did when designing a study for Experimental Methods in Psychology and we didn’t think twice about it. If you walk up to someone in the Academic Commons and ask them to fill out a questionnaire with Likert scales in it, you take it for granted that the individual understands this idea of ‘rating’ their response on a scale of 1 to 7.

But what if the natives of the country in which one is doing the research in is not familiar with the concept of such a rating system? Better yet, what if these individuals are not familiar with a questionnaire, with such “arbitrary statements without context” itself?

What do you say when your participant then doesn’t understand the concept behind your research and questions the validity of it all?

You sit, and smile, and you ask them to fill out as much of the questionnaire as possible, bite your tongue, and take an aspirin after the study is done. There’s something they don’t usually teach you in the classroom.  

Such questions are valid, after all. How is your participant supposed to rate their affinity to their culture, simply by “Agreeing” or “Disagreeing?” How are you supposed to explain to your participants that yes, certain statements need to be considered in singularity, and that no more context can be given? It’s especially difficult to explain to them that these items have been adapted from scales that have been administered in other conflict areas. People actually care about this topic. This research project doesn’t deal with hypothetical scenarios. It deals with real attacks, that occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war, that pique at sensitive memories. Some people refuse to acknowledge the conflict. Others won’t stop talking about it. Still others accuse me of being an agent that cause conflict by bringing up such issues. But these are the times that strengthen my own conviction that these issues can’t be swept under the rug, that we need to get people to reason out their justifications for both sides of the conflict, in order to move towards informed reconciliation, and not this umbrella term of “rehabilitation” that seems to be thrown around these days, in this setting.

Research is really not for the light-hearted.  Or the easily-daunted. Recruiting participants, coordinating times and logistics with translators and transcribers who change their rates, and argue times and availability… and repeating the same questions to not two, three, four, but five and sometimes six people in one day, and biting your tongue if they come up with questions for you, the interviewer, regarding such sensitive material… is not fun, to say the least. When one of my participants refused to answer my questionnaire in the morning today, on account of it “radicalizing” him and not making any sense, I wanted to tear my hair out. But I smiled, and kept trying to explain that his response was going to be a statistic in the questionnaire, and would not be used to profile him specifically. Then there was the participant who refused to acknowledge the conflict in Sri Lanka, said my work was futile, and kept probing me to look into “the conflict in Iraq.”

A great way to start off the morning.

Then this evening, one of my participants said something to me, while filling out the questionnaire. “This is great, what you’re doing,” she nodded, “Thank you. Thirty years ago I watched my friends put their children on [vehicles] that carried them away in the middle of the conflict, and comforted them as bombs went off around me. What you’re doing might not change the world, but it gives people like me some hope that people nowadays care about this kind of thing. Thank you.”

The feeling I carried with me after that interview made all those issues I had worth it; that’s another thing they don’t teach you in the classroom.


Why Do Good People Do Bad Things?

Sri Lanka, 2010: Photograph by Author

Photograph taken by author when visiting the northern war-afflicted areas of Sri Lanka in 2010. Here, a soldier on duty, laughs at a joke that the author made while snapping the picture.

He had a wife, and a baby daughter whom he loved very much. He had actually just been writing a letter to his wife, telling her that he’d be coming home soon, that it was almost over, that he couldn’t wait to see his baby girl again, to hold her, to take her to school, to teach her the alphabet. He wanted more children. He wanted a son. He wanted to give his father a grandson, someone to carry on the proud family name. He respected and loved his parents very much. Everyone in his village knew him to be a good son and husband.

But it was this same good son who’d pulled the trigger on countless people, just like him.

The debate here is, of course, no, they were not just like me.

Why do “good people do bad things? A quick disclaimer: whenever I refer to “good” people, I always think of such “goodness” as being constructed, as being entirely contextual – I really don’t believe in a clear distinction between good and bad at all. But for the purposes of investigating the construct of evil and moral transgression, this word ‘good’ will be used. We all know of ‘good’ people in our lives. But we all know that they too, do ‘bad’ things. I will thus be using this established phenomenon of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to demonstrate the constructs I am interested in, but urge you to consider that morality itself is an arbitrary, socio-intuitive construct. But more on that later!

It is an established belief that it is part of the human condition to say it is “us versus them” when humans engage in processes of group membership identification.  Evolutionary psychologists state that this is part of the competitive process that goes along with the process of natural selection and the survival of the fittest in our modern human context. When does such competition occur at the expense of others? More importantly, how do we as social beings cognitively rationalize any moral transgressions that we may commit in order to survive, in pitting our group versus theirs?

The way I see it, people tend to give justifications for their actions after they have engaged in a sequence of actions that were motivated by their interpretation of situational cues on existing schema of the enemy stereotype. So to get at why good people do bad things, in order to at least get closer to how such people do bad things, we must first look at the justifications that they give for committing such acts. My research interests lie in investigating the means by which people justify the moral transgressions that they or their ingroup commits. How does one rationalize and ‘sanitize’ moral transgressions that would otherwise go against established notions of ‘good’ morality? You would think that there would be some sort of internal chaos, some conflicting motivations that would inhibit such ‘terrible’ acts. So how can a good man pull the trigger on another man?

Another man. Nope, that’s not it. I wasn’t killing a man. I was killing “the enemy.”

That’s the trick. Euphemistic labeling. In disassociating the ‘other’ from the human qualities that I connote my own family, my own race, my own group with, I am cognitively able to rationalize my action. I am not killing but defending my nation, my people. I am not murdering a son, a father, a husband, a wife, but saving my own son, father, husband or wife, from a terrible fate.

