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The effect of essentialism in settings of historic intergroup atrocities


  • The idea for this paper was developed during a summer institute at the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict (SACSEC) at Penn.


Three studies tested the effects of essentialist beliefs regarding the national ingroup in situations where a perpetrator group has inflicted harm on a victim group. For members of the perpetrator group, it was hypothesised that ‘essentialism’ has a direct positive association with ‘collective guilt’ felt as a result of misdeeds conducted by other ingroup members in the past. Simultaneously, it was hypothesised to have an indirect negative association with collective guilt, mediated by perceived threat to the ingroup. Considering these indirect and direct effects jointly, it was hypothesised that the negative indirect effect suppresses the direct positive effect, and that the latter would only emerge if perceived ‘ingroup threat’ was controlled for. This was tested in a survey conducted in Latvia among Russians (N = 70) and their feelings toward how Russians had treated ethnic Latvians during the Soviet occupation; and in a survey in Germany among Germans (N = 84), focussing on their feelings toward the Holocaust. For members of the victim group, it was hypothesised that essentialism would be associated with more anger and reluctance to forgive past events inflicted on other ingroup members. It was proposed that this effect would be mediated by feeling connected to the ingroup victims. This was tested in a survey conducted among Hong Kong Chinese and their feelings toward the Japanese and the Nanjing massacre (N = 56). Results from all three studies supported the hypotheses. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.