Recent Insights on the Psychological Dynamics of Leadership and Group Behavior: Lessons for Violence Prevention

By Mike Sweigart, Carter School, GMU

The power of influential leaders to mobilize groups into violence is an important area of study in the field of conflict resolution. For example, scholarship on the Balkan wars of the 1990s has pointed to political leaders’ role in crafting and stoking tensions along ethnic lines. Relatedly, analysts have examined the mechanisms through which international terrorist organizations have compelled diverse communities of people to violently confront perceived anti-Muslim threats emanating from the West. Many have also studied the ways in which populist leaders across the world have endeavored to stoke hatred toward minority groups and provided a source of empowerment for right-wing extremists.

What do these diverse cases have in common? Recent evidence in social psychology suggests that they all rely on similar mechanisms that promote organization into groups and lend power to group leaders. In the second edition of The New Psychology of Leadership released in 2020, Haslam, Reicher and Platow updated their theory on the social identity approach to understanding leadership power and influence. Additionally, the October 2020 special issue of Current Opinion in Psychology contains perspectives and new directions from social psychologists on group processes and dynamics of social change within the current global context. These and other recent scholarly insights can fuel new thinking about how to prevent mass violence.

The core idea presented in The New Psychology of Leadership is that charismatic leaders gain power by establishing a relationship with the groups they lead. Rather than relying on innate personality traits or appeals to followers’ individual interests, the theory suggests that leaders become influential by crafting a shared identity with their followers. This approach to leadership draws on social identity theory (SIT), or the idea that people rely on group memberships as an important part of their self-concept. SIT posits that a human tendency exists to divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they’ through processes of social interaction and comparison. While most people have multiple social identities to which they attribute differing levels of importance, our most central or salient group memberships provide us with a sense of who we are and serve as a guidepost for our behavior, values and worldview. 

Recognizing the power of group identities within our social lives, The New Psychology of Leadership conceptualizes that influential leaders must execute four key steps to gain legitimacy within their groups. Since members of social groups look to their leaders as symbols of the prototype, or the ideal “one of us,” aspiring leaders must first demonstrate that they embody the group’s key characteristics and values. This takes work, as the leader must be seen as “one of us (ingroup)” and “different from them (outgroups).” Second, leaders must provide an inspiring vision for advancing the group’s interests that resonates with members’ core values. Leaders who accomplish these tasks can become identity entrepreneurs with the power to shape the group’s values, norms and priorities in new ways. The most influential leaders also embed their vision for group identity in rituals and ceremonies that allow group members to experience their new identity and prospects for the future.

The applicability of the social identity approach for understanding mobilization into mass violence may be seen through an analysis of insurgency and terrorist recruitment in the Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. These two republics in the North Caucasus region are home to insurgent groups that have been engaged in a bitter and violent decades-long struggle for independence from Russian rule. Although members of the Caucasus Emirate insurgency have crafted and honed a recruitment narrative appealing to Muslims’ experiences of victimization at the hands of the Russian government, thousands of people from Chechnya and Dagestan have opted to travel to Syria to join ISIS’ battle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Scholars have analyzed how ISIS leaders attracted foreign fighters from the Caucasus by appealing to specific grievances of religious-based persecution in Russia and re-positioning them within a narrative of global struggle against anti-Muslim aggression. As entrepreneurs of identity, ISIS leaders empowered Chechens and Dagestanis by compelling them to fulfill a “higher purpose.” As “embedders” they brought the vision to life through images of a glorified caliphate where Muslims from could live free from the repression they face elsewhere.

Despite the utility of the social identity approach for explaining leaders’ mobilizing power, it is important to note that the process through which group members become willing to engage in violence is complex. Indeed, Haslam et al. recognize that it is difficult for even highly charismatic leaders to convince a group to stray too far from its core values and beliefs. If most people around the world share values of fairness and avoidance of harm to others, as Jonathan Haidt’s research on morality has shown, how do people become motivated to engage in mass violence?

Social psychologists suggest that intergroup conflict dynamics facilitate the moral denigration of the Other, which justifies and even glorifies violence for ingroup members. Leaders play an important role in this process through the propagation of narratives that position ingroup members with the rights and duties to eliminate the threat posed by the unjust Other. The opportunity to blame outgroups for problems facing the ingroup often provides an incentive for leaders to stoke intergroup tensions. Fear-mongering can also bolster the leader’s legitimacy as the group’s true protector and thereby deflate challengers’ efforts to compete for power. This dynamic was present during the 1990s Balkans Wars, when Serbian President Slobodan Milošević employed a narrative of historical Serbian victimization and trauma at the hands of the Ottoman Empire more than 700 years prior to portray neighboring Bosnian and Albanian Muslims as a threat.

Threat narratives during conflict often build upon relative deprivation, or frustration resulting from the perception of discrimination or unfair disadvantage compared to others. This played a part in the Balkans conflicts, too, as leaders blamed neighboring ethnic groups for economic problems. Relative deprivation is not a new concept, but scholars have recently argued for its renewed importance within contemporary global dynamics. For example, scholars have recently reviewed evidence linking relative deprivation and violent extremism and called for a renewed focus on relative deprivation and patterns of intergroup comparison in the context of increasing global interconnectedness. Current forms of relative deprivation may affect the ways in which leaders can foster grievance among their populations and aggravate intergroup tensions.

These insights into the dynamics of group leadership and mobilization are useful for conceptualizing how groups and leaders interact within cycles of conflict. But they point to a more critical question — what can we do to interrupt conflict escalation and prevent violence? One oft-used solution is to facilitate intergroup contact to reduce perceptions of threat and promote reconciliation. But evidence provides mixed support for contact-based approaches and point to multiple challenges related to optimal conditions for constructive contact and sustaining and scaling impact.

Behavioral change interventions that target social norms may provide one promising avenue for violence prevention and intergroup reconciliation. Social norms promote unity and conformity within groups by signaling what types of behaviors are typical or desirable. Intra-group norm change interventions can shift behaviors by coopting the processes through which people learn about what types of behaviors are seen as appropriate by other group members. For example, Deborah Prentice and Betsy Levy-Paluck point to evidence that incentivizing behavioral changes by social referents or revealing misperceptions about destructive social norms through dialogue can impact behavior at the group level. These social learning and norm construction mechanisms are at play in violent identity-based conflicts, where perceptions of threat to the ingroup generate normative prescriptions that support violence. Engagement in violence increases ingroup identification and justifies further violent action, trapping groups into a perpetual cycle that can lead to intractable conflict.

While some scholarship suggests that social norms are key for understanding both conflict and peace, there is a need for more research about the utility of norm change interventions for violence prevention or peacebuilding in contexts affected by war or intractable intergroup conflicts. One recent study found descriptive evidence that a contact-based intervention between Christians and Muslims in a conflict-affected community in Iraq may have contributed to more tolerant social norms at the community level through spillover effects. Future research in contexts currently experiencing, recovering from, or at risk of violent conflict could more intentionally examine the causal effects of contact interventions on social norms, whether these effects can be sustained, and if they can play a role in preventing future violence. Another research or practice direction could be inspired by recent work to conceptualize that multiple identities and inclusive superordinate identification may serve as a bulwark for the internalization of harmful normative behaviors. Drawing on this idea, future studies could explore whether creating alternative, cross-cutting group memberships that emphasize different norms and values can provide an effective countervailing force against the influence of toxic leaders.

Bio: Mike Sweigart is a PhD student and Manager of the Reconciling Conflicts and Intergroup Divisions Lab at the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. His interdisciplinary research incorporates a group processes and intergroup relations lens to examine processes of conflict and social change, with a particular focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights movements in non-Western contexts. In addition to his work at the Carter School, Mike has been engaged for more than 9 years in international democracy, human rights and governance development programming.