Seems pretty simple? Basic? The thing is, it goes much deeper than that. Why do we do it? How does such cognitive restructuring of desired action take place? My interest in such processes was sparked by Albert Bandura’s work on Moral Disengagement, and the mechanisms that he presented under this construct: Moral Justification, Euphemistic Labeling, Advantageous (Palliative) Comparison, Distortion of Consequences, Attribution of Blame to the Victim, Diffusion of Responsibility and Dehumanization. The array of justifications that people give for their actions is incredible. And you don’t need to move to a conflict level so large of a scale as ‘war’ to see it: just look at the justifications people in your own daily life give for various mistakes they make, or commitments they fail to keep. Better yet (and perhaps more difficult yet) try to consciously look at the justifications you yourself give for various mistakes you make, or failures you face. “I was late because my dog ate my homework/my friend got locked in her dorm/my friend was sick” = all examples of Diffusion of Responsibility. You displace moral agency from the self, and thus you rationalize yourself being passive in the situation. You were late. That is all. But that is never – “all.”

Getting at “all” these justifications, is no easy task. Especially in a war-torn country such as Sri Lanka where the discussion of such topics is still very sensitive. And you don’t want to pique at wounds that are still raw. As a researcher, you constantly have to navigate that tricky situation of not advocating for change by informing people of whatever you think is right. That is simply not what you are there to do. You are there to bite your tongue, as tough as it may be in certain situations, and learn, learn, learn from every participant, from every story, from every bit of data that you gather.

Once you get these justifications, it’s even harder working with them. You realize how messy it can get when you start data analysis. This is why I believe that a mixed-methods approach is essential in this type of research – so I use surveys in addition to my semi-structures interviews to get at people’s levels of group identification, patriotism (attached versus critical) and victim consciousness. These measures help provide more context, and more “structured” context to assessing group membership and identification, and level of ingroup glorification that correspond with the utilization of mechanisms of moral disengagement in cognitively restructuring one’s moral conduct.

So what’s the ‘moral’ of this story? The anecdote I started with, of the man who killed dozens and loved nevertheless, was a true story that he himself told me when I was conducting research in December. He was trying to justify his behavior, tell me that he was a good man, at his very ‘core.’ How do good people do bad things? I may never be able to fully answer that, but I definitely will work towards understanding it better. And the closer we get to understanding this phenomenon, the more aware we can become of the individual and group-level injustices committed, and the closer we can get at reconciliation versus rationalization of such prejudiced behavior.

*Note: The contents of this article are not linked to the person depicted in the image attached in any way.  


How to tell a story

“What people don’t seem to understand these days is that everything is a story. Even writing a statistical paper can be a story. You telling me about who you are, why we’re meeting today, what you’d like to know from me… depends on the story you tell me about who you are and what you do. And then I’ll tell you my story. Newspapers, psychology articles… they all construct stories. To be successful, you just need to construct your story well.

That’s what a Yale post-doctoral student I met with told me when I asked her for some advice today. She was right. So instead of laying out the specifics of my research topic in my very first post (because that will definitely follow in time to come, believe me!) I thought I’d give you a little back-story to my project.

It’s not that hard. Research, I mean. I feel like so many undergrads I’ve talked to hate it, or complain about how difficult and annoying it can be. Really though, what makes a difference is finding something you’re passionate about. Research then becomes easy – not research, really, but a drive to learn, to find out more about something you actually care about.

Growing up in a country torn with civil war, hearing about how the Sinhalese have done the Tamils wrong, and how the Tamils have done the Sinhalese wrong definitely influenced my interest in studying the justifications that people give for the moral transgressions that their own group commits. It doesn’t even need to be on that large of a scale as war. Think about how “good people” you know, have been known to commit “not –so-good” acts. When I first read Albert Bandura’s work on “Moral Disengagement” and the mechanisms he presented about the ways in which people tend to sanitize and remove moral agency from inhumane acts and injustices that they or their in-group commit, it definitely struck a cord with me. I wanted to learn more about this.

How this interest evolved into my current double Honors thesis in Psychology and English, investigating moral disengagement, in-group glorification, essentialism and systems justification in post-war Sri Lanka is not an easy or simple story to tell. There were papers I read and drowned in. Constructs that made my head spin. Nights of mulling over experimental designs. Days of walking dazedly through the library due to nights of mulling over possible designs for the study. Days of contacting translators, coordinating times, realizing after hours of work that the translations need to be redone… Exhausting doesn’t even begin to describe it. But it was all worth it when I had my pilot study ready to go in December. Was I nervous? More than you can imagine. But I was even more excited than nervous. I was ready to go. This was my own research project, my very own. That was an incredible feeling.

Three weeks later I had interviewed and surveyed thirty six Sinhalese and Tamil individuals in Sri Lanka. Four weeks later I was back in the United States, going over data analysis with my incredible advisor, Dr. Johanna Ray Vollhardt. Two months later, I had received the Steinbrecher Fellowship to continue my research in Sri Lanka over the summer. Five months later, here I am, two weeks from going back, and entering directly-war afflicted areas in Sri Lanka, ready to do it all over again.

What people don’t tell you is that it’s not as simple as finding something you’re passionate about and just going from there. It’s a big part of it, sure. But the logistics that go into it, the commitment to actually seeing a project through – is exhausting. But it’s also life-changing. This research has influenced my life, and my future in ways that I never thought possible. And I really can’t wait to do it all over again, to face all those challenges of coordinating logistics and dealing with on-the-field frustrations, all-over-again. The results are worth every bit of those trials because they aren’t the conclusion to the story, but the beginning of a much bigger story to come.

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