People fight for things they feel strongly about.

This notion is sensible on its face. Beliefs, values and emotions tend to be clear in the language people use to explain and justify their behaviour during conflict. And shared beliefs and feelings are needed to create a sense of group identity, to enable that group to co-ordinate its actions, and to arouse anger against the “other”.

Yet beliefs and emotions have for too long been at the sidelines of efforts to understand and predict violent behaviour and conflict. This is because they are presumed to be irrational and therefore unfathomable aspects of the human condition. Even if one is prepared to acknowledge their importance in principle, with no effective means to separate signal from noise the tendency is to focus more on factors we can measure and control for, such as actors’ observable behaviour and tangible material interests. As a result, conflict management policy tends to treat emotion merely as an obstacle that is best disregarded, circumvented or suppressed in the search for effective material and strategic explanations and solutions.

But beliefs, ideas and emotions are ultimately brain processes; objects in nature, rather than ephemeral abstractions. There is no reason in principle why they cannot be located and measured. Cognitive science has made significant advances toward understanding the psychological and neural processes involved in perception, problem solving, learning, and emotion. A straightforward means to apply these advances to bring ideas and emotions to the centre of our understanding of conflict behaviour could have considerable practical application to the development of effective policy.

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Data-driven research on how ideologies are formed and changed

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