The Networked Mind: Collective Identities and the Cognitive-Affective Nature of Conflict

  • Manjana MilkoreitEmail author
  • Steven Mock
Part of the Lecture Notes in Social Networks book series (LNSN)


Using a cognitive approach to the study of conflict that conceptualizes the mind as a network of mental representations, we make three arguments about the role of collective identities in the emergence, persistence and resolution of conflict. Collective identities are subsystems of larger networks of mental representations that make up an individual mind. Because they manifest the group within the mind of an individual, but also connect and align the individual mind with that of other group members, collective identities are an essential element of a complex, multilevel process that constitutes the group in the first place—they are necessary for the emergence of the social group phenomenon. Finally, collective identities are “sticky” in the sense that they are more resistant to change and trigger stronger—more emotional—defensive responses than other mental representations when challenged.


Cognition Emotion National identity Conflict 

1 Introduction

Network analysis is enjoying increasing popularity among defense and security scholars, policy-makers and practitioners engaged in conflict management, conflict resolution and disaster response, and also international relations scholars more generally [1]. So far most network analyses in security studies focus on the structure and vulnerability of physical networks, such as critical infrastructure [2], or on the harder-to-detect characteristics of social networks and their internal information flow [3]. Social networks are treated either as a threat factor, as in the case of terrorist networks [4, 5], or as a resilience factor, for example, the role of local communities in counterterrorism or disaster preparedness [6]. We apply a network-based analysis to an area that suffers from even greater empirical challenges than social network analysis: the human mind.

Working with the assumption that all human behavior has cognitive origins this chapter has three aims. First, we make the case for the relevance of a cognitive approach to defense and security studies, exploring areas of application and potential insights. Second, we use cognitive theory (emotional coherence) and a complex systems approach to explore the role of specific cognitive elements—collective identities—in the emergence and resolution of conflict. Third, we introduce cognitive-affective mapping as a tool to apply our theoretical framework to specific empirical cases and walk the reader through a specific case study, the international climate negotiations, as an example of non-violent political conflict implicating collective identities at the multilateral level.

At the heart of this chapter are three distinct arguments regarding the role of collective identities in social conflict. Collective identities are subsystems of larger networks of mental representations that make up an individual mind. Because they manifest the group within the mind of an individual, but also connect and align the individual mind with that of other group members, collective identities are an essential element of a complex, multilevel process that constitutes the group in the first place; they are necessary for the emergence of the social group phenomenon. Finally, collective identities are “sticky” in the sense that they are more resistant to change and trigger stronger, more emotional defensive responses than other mental representations when challenged. This last insight has important implications for understanding conflict dynamics and efforts at conflict resolution.

2 A Cognitive Approach to Security Studies

Cognitive analysis—the attempt to identify, describe and understand the content, structure, and dynamics of systems of mental representations—can address important lacunae in the field of security studies, in particular when analyzing and managing conflicts. Building on recent advances in the cognitive sciences and rapidly evolving technological support tools for studying the mind, a cognitive approach to theorizing political behavior can answer four major questions: How does the mind represent the world? How do people make decisions? How do people’s minds change over time? How can we understand the relationship between individual and collective beliefs and decisions? In this chapter we touch upon all of these questions, but focus on collective decisions related to conflict.

Explaining the human capacity for collective action may well be the fundamental problem of political science [7, 8, 9, 10]. Understanding how and why people regularly function as groups to create public goods or engage in conflict is important not just to understanding political behavior in the present, but may prove crucial to the wellbeing of societies as we confront increasingly complex and intractable problems on a global scale. The dominant paradigms of international relations have not been fully successful in this task. The rational choice and equilibrium models still prevalent in economics and political science have proven inadequate for explaining such unpredictable collective phenomena as economic crises and social revolutions. Social-constructivist approaches have sought to correct this excessively materialist understanding, but their insights remain unintegrated, and at times tend to the opposite problem of mystifying collective entities by attributing to them a manner of agency analogous if not equivalent to that of the individual.

Identity is a key variable in explaining collective action, but also an inherently problematic concept. Originating in the study of psychology, it refers by definition to what makes the individual distinct; to the perception of the autonomous self as separate from the outside world. But in the social sciences it is most commonly used in a seemingly opposite sense: to refer to the properties characteristic of a collectivity such as a nation, class or culture. Given the extent to which collective belonging is crucial to the manner in which the individual negotiates his or her place in the world, these disparate common-sense uses of the term between different disciplinary categories are not as contradictory as they might appear; the question “who am I?” is often answered in significant part through the question “who are we?” Still, until a means is available to represent the precise dynamics of the relationship between individual and collective identity, the casual conflation of these concepts has the potential to generate methodological confusion.

2.1 The Need for a Cognitive Approach to Security and Defense

This chapter makes the case for a cognitive approach to security studies, and in particular to the study of the role of collective identities in conflict, based on five general arguments. First, the explanatory power of cognitive frameworks potentially exceeds that of rational choice models or constructivist theories because it is not constrained by their respective conceptual categories. Identifying cognitive processes at the individual and collective actor level can create new insights into the content of group identities, associated emotions, the interaction between identity and other cognitive elements, and the change of collective identities over time.

Second, cognitive theory can build on and potentially integrate existing theories in international relations. Rational decision-making and normative beliefs can be considered part of the potentially numerous, parallel cognitive processes that motivate conflict participants.

Third, a cognitive approach is able to integrate emotions into theory and methodology.

Fourth, past methodological limitations for studying the human mind are beginning to be relaxed with the development of new technologies and techniques that allow the researcher to investigate, depict and simulate thought processes related to group identities.

Finally, a cognitive approach offers not only empirically driven analytical insights, but also opportunities for shaping political interventions, for instance, in attempts to frame or reframe contentious political issues, or by supporting conflict resolution and efforts to ‘humanize’ parties in violent conflict.

2.2 Chapter Goals

In this chapter, we use a cognitive approach to theorize about the role of group identities in the emergence and dynamics of social and political disputes. We focus in particular on how cognitive systems facilitate the relationship between an individual group member and the collective, and the special role played by mental representations of group identities.

Our argument in favor of a cognitive approach to security studies is relevant to network analysis given our conceptualization of the human mind as a network of mental representations, and consequently a phenomenon that is open to both a network analytic approach and complex systems analysis.

In the following section we review the existing literature on identity in international relations scholarship (Sect. 3). After a brief outline of basic concepts of cognition and cognitive-affective mapping as a tool (Sects. 45), we develop our central arguments about the function of collective identity concepts in social conflict, especially its bridging function between the individual and social scales, using the example of national identity (Sects. 67). In Sect. 8 we apply these insights to the global climate change negotiations, demonstrating their utility for the analysis of real-world conflict and negotiation.

3 Identity as a Variable in International Relations

The development of constructivist approaches since the 1980s has triggered new theorizing and empirical work on identity as a variable in international relations and conflict. In contrast to rational choice-based theoretical frameworks, which assumed self-interested rational actors (states) as constant and exogenously given [11], constructivists began to explore the possibility of changing identities and interests, driven either by domestic or international influences [12]. Wendt argued that shared identities among states could emerge at the international system level, leading to political outcomes structural theorists could neither expect nor explain [13]. He suggests that a shared identity induces actors to take other group members’ interests into consideration and consequently leads to different interest definitions and political behavior than a purely egoistic approach.

A significant body of research has explored when and how social identities affect the foreign policy behavior of states and decision-making elites [14]. Many scholars recognize the importance of individuals’ beliefs, belief system dynamics and perceptions regarding their own group or other groups when conducting foreign policy. However, most of the existing empirical research in this area focuses on individuals (e.g., US presidents) and their belief systems to analyze specific policy decisions (e.g., initiating war with another country). While collective identities tend to play a role in these belief systems, they have not been singled out as a variable that might play a special role in political decision-making or as a factor that interacts with individual beliefs.

Seeking greater conceptual clarity and empirical tractability in the study of social identity, Abdelal et al. [15] present a framework that distinguishes between content and contestation of identity dimensions and outline four identity content types: constitutive norms, social purposes, relational comparisons with other social categories, and cognitive models. While this is a useful framework to explore the substance of a particular social identity, it does not provide any guidance on the role of identity in conflict situations. It also disregards the individual-group relationship.

Peace and conflict studies have built upon work in sociology, in particular Tajfel’s theory on inter-group relations. Concepts like in-group preference and out-group discrimination have become the foundation of theories of ethnocentrism [16] and ethnic conflict [17, Chap. 4, 18, pp. 33–71]. Important theories of conflict have explored the phenomenon of stereotyping [19, Chap. 16] combined with perceptions of injustice, in other words, an individual’s assessment of the unfairness of the in-group’s disadvantage in comparison with the out-group becomes the central source of conflict. The out-group is blamed for the current injustice, and (violent) conflict is considered the best strategy to remedy this situation [19, Chap. 15, 17]. Finally, relative deprivation theory (Berkowitz in [20], Davies in [20]) uses similar categories of comparative assessments of the wellbeing of in- and out-groups, leading to violence only when the difference between the groups has become unjustifiably large to the disadvantage of the in-group.

While none of these theories addresses the role of collective identities directly, they lay the foundation for identity research by pointing to the importance of identity groups, group membership, and perceived differences between groups that facilitate the identification of an other that eventually becomes the enemy and target of violence.

4 The Fundamentals of a Cognitive Approach

Cognitive science is the multidisciplinary study of mind and intelligence. Conceptualizing the mind as a complex network of mental representations, cognitive theories deal with the elements, structures and processes of thought and emotion. Individual cognitive elements are network nodes that can be activated by links between them. The central process for problem solving or decision making in a network of mental representations is coherence [21]. Cognitive change requires changes to several nodes and links simultaneously, thereby restructuring the network in a manner that maintains coherence at the system level.

The basic objects of analysis in cognitive science are mental representations, structures and processes. Types of mental representations include concepts [22, Chap. 4], beliefs, and goals or motivations [23, Chap. 6]. Cognitive structures are the configurations of linkages or relationships between mental representations. Clusters of concepts form belief systems, images, issue frames, ideologies or other structural entities. Processes include decision-making, problem solving, and risk assessment. Meaning emerges from the connections between multiple cognitive elements, structures and processes as much as from their relationship to entities in the material and social worlds [24].

Recognition of the inexorable link between cognition and emotion—that feeling is integral to knowing—has become increasingly relevant to recent cognitive science research [25, 26, 27, 28]. The emotional values associated with concepts, far from being hindrances to rational processes as often assumed, are in fact indispensable elements of human perception, understanding, and rationality. Thagard argues that earlier views of cognition as computational processes of deliberative coherence are incomplete, putting forward instead a theory of cognition as a process of emotional coherence [27, Chap. 2, 29]. Concepts, beliefs and goals all come with emotional valences that shape coherence assessments as much as does logical reasoning. Emotions are also involved in cognitive processes such as the rejection or revision of beliefs.

4.1 Cognitive-Affective Mapping

What is needed then is a method for representing individual minds as complex cognitive systems, and tools to model how interactions between multiple agents and their cognitive systems generate emergent social patterns and properties. Thagard developed Cognitive-Affective Mapping as a method for graphically diagramming cognitive systems as networks of mental representations [30, 31]. This approach satisfies traditional methodological individualism, as it is predicated on a positivist rejection of mind/body dualism that would otherwise tend toward mystifying ideas and emotions as abstract or intractable aspects of the human condition. Instead, it frames them in cognitive science terms as mental representations that are the product of brain processes—patterns of neural firing. However, it also acknowledges that interactions between multiple minds or cognitive systems can yield non-linear emergent patterns independent of those that characterize individual minds.

The products of this method—cognitive-affective maps (CAMs)—represent an individual’s concepts and beliefs about a particular subject, such as another individual or group or an issue in dispute. Particularly valuable is the way that CAM incorporates emotion directly into the representation of belief systems, in recognition of the principle that issues of cognitive and emotional coherence are intertwined in processes of rational decision-making; an insight accepted in social psychology and cognitive science over recent decades that has yet fully to penetrate the study of politics [32, 33, 34].

The CAM approach adopts the following conventions. Shapes and colors depict network elements. There are four different types of nodes indicating discrete cognitive elements with different emotional valences. Green ovals represent emotionally positive elements and red hexagons emotionally negative ones. Yellow rectangles represent elements that are emotionally neutral. A superimposed oval and hexagon (purple) indicates ambivalence; a single element that can have either positive or negative emotional valence depending on context. The thickness of the shapes’ lines represents the relative strength of the positive or negative valences associated with them.

Links (edges) between shapes depict relations between cognitive elements. Solid lines represent relations between elements that are emotionally compatible or mutually supportive—if you like one you also like the other. Dashed lines represent relations between elements that are emotionally incompatible with each other. The thickness of links indicates the strength of the emotional connection between two elements.

The product amounts to a network of interconnected elements, as illustrated in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

Basic cognitive-affective map (

The CAM method, and the assumptions on which it is based, allow for a cognitive system to be depicted in a manner equivalent to a scale-free network. This opens the possibility for modeling emergent patterns and properties that might result from the interaction between network elements within an individual mind, as well as the multi-level interactions between multiple individual cognitive networks or between an individual and a group through systems of social communication.

5 Collective Cognition?

Any effort to apply cognitive science principles at the level of the social sciences will run into the problem of agency at the individual and collective level. Cognition takes place in the brain of an individual. Yet when the units of analysis are communities such as nations or institutions such as states, these units are often conceived as thinking, acting and feeling entities: “America invaded…”, “banks reacted…”, and so on. Does this reflect fallacious thinking, “metaphorical pointers” [23], or a convenient way of speaking to a more complex reality? Collective meaning-making is a fundamental process for human societies, and it is at the heart of political decision-making. But can we really attribute beliefs to social groups? And if not, how can the processes and results of collective sense making be conceptualized? It is precisely this impasse between the psychological and social levels of analysis that we aim to resolve with a special focus on identity-related cognitions.

Cognition is a process that consists of interacting mechanisms on multiple levels, including the neural, molecular, psychological, and social [35]. Given that groups do not have brains, and collective mental representations are therefore no real entities, we argue, following Thagard, that the individual-group problem can also be conceptualized in terms of multilevel interacting mechanisms. The interaction between individual-level mechanisms (molecular, neural and psychological processes) and group-level mechanisms (e.g., communication, sensory interaction, emotional contagion) create the bonds that hold a group together. The key to collective cognition is the individual who thinks about himself as a member of the group [35, p. 274]. Individuals acquire and change group-related beliefs through interactions with other people and with other elements of the group, for instance, certain spaces and office buildings, the use of collective resources and property, or the experience of events. This process of social communication and physical-sensory interaction works both ways: a group member not only receives information about the group and develops an understanding of the group as a collective entity, she also contributes to other people’s mental representations and experiences of the group. The nature of the group depends on this recursive process between individual cognition of and social interaction between group members. Writing about conflict Ellemers confirms this view by exploring the conditions under which “the group self”—thinking about oneself as a member of a group—becomes more important than the individual self [36].

Understanding collective beliefs therefore requires first of all an understanding of how individuals envision themselves as group members and the emotions, values and meanings they attach to this membership ([23]; see also Tajfel, Introduction in [37, pp. 2–3]). Further, communication and physical interactions between group members and with the social-material environment are important processes toward creating shared understandings in a group and enabling individual and collective cognitive change.

6 The Relationship Between Individual and Collective Identity

To begin with, we must divide the notion of “the group” conceptually into two distinct aspects: the social and the cognitive-individual. It is easy to conceive of the group as larger than the individual; as a collection of individuals and the networks of social communication between them. But at the cognitive level the group is smaller than the individual, insofar as it is a subset of the mental representations that make up an individual mind. The group cannot exist without these two necessary conditions in place: (1) a collection of individuals with networks of social communication between them, and (2) a cognitive construct common to the minds of member individuals according to which the group is conceived and defined. Neither condition can exist without the other, hence the group is the product of a multi-directional feedback effect between these two systems at different levels of analysis. Networks of social communication are required to create the cognitive construct of the group in the minds of member individuals; yet those networks are themselves generated and formed by the presence and content of the cognitive construct.

Conceptualizing the group as a sub-system of mental representations as well as a super-system of individuals opens a new approach to the problem of collective cognition, emotion and agency. Thought and emotion are brain states, but groups do not have group brains. Only individual minds are capable of retaining mental representations with emotional valence. Therefore, the group, as such, cannot think, feel and act. However, the individual mind that contains a part reflecting the group—the subset of mental representations that amount to the internalized group construct—is capable of thought, emotion and agency. The systems of mental representations communicated to the individual mind through interaction with the group contain within them not only objects and connectors but an inherent emotional logic and coherence to them. In addition to symbols and narratives group communication also conveys feelings. Thus even though groups, as such, cannot think and feel, the common adoption of complex identity constructs that include emotional valences creates a dynamic that can be considered or at least usefully labeled collective cognition and emotion. These clusters of mental representations related to identity are the sources of collective identity and agency as emergent properties of cognitive-social systems. They are the origins of the group as a social phenomenon.

However, the interdependence between systems at the social and cognitive levels will cause the sub-system of mental representations that amount to the group identity to function according to different rules than do other ‘ordinary’ mental processes. Though like all brain processes they are internal to the mind, because they are received via consensual social signals external to the individual they are experienced as unitary, reified and external facts, objectively perceived as part of the ‘natural’ environment. The form that these sub-networks take is not organically determined according to the individual’s rules of cognitive-affective coherence. Instead content and structure are determined by external social processes over which the individual experiences no control, because (1) the identity construct is perceived to be a finished product, not an open process, (2) they adhere to their own internal rules of coherence, driven in part by their utility to the social system, and (3) they are received by the individual via social communication. Communication, in this context, must be understood in broad terms to include not just verbal and written signals transmitted directly to the individual by other people, but also more implicit social processes such as mechanisms of child-rearing, value-laden behaviors observed and imitated, exposure to prevalent myths and symbols, the experience and use of certain places and sites associated with the group, and even the ambient sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures established as familiar to the group. These experiences will vary between member individuals, but certain elements will be tacitly established as common and definitive, incorporated into a shared understanding of what the group is.

In short, these hypotheses summarize our understanding of the cognitive constructs that constitute collective identity:
  1. 1.

    They are sub-sets of larger cognitive networks (clusters of concept nodes).

  2. 2.

    They are shared in more or less identical form between a limited set of individuals distinguished at least in part according to possession of these networks.

  3. 3.

    They are tacitly agreed upon by the group so formed, and received by the individual via social communication.

  4. 4.

    Because of the specificities of this process of formation and transmission, they display different behaviors than other cognitive elements like concept nodes.

  5. 5.

    This difference stems from their reification—they are experienced as unitary objects, conflated with external laws and objects in nature.

  6. 6.

    Because the concepts and valences that compose these reified networks are set by collective consensus and imparted to the individual via external networks of social communication, the individual experiences them as beyond his or her agency to change, rendering them significantly more resistant to change than other cognitive elements.

  7. 7.

    Therefore, if challenged or threatened, emotions associated with collective identity constructs intensify, potentially elevating the challenge to an existential threat.


This last point is key: stimuli that challenge the perceived reality of concepts that define the group consensus tend to provoke strong negative emotions of fear, anger and disgust [38], which are both cause and effect of their “stickiness” relative to other mental representations. This is because shared systems of representations are needed for the group to exist as a group and to thereby generate the benefits, material as well as ideational, that accrue from collective behavior. These constructs must be experienced as natural and invariable in order to secure the stability of the group on which the individual relies upon for goods of existential significance; not just identity and meaning, but comfort, security, perhaps even bodily survival. It is only when these constructs are commonly experienced as real that each individual member can be plausibly reassured that the beliefs and behaviors of all other group members will predictably coincide and co-ordinate around them in perpetuity. Any input that threatens to expose the conventional and ephemeral nature of the group consensus exposes the group and its member individuals to the very real threat of social breakdown and the costs such breakdown will incur.1

One could therefore hypothesize various explanations at different levels of analysis—cognitive, social, and even evolutionary—behind this reification phenomenon. At a cognitive level, one could theorize that awareness, conscious or unconscious, of the importance of the group to the wellbeing of the individual causes the individual to attach strong emotion to shared symbols associated with the group. At the level of social evolution, it could be argued that groups built around ideational constructs that are coherent, emotionally salient and easily conflated with natural objects and laws are more likely to survive, perpetuate, and compete by commanding greater loyalty and sacrifice. And at the level of biological evolution, it could be proposed that those individuals psychologically more inclined to reify the group and feel strongly toward symbols of group belonging were more likely to engage in co-operative social behavior that furthered their survival and ability to perpetuate their genetic material.

This is not to suggest a sharp dichotomy between group-associated mental representations that are reified, and non-group-associated mental representations that are not. Nearly all mental representations are formed in response to external stimuli, and not all concept nodes associated with a group identity will be reified to an equal extent. It is better to understand this as a continuum, with fully reified mental representations and identity constructs at one end, and other constructs more flexible to individual idiosyncrasies on the other. What’s more, it is not to be assumed that all group members will reify the same collective concepts and beliefs to precisely the same extent, though group membership might be tested and measured—in whole or in part, whether explicitly or tacitly—by the extent to which individuals do. Some members might retain the ability to question or alter elements of the reified group construct, and we could further hypothesize that such individuals are likely to be found at the periphery of the group—those with only partial or dubious commitment to the group identity—but also potentially at the group’s core in the form of charismatic leaders of social movements.

Indeed, one could divide the mental representations that compose an individual’s cognitive-affective map into three categories according to origin—the universal, the specific, and the particular. Universal representations are ones that can be expected to be common to all of humanity, present in some form in every cognitive-affective matrix due to their being an inherent or at least standard aspect of the human condition (say, “water” or “mother”). Specific representations are the product of the individual’s unique experience of the world. But the particular is particular to the group(s) into which the individual is socialized, therefore held in common by members of the group and only by members of the group. Of course, this is not a clean typology; any set of mental representations will inevitably be a product of a mixture of universal, specific and particular influences. After all, each individual experiences the universal and the particular on his or her own specific terms. Nonetheless, our focus on group-level cognitive elements concerning group identity starts from the hypothesis that representations will interact with one another differently within a given cognitive-affective system depending on their universal, specific and particular character. Therefore, there may be times when it is beneficial to tease out the particular, isolating it as a component for separate analysis.

CAM is a method suited to this task. It can be used to distinguish the concepts, beliefs and values that come to be reified as part of a collective identity, and model how these interact with other elements of a cognitive-affective system. It thereby offers a means to represent testable theories as to what concepts and connections could trigger ontological crisis in a given population or hypothetical individual member of said population; in other words, to represent the impact of a collective identity on individual behavior.

7 Nation, Cognition and Emotion

We illustrate this approach with reference to what is arguably the most pervasive form of identity in the modern international system: the nation. In the study of national identity and conflict the causal role of symbolic and emotional content tends to be subsumed in a wider debate on agency between schools of thought that could be broadly termed primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist.

Primordialism views identities and their related symbolic attachments as in some way embedded if not in the very nature of the human species than at least in a long history during which the identity group can be recognized as a continuous protagonist.2 This often leads to the assumption that conflicts between groups that implicate symbolic attachments are the consequence of “ancient hatreds”, that essential characteristics of distinct groups place them in conflict, and that these antagonisms are the very properties of an enduring group identity. While such theories are best at taking emotional attachments to symbols seriously as causal factors in identity construction and conflict, in doing so they tend to mystify and essentialise them.

Instrumentalists challenge this tendency, drawing from the rational-choice paradigm to construe such attachments as tools in the service of ultimately material ends, with a focus on the interests and agency of elites.3 Indeed, it is not difficult to find empirical support in cases, throughout history and in current situations of conflict, where national symbols have been manipulated intentionally by elites seeking to mobilize populations further to the standard imperatives of power politics. But it is implausible that this is the whole story, since for every instance where elite manipulation of national symbols is successful in altering identities or mobilizing animosities, there are many more in which attempted manipulations fail to resonate. Elites are constrained in which symbols will generate mass emotional response, and instrumentalism alone cannot explain why one symbol will resonate and another not.

A third category of theory, which could be termed constructivist, frames the nation not as a thing in nature, nor as an instrumental fabrication, but rather as an emergent social construct, the product of a distinctly modern convergence of norms and instrumentalities. While this is a sensible premise, beyond the truism that national identities are social constructs, general theories as to how and why they are constructed prove notoriously difficult to verify or falsify.4

A cognitive theory of identity offers the potential to break this impasse, suggesting a means and method by which the questions raised by each existing approach can be addressed simultaneously: What are the emotional attachments at the core of a given national identity; the network of myths, symbols, values and animosities that are experienced as felt realities? How could the manipulation of elites or other perturbations be expected to affect the system and in what circumstances? And what are the essential elements of the emergent social construct that becomes the nation, enabling it to function as a coherent system of binding norms and shared mental representations? Specifically, any model that reconciles these disparate positions on the basis and origins of national identity must account for the fact that, although national identities ultimately reside in individual human minds, they are perceived and experienced as external facts equivalent to objects in nature, and this perception is crucial to their function in affecting collective behavior and social cohesion. As Ernest Gellner evocatively observed, though the nation may be a fundamentally modern construct, having one is considered akin in the modern world to having a nose and two ears [53]. It may be possible for one to lack any of these things, but unnatural, and experienced as the consequence of some extraordinary tragedy.

To illustrate our approach by way of example, consider the figure below to be a rudimentary cognitive-affective map of the concept of “Switzerland” (Fig. 2):
Fig. 2

Simplified representation of Switzerland

These are the concepts that compose the socially determined consensus of what “Switzerland” is. Of course, it is dramatically oversimplified for the purpose of the illustration. A thoroughly researched CAM depicting any ideational system as multi-faceted as a national identity will be more than simple nodes connected to positively associated objects, but rather will involve intricate networks of interactions along with negative associations—those things that the nation is not in addition to what it is. This can also concern negative elements the group has to grapple with, for example, Germany’s world war history. But this simplified CAM does show that these constructs will include a wide variety of types of mental representation: principles for establishing group boundaries (language, ethnicity, territory), in-group organization (federalism, democracy), inter-group relations (neutrality); founding myths (Rutli Oath), