Across the world, whether it's the troubles of Northern Ireland or the tense situation in Israel and Palestine, forgiveness is often the greatest hurdle to achieving peace. When two groups have each committed such terrible acts against each other, how can the cycle of resentment ever be broken?
Sabina Cehajic and colleagues examined this question in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, where, between 1992 and 1995, hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were raped and killed by predominantly Serb forces (many Serbs also lost their lives too).
Today, the country is composed of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats and other ethnic groups, and politics there is dominated by nationalistic parties representing the separate ethnic groups.
Cehajic and her team surveyed 180 Bosnian Muslims about their attitudes towards Bosnian Serbs in the wake of the earlier conflict. They found that Bosnian Muslims who had more Serb friends and who identified more with a sense of being "Bosnian", rather than "Bosnian Muslim" or "Bosniak", also tended to show more empathy for Serbs as a group, to be more trusting of Serbs, and to see Serbs as more varied - all of which predicted greater levels of forgiveness and more positive attitudes towards the Serbs.
This pattern is consistent with what's known as the "contact hypothesis" in social psychology, which states that more high quality contact between groups promotes intergroup reconciliation.
Cehajic's team said their findings have policy implications. "One practical suggestion for restoration of damaged intergroup relations in Bosnia and Herzegovina could be the creation of a new constitution with centralized government," they said. "Such a new unified political structure might promote both more frequent intergroup contact and the creation of a politically and psychologically meaningful common-ingroup identification [i.e. at the level of 'Bosnian']".
However, a key weakness of the study, which often undermines research in this field, is its cross-sectional design. It's possible that the direction of causality between the observed variables flows in the other direction - perhaps it is forgiveness that leads to greater trust and empathy towards the outgroup, and thence to greater contact with them. If so, we're back to square one: just how can we help foster that initial forgiveness?
Cehajic, S., Brown, R., Castano, E. (2008). Forgive and Forget? Antecedents and Consequences of Intergroup Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Political Psychology, 29(3), 351-367. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00634.x