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Perception of wartime atrocities depends on who committed them, study says

Assistant psychology professor Alin I. Coman has published a one-year studyinPsychological Science,a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, assessing the effects of wartime atrocities on people of different social groups. The study indicates that their association with a certain social group may influence the ways in which they recall actions committed by that group.

“Essentially, if people are motivated to retrieve information in addition to what the speaker has to say in conversation, then that motivation will drastically impact the memories of the listeners," Coman said. “If there are no additional motivations in play, we predict that the typical retrievement-induced forgetting mechanisms are going to be in play.”


Co-authors for the study included Charles Stone of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Emanuele Castano and William Hirst of the New School for Social Research.

The study was conducted to see whether or not reworking talk of atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan could alter people’s specific memories of these events, based on their social link with those involved. Coman explained that the study was motivated by the researchers’ awareness that discussion of wartime events frequently causes stories about events to be reworked over time.

Participants were asked to recall details of war atrocities they had heard about through two means: reading about the atrocities and watching videos recounting the atrocities. While the readings included a justification for why the atrocities happened, the videos did not include a justification. The stories were either pulled from real-life media reports or constructed to look like real-life media reports.

Just as the researchers hypothesized, the results of the experiment showed that subjects were more likely to forget the justifications of actions committed by Afghan soldiers than for those done by American soldiers. Therefore, despite not being reminded of the justifications in the videos, in-group membership made subjects less likely to forget why an action was committed.

“When people listen to other individuals talk about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq, what they do is they activate along with the speaker, this atrocity, in their memory,” Coman said. “Now we know that if they do so… what happens next is induced forgetting of justifications that are associated with this atrocity.”

Coman said that the study is relevant at multiple levels, noting, for example, that it links cognitive psychology with social psychology. Castano noted that the study helps inform theories in social psychology on how humans cope with information that is threatening or unpleasant.


"Obviously we are very thrilled to see it appearing in psych science because it really pushed research on this phenomenon," Castano said.

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