Brainstorm: Can Behavioral Science Help in the Crafting of Lasting Peace Agreements?

Politically Speaking
7 min readMar 26, 2021
“Cinema for Peace” event in Putumayo, Colombia. October 2019. Photo: Laura Santamaría / UN Verfication Mission in Colombia.

Traditional approaches to post-conflict situations often focus on what might be termed “external safeguards”, such as security building, good governance and transitional justice initiatives. However, there is a growing body of work in the field of brain and behavioral science that explores the role of human psychology and patterns of thinking in the success, or failure, of peace agreements.

Andrés Casas, a behavioral scientist from the University of Pennsylvania and consultant for the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), has worked in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and North America on the development of behavioral change programs using peace science, social norms programming and communications. Casas spoke to Politically Speaking about why peace agreements that are seemingly created with broad participation and societal support can face hurdles that threaten to derail the whole process.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do insights from brain and behavioral sciences matter for the field of peace and security?

In the field of peace and security, brain and behavioral sciences present more systematic ways of thinking about complex problems, especially related to the motivations of societies to become part of an armed conflict. Brain and behavioral sciences not only help us understand the motivations, but also what the causes are, and what the remedies could be. Of course, we don’t have a magic wand, but we understand that incremental knowledge is the only way to get around social problems. Scientific thought is the best way to prove what works and what doesn’t in terms of solutions to conflicts.

What are some of the common stumbling blocks for sustainable peace, peacebuilding and reconciliation after violent conflict?

Brain and behavioral sciences help us understand that not only economic, political or legal aspects matter. As humans, we are pre-wired to divide groups into smaller groups and then define who the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” are. Intergroup conflict is one of the main factors that shapes the characteristics of a conflict. Insecurity or violence really can be stopped, if we understand how to remove bias, or at least take the fuel out of, intergroup hostilities. It is also important to understand how to “unfreeze” emotions and social influences that are part of stabilizing war or violence as part of everyday life. The two main stumbling blocks are intergroup hostility, or the breaking down of groups of people and relationships into antagonistic dynamics; and those narratives that crystallize as “mental models” and behaviors that can be justified and sustained for a long period of time.

“Cinema for Peace” event in Putumayo, Colombia. October 2019. Photo: Laura Santamaría / UN Verfication Mission in Colombia.

Can you give an example of where applied behavioral science has made a difference in the context of peace and security?

Just from a historical point of view, we can find the negative applications of insights from behavioral sciences if we go back to authors like Gustave Le Bon, who in 1895 in his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind wrote about the psychology of the masses and how you can manipulate values, getting people to sustain any type of social order. Hitler and Mussolini reportedly read that book; there are unfortunately more negative than positive examples.

But there’s a very famous intervention that was made by Professor Betsy Levy Paluck of Princeton University in 2009. Before and during the genocide in Rwanda, the radio was used to feed people misinformation and for a call to extreme violence. Paluck tried to understand how we can use the same medium that was used to provoke outrage and violence for good. She developed a randomized control trial to expose people in groups from both ethnicities, Hutus and Tutsis, to messaging over the radio. One group was shown content about sanitation and other aspects of public health. The other was shown a soap opera. The series was about a love story between a Hutu man and Tutsi woman and depicted positive behaviors about reconciliation. It had an incredible effect. People who watched the soap opera reported that they would be more tolerant or that they had now the disposition to build new relationships with former enemies. There are more and more examples of this type of study in peace and security work.

How can the risk of recurrence of violence and civil war be reduced? Do you have examples?

Most models about recurrence of violence and civil war don’t understand that you also need to help people heal and build new relationships and rebuild old ones. When we started studying prospective reconciliation in Colombia back in 2015, before the peace agreement was signed, we saw patterns emerge. First, people who were the most exposed to violence were the ones looking forward to peace. Meanwhile, people who were living in urban settings who were never exposed to the suffering of war, directly or indirectly, were the most radical. This is one of the reasons why people voted against the peace process in Colombia in 2016.

In our research with the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience lab, we asked urban Colombians who they thought were more righteous: the FARC or the paramilitaries? Most people told us that the paramilitaries were the defenders of the social order. That belief poses an additional barrier for reintegration, especially when it sums up to the high levels of dehumanization we found within the Colombian population against FARC members. As part of our study, we showed participants videos that depicted ex-FARC members already changing, and testimonies from their neighbors provided proof that they were really respecting the peace. We showed people from law enforcement and religious leaders saying that they believed FARC members were really committed to peace, and the military saying that they built roads and played football with ex-FARC members. By showing positive stories about what ex-combatants and others are already doing for peace, including those who were victimized heavily by FARC, we can begin to build post-conflict unity by injecting hope and strengthening attitudes toward peace.

How do anti-dehumanization efforts fare in the current context of mass disinformation and misinformation?

Emile Bruneau, the lead scientist at Beyond Conflict and the director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who sadly passed away last year, would say that the mechanisms that are used to foster hate can be used for good as well. Our preferences are really the preferences of the people we like. We have all these biases that block the possibility of thinking differently. We get our ideas from listening to people that we admire, or we think are authorities on a given subject. The tendency to be irrational is human by definition. In this era that some are calling “post-truth”, we need to use the same mechanisms that we know work for mis- and disinformation, to humanize, rehumanize and reconnect people with evidence and critical thinking.

How can brain and behavioral sciences help measure the impact of peacebuilding work?

International agencies are now creating monitoring and evaluation models that go beyond calculating the participation of people in programs to also measuring behavioral outcomes. They are moving away from: “We did these interventions against poverty, we know the height and weight of boys and girls is changing, so they’re being nurtured properly”. Now we understand that behavioral outcomes are also important to see change, for example, in violence against children or toxic beliefs about gender and sexuality. We are living in a very exciting time where policy, science, communication and social participation are coming together. I see the UN in that equation as the pioneer institution. I think what the UN can do is bring in these insights and use them to decide on new rules, protocols, smarter organizational dynamics and then move out into the field to test and evaluate. We live in a crucial era in which the UN can lead the way to smarter programming to help societies thrive by bringing policy and science together.

About DPPA’s work on Brain and Behavioural Sciences

Brain and Behavioural Sciences (BBSci) provide a promising new approach to help advance conflict prevention, peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. Together with academic partners and colleagues in the peace and security pillar, DPPA’s Innovation Cell is exploring options for the practical application of BBSci in the peace and security context. Evidence suggests that BBSci insights can be used to enhance early warning systems, improve measurement and evaluation methods and outcomes, and drive novel peacebuilding and peacemaking interventions. BBSci can help us understand aspects of exclusion and inclusion in culturally diverse social settings, the spontaneous eruption of violence and intergroup dynamics, or emotion-focused power imbalances in peace negotiations. It can help us understand and address how universal human tendencies, coupled with unique contextual factors, create obstacles to the effective implementation of political and peace processes.

For more details about the work of the DPPA Innovation Cell, visit:

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or DPPA.



Politically Speaking

The online magazine of the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs