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18 November 2022

Study finds exposure to conflict linked to retaliatory behaviour in children

Palestinian children exposed to higher levels of conflict are more likely to engage in retaliatory behaviours, a new study has found.

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Working with children in the Palestinian territories, researchers found that those obliged to cross military checkpoints on a regular basis are exposed to more violence and showed increased sensitivity in reciprocal interactions.

These children were more likely to engage in retribution compared to their peers when confronted with unfriendly actions, and showed more co-operative behaviour than their peers when confronted with friendly actions.

The findings were revealed in the paper, Conflict and Reciprocity? A Study with Palestinian Youth, co-authored by Dr Elisa Cavatorta, from King’s College London, Professor Daniel John Zizzo, from the University of Queensland, and Dr Yousef Daoud, from Birzeit University, published in the Journal of Development Economics.

One hypothesised reason for the observed increase in retaliatory behaviours among the children is a change in belief systems linked to conflict, with those exposed to greater levels of violence more sensitive to perceived threats. The increase in co-operative behaviour could be linked to changes in the children’s belief systems, with a shift to pro-social behaviour in the wake of conflict.

The study was conducted with about 1,200 Palestinian adolescents in secondary education schools in the West Bank region of the Palestinian territories, some of whom were more exposed to conflict and incidents of violence than others.

These results suggest an increased potential for conflict resolution or entrenchment based on the feedback loops that follow from initial interactions involving new generations exposed to conflict.

Research team

The researchers compared groups of students who had, or did not have, an obligation to cross military checkpoints manned by the Israeli Defence Force. The increased frequency of exposure to violence among children regularly crossing checkpoints ranged from a 22 per cent increase in reported verbal abuse to a 175 per cent increase in reported threats of harm when compared to children who did not have to cross checkpoints.

The researchers set up a series of experimental tasks to test reciprocity, in terms of both co-operation and retaliation, and a survey was also completed by participants to measure their experience of conflict and social upheaval.

Crossing checkpoints was found to have a “sizeable” effect on both facets of reciprocity. The researchers found that children in the group who reported greater exposure to violence were 15 per cent more likely to engage in conditional co-operation in the tasks, while also showing a 21 per cent higher rate of retaliation.

The researchers noted: “These results suggest an increased potential for conflict resolution or entrenchment based on the feedback loops that follow from initial interactions involving new generations exposed to conflict.

“The strengthening of reciprocal behaviour implies that the initiating event in a two-party interaction is key. It is therefore important to foster opportunities for initiating co-operative actions and to minimize the possibility of acts of aggression that are likely to invite retaliatory behaviour.”

In this story

Dr. Elisa Cavatorta

Reader in Economics and Vice Dean (International) for the Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy