The Emotional Life of Conflict Actors: The Psychology of Compassion in Peacebuilding 

By Daniel Rothbart

Courageous compassion among conflict actors? This seems like an incongruous juxtaposition of moral emotions (1).  Courage tends to be clustered with fearlessness, bravery, and feelings of strength, all of which are typical for a warrior’s character traits. By contrast, compassion tends to be clustered with experiences of empathy, caring and sympathy for the suffering of others, exhibited routinely in the practices of health care professionals.  Yet, this juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous emotions is experienced by many peace activists in response to mass violence.  The courage in confronting the protagonists of such violence is motivated in part by compassion for the suffering of those targeted by militants. Consider the courageous compassion of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina in the 1970s or that of the activists inspired by the brave leadership of Leymah Gbowee in Liberia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  In 2019, the peaceful protesters seeking justice in Sudan courageously confronted the military forces of the central government of Sudan. Such protests led to the downfall of Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir.  

One category of activists who exhibit this combination of courage and compassion are those brave souls who seek to save potential victims of mass atrocity. These activists are rescuers who risk their lives by offering sanctuary, a degree of security and comfort to those who are targeted by murderers. For example, when confronted with the genocidal violence perpetrated by Hutu militants in Rwanda in 1994, an unknown number of Hutus civilians opened their homes, offered food, or directed Tutsis to relatively save locations to avoid the murderous attacks by Interahamwe.  In some cases, the rescuers physically assaulted the Hutu militants as they approached homes where Tutsis were hiding. An unknown number of rescuers were killed in the process. According to studies of these rescuers, their fear of being killed by the militants was overridden by their moral concern for the suffering of Tutsis.  According to one rescuer, “The charity I got from my parents gave me the heart of growing up and loving others and wanting to take care of others who are in need” (Rothbart and Cooley 2016). 

The cases of courageous compassion cited above represent a retrospective reflection of the past. Could we treat these cases as exemplars for future practices designed to replace negative emotions that conflict actors feel about their adversaries with positive sentiments as a basis for long-term transformation of relations?  Specially, could conflict actors be induced, convinced, or prompted to convert their rage to courageous compassion as a basis for reconciling with those living in the enemy camp?  To be sure, such a conversion may seem utopian, especially for those conflict actors whose enmity towards their enemy is grounded in the ethos of their conflict-ridden society. However, the aspiration for such a transition in the affect of conflict actors does have empirical support from the psychological sciences.  Recent empirical findings show that, under certain conditions, almost any individual can undergo a change in their emotional responses to life’s events. 

In the pages below, I summarize the psychologists’ discoveries that are relevant directly to possible practices for such transformation. This invocation to the psychological sciences is essential to avoid utopian modes of practice. Three themes from psychology are critical for transforming the emotional life of conflict actors. First, like all social emotion, compassion is inseparable from cognitive understanding of events, encounters and experiences.  Compassion is a cognitive-moral-emotional response to the suffering of others and the hope for their relief of such suffering. Such a response rests on the moral judgment that their suffering is undeserved, as if representing an injustice.  While compassion shows affinities to empathy, there is a difference. Empathy includes a feeling of vicariously sharing in the experiences of others such as their suffering. Compassion does not require such a vicariously participation in the suffering of others. Nevertheless, both emotions center on a moral concern for the well-being of another person or group. 

Second, the public display of an emotion (either positive or negative) tends to be contagious, in that, witnesses to emotional charged behavior can ‘catch’ the same emotion of others. Intense joy, happiness, glee, and compassion can prompt observers to mimic behavior that they observe in others, such as facile expressions, speech patterns or tone of voice. With such mimicry, some observers can experience the same emotion that they observe in others (Hatfield et al., 1994; Cacioppo’s, Tassinary and Fridlunch, 1990).  Importantly, such emotional mimicry is central to the development of ingroup identity and outgroup difference.  According to intergroup emotions theory, emotions are inseparable from an individual’s sense of commonality to their identity group, as well as their tendency to behave as their compatriots do (Brewer 2001; Wohl and Halperin 2019).  An individual’s attachment to an affiliated identity group—nationalistic, religious, racial or ethnic—is charged with emotions.  

Such mimicry can impact the formation and strategy of social movements. For example, under the leadership of Black Lives Matters, the emotionally charged peaceful protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd in May, 2020 were clearly motivated by compassion. By November, 2021, these protests extended to 140 cities across the United States (Taylor, 2021). The intensity of the protesters’ outrage revealed their deep moral sense of caring for the suffering of African Americans, past, present and future. The emotional plane of their demands for justice centers on the sympathetic understanding of suffering and the hope for their well-being. 

Third, compassion is a learned skill that can be enhanced with practice (Ozawa-de Silva, Didson-Lavell, Raison and Negi, 2012). For example, cognitively based compassion-training has been shown to promote a higher rate of compassion responses among those who engaged in such training compassion to those who were not trained (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel 2008). This capacity for enhancing one’s compassion-response to observed suffering has been confirmed through neurological studies (Klimecki 2015). When individuals experience compassion, certain portions of the brain, called anterior insula and anterior middle cingulate cortex, are activated. In one study, research subjects who were given compassion-enhancing exercises exhibited activation of these portions of the brain associated with compassion (Lutz, et al., 2008). Yet, one’s capacity to feel compassion is not fixed. In fact, the tendency for these neuro-structures to be activated by certain experiences is subject to change with certain enhanced practices, such as meditation (DeSteno, 2015, p. 82).  Such enhancement illustrates a characteristics called neuro-plasticity, which indicates the brain’s capacity to change as a result of new experiences, understandings or practices (Klimecki 2015).  

In summary, underpinning the possible transformation of intergroup emotions among conflict actors is the discovery that almost everyone has the potential to show compassion to some people under certain conditions.  Compassion (1) rests on the moral cognition about someone’s suffering and about the hope that such suffering will be diminished, (2) can spread from one individual to others through a mechanism of emotional contagion, and (3) can be enhanced through certain modes of practice.  All of which offers insight into the possibility of prompting, activating or inducing courageous compassion among conflict actors in the context of protracted mass violence.  Central to such a possibility is the fluidity of emotions, that is, the capacity for individuals to change the kinds and intensity of their emotional responses to life’s events. 



  1. In general, emotions tend to be clustered, in that they tend to be experiences in conjunction with other emotions almost simultaneously in reaction to certain events (Haidt, 2003, p. 855).



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Rothbart, D. and J. Cooley, (2016). “Hutus Aiding Tutsis During the Rwandan Genocide:  Motives, Meanings and Morals” [co-authored] Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal, December 2016, 10.2.

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Daniel Rothbart is professor of conflict analysis and resolution at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University. He specializes in prevention of mass violence, ethnic conflicts, power and conflict, the ethics of conflict resolution and the psycho-politics of conflict. In addition to serving as co-director of the Program on Prevention of Mass Violence, he directs the peace lab called Transforming the Mind for Peace. Professor Rothbart’s academic writings include more than sixty articles and chapters in professional journals and books. Among his ten authored or edited books, he published State Domination and the Psycho-Politics of Conflict (2019).