Must Suffering Beget Suffering?


Must suffering beget suffering?

Masi Noor

Liverpool John Moores University

Social psychology’s short answer is: No! Human behaviour is driven by goals. Our goals reflect our desires. As such, they represent our social and moral character to the outside world. Conflicts arise when our goals clash against someone else’s goals. The massacres in Beirut and Paris were interpreted as representing the barbaric essence of ISIS. They could also be understood as the tragic traps set by ISIS to prove its image of the West and to assert its narrative of the conflict as an intergroup conflict between Muslims and the West.

How is one to respond to being wronged without proving the enemy’s image of oneself right?

Psychological research has established that a basic psychological need of victim groups is to restore their autonomy and sense of control (Nadler & Shnabel, 2008). This is reflected in our impulse to desire revenge following exposure to victimisation. But these impulses may be managed and even suppressed when questioning the goals and unintended consequences of such vengefulness. Bombing Syria will be received as an act of revenge for the Paris attack, even though Western governments may not have intended it as such. Its goal to prevent Western citizens from future similar attacks is doubtful. In fact, the bombing may reveal the West’s moral inconsistencies (e.g., business relationships are maintained with countries such Saudi Arabia and China which have a high record of beheadings and other human rights violations) and its ethnocentric biases toward valuing ingroup versus outgroup lives differentially (e.g., bombing Northern Ireland was – thankfully – never considered as a strategy to eliminate the terror threats posed by the Irish Republican Army; see also Pratto & Glasford, 2008). And staying closer to psychology, would we have had this special feature in the Psychologist had ISIS not attacked Paris?

All of the above does mostly one thing, namely, to feed into the ISIS’ narrative of victimhood. Recent social psychological insights have uncovered that victimhood is best considered as a psychological resource over which conflicting groups may compete (Noor, Shnabel, Halabi, & Nadler, 2012). It is referred to as competitive victimhood and has catastrophic consequences for conflict resolution. That is, due to mutual victimisation, each of the adversary groups develops a profound sense of being the ‘real’ victim. Consequently, competitive victimhood motivates groups to draw attention to their own suffering while failing to acknowledge the suffering they inflict on each other. Importantly the more groups operate out of a competitive victimhood mindset the less likely they are to consider resolution of their violent conflict (Shnabel, Halabi, & Noor, 2013).

Is there an alternative strategy powerful enough to disrupt the ISIS’s narratives without generating further suffering?

Given its etymological roots, forgiveness as a strategy usually prompts sentiments ranging from naivety and unrealistic pacifism to misplaced religious and spiritual moralisation. Yet, analysis of real-life stories of victims and academic research conducted in post- and ongoing-conflict settings challenge such sentiments as well as our common association between weakness and forgiveness (Noor , Brown, Gonzalez, Manzi, & Lewis, 2008; A key goal of forgiveness is to break the cycle of revenge and to protect the victims from becoming victimsers. It is a desire to go beyond one’s impulse for personal revenge. As such, victims place their personal tragedies into the public domain and invite society into a bigger search for seeking answers to the big why-questions to prevent future tragedies. It also forms the discipline not to give in to the entices of dehumanising an entire community which may share some basic memberships with the actual perpetrators. To forgive is to surprise your enemy. At least, it will confuse them. It certainly can undermine ISIS’ narrative of framing the conflict as Muslims fighting against the evil West.

We cannot expect the pursuit of such alternative strategies from our governments, before giving them our permission and reassurances to do so. Simultaneously, we need to demand from our governments to give us adequate time to mourn the dead. This is even more important in today’s world with many people having many bloods and belongings to different places and nations across the world. Following the Twin Tower and the Paris attacks, Western citizens were deprived of going through the process of mourning and introspection and non-Western citizens from maintaining their sympathy and condolences for the West, due to Western governments declaring wars on entire regions overnight. Consequently, we all have accepted and acted out of the then Al-Qaida and now ISIS’ narratives.

Naturally, given the way we currently define strength and weakness, or leadership, allows limited mental space to consider these alternative strategies to revenge seriously. However, a useful mantra to use against cynicism and alleged realism is the vision that there are infinite solutions to resolve conflict once adversary groups have meaningfully acknowledged their mutual grievances.

First published in the Psychologist Magazine, February issues, 2016.


Nadler, A., & Shnabel, N. (2008). Instrumental and socio-emotional inter-group reconciliation: The Needs Based Model of reconciliation. In A. Nadler, T. Maloy, & J. D. Fisher (Eds.), Social psychology of inter-group reconciliation. (pp. 37-56). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Noor, M., Shnabel, N., Halabi, S., & Nadler, A. (2012). When suffering begets suffering the psychology of competitive victimhood between adversarial groups in violent conflicts. Personality and Social Psychology Review16, 351-374.

Noor, M., Brown, R., Gonzalez, R., Manzi, J., & Lewis, C. A. (2008). On positive psychological outcomes: What helps groups with a history of conflict to forgive and reconcile with each other? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.34, 819-832.

Shnabel, N., Halabi, S., & Noor, M. (2013). Overcoming competitive victimhood and facilitating forgiveness through re-categorization into a common victim or perpetrator identity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology49, 867-877.

Pratto, F., & Glasford, D. E. (2008). Ethnocentrism and the value of a human life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology95, 1411-1428.


Mandela: more earthly than heavenly

Frederik_de_Klerk_with_Nelson_Mandela_-_World_Economic_Forum_Annual_Meeting_Davos_1992Photo: World Economic Forum

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mandela: more earthly than heavenly


Masi Noor


Death unites people. Mandela’s departure has certainly done so. In the wake of the storm of the public messages, obituaries, tweets and blogs I wonder though, if something profound may be missing and potentially trivialising of Mandela’s character and legacy.


The dominant theme is one of veneration. This is unsurprising given Mandela’s achievements. But to canonise him as a super-human is to close the door to him as a source of inspiration to us and in the realm of the small and the ordinary. History is full of such deified Mandelas. Sometimes they are called Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Mary, Mohammed or Maslow. Whatever the name, they remain inaccessible to most of us, so that their lifetime achievements eventually dissolve into mystery. The possibility of emulation becomes extinct.  This would be tragically counter-Mandelan.


By his own admission, Mandela never had an epiphany moment. Instead, he was ordinary, struggled to sustain romantic love and to find ways to remain human within Apartheid’s dehumanising context (and almost 30 years in prison). At times he was angry, stubborn, fragile and unsuccessful in his pursuits of his academic studies. At other times, he was a shrewd strategist who knew when to boycott, when to use threat of militancy and when to offer personal forgiveness. And sometimes he got all of them wrong. I’d suggest that this not only made him the Mandela we idolise, but more importantly someone we can emulate.
Perhaps the most important skill in Mandela’s behavioural repertoire was to remain embedded in what is termed ‘Ubuntu’. This is an ethic that originated in South Africa and serves as a reminder that my humanity is caught up in yours. Described in Desmond Tutu’s words, ‘”Ubuntu” is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am a human because I belong. I participate. I share.” In essence, I am only because you are’. When we experience injustice, loss and trauma, there is a tendency in us to go through a process of disconnection. We disconnect from the perpetrator, from potential sources of social support and, importantly, from ourselves, our core values and from the person we used to be. Ubuntu is the antidote to such destructive disconnection. It encourages us to remain engaged.


Mandela practised Ubuntu to restore damaged relations. Seeking a meeting with Margaret Thatcher (who had considered the ANC a ‘terrorist organisation’), only months after his release was a prime example. This was not only illustration of skilful diplomacy but it also showed Mandela seeking common ground and shared humanity rather than a fight. An even bigger effect of Ubuntu on Mandela was shown in his ability to divert the strong draw towards civil war and chaos in South Africa. After his release a measure of collective healing came through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The transaction of public honesty in return for amnesty, as painful as it was, was consistent with his commitment to Ubuntu.


As a psychologist, I have studied the concept of forgiveness in contexts of ethno-political violence over the last 10 years. I have found that, as well as avoidance and revenge, forgiveness is often a very effective strategy to deal with conflict and its legacy. Like the other strategies, forgiveness offers opportunities and risks. Mandela was among the first statesmen in contemporary times who used forgiveness as a tool to bring to light the impact of Apartheid and at the same time, to prevent future similar collective catastrophes in South Africa. Such achievements are indeed extraordinary and to manage this undoubtedly took great political skills. But adoration of the accomplishments alone would only dim the light necessary to see the person behind such achievements.


Amid the sadness of Mandela’s death, a source of consolation for me has been that Mandela’s story has touched most people on this planet.  What makes a story powerful is that we identify with its protagonist and somewhere secretly we want to become that protagonist. This opens the opportunity that we can all imagine becoming and acting like Mandela. In my work I have met Mandela-like real people across many conflict regions. They have transformed their desire for revenge into a reflective search for something larger, they have analysed instead of making accusations, they have looked beyond themselves, and they have returned to being human, just as Mandela did and just as he would have liked them to do.


Dr Masi Noor has recently developed a skills-based Forgiveness Toolbox ( based on the first-hand accounts of victims and perpetrators of political violence. The Toolbox was developed in collaboration with the Forgiveness Project which uses real-life stories to explore the concept of forgiveness ( You can contact Dr Noor, on

This piece was also blogged on the Discursive of  Tunbridge Wells (