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Community Acceptance of Former Boko Haram Members: An Experiment in North East Nigeria (with Graeme Blair, Rebecca Wolfe, Elizabeth Nugent, and Jiyoung Kim, in collaboration with Mercy Corps)

The reintegration of former members of violent extremist groups back into their communities is a growing policy challenge. The combination of large-scale campaigns of violence against civilians and the indoctrination and radicalization process employed by extremist groups leads to intense anger and increases mistrust and wariness that former members have been irrevocably changed. We conducted an experiment in conflict-affected communities in Nigeria (n=3,800) aimed at improving community acceptance of former Boko Haram members, specifically targeting behavioral intentions, attitudes, and norms around accepting former members back into the community in the future. Participants were randomly assigned into one of the following conditions: a message from a religious leader advocating for tolerance and acceptance (leader), a message from two former Boko Haram members apologizing for their actions while in Boko Haram (apology), a message from two former Boko Haram members emphasizing how their ideology has changed (malleability), a combined message from the two former Boko Haram members (malleability + apology), or a health-related placebo message unrelated to the treatments. We hypothesized that the treatment messages would positively shift behavioral intentions, attitudes, and perceived norms around acceptance of former Boko Haram members.

Cycle of Violence: Perpetrating Violence and Group Identification

Heightened group identification motivates individuals to perpetrate violence, but can perpetrating violence—in and of itself— increase identification with violent groups? I tested this idea using archival surveys of ex-combatants. In Liberia, where many combatants joined their violent group willingly, the data show a positive association between perpetrating violence and identification with one’s violent group (Study 1). These results hold even when controlling for potentially confounding variables such as being abducted into the group versus joining willingly, length of time in the group, and personally experiencing violence. Study 2 replicates and extends this finding with data from ex-combatants in Uganda who were abducted into their group, using a natural experiment in which some abductees were forced to perpetrate violence whereas other abductees were not. These findings support a cycle of violence in which perpetrating violence increases identification with violent groups and heightened identification increases future violent behavior.

Check out the related papers here and here.

Motivating the Adoption of New Community-Minded Behaviors: An Empirical Test in Nigeria (with Betsy Levy Paluck and Graeme Blair)

Social scientists have long sought to explain why people donate resources for the good of a community. Less attention has been paid to the difficult task of motivating the first adopters of these important behaviors. In a field experiment in Nigeria, we tested two campaigns that encouraged people to try reporting corruption by text message. Psychological theories about how to shift perceived norms and how to reduce barriers to action drove the design of each campaign. The first, a film featuring actors reporting corruption and the second, a mass text message reducing the effort required to report, caused a total of 1,181 people in 106 communities to text, including 241 people who sent concrete corruption reports. Psychological theories of social norms and behavior change can illuminate the early stages of the evolution of cooperation and collective action, when adoption is still relatively rare.

To learn more about the project, read the paper and policy brief, and see clips from the film, check out the Project Website.

The experimental design was pre-registered on the EGAP registry here.

Materials, data, and code used in this study can be found on the Open Science Framework repository here.


Lay Theories of Political Views and Political Reconciliation (with Ivuoma Onyeador, Bethany Lassetter, Rebecca Neel, and David Rand)

Adoption of Research Transparency Practices: State of Social Science Survey (with David Birke, Garret Christensen, Edward Miguel, Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Nicholas Swanson, and Zenan Wang)

The Effect of Asking about Exposure to Violence on PTSD Symptoms: An Experiment in North East Nigeria (with Graeme Blair and Rebecca Wolfe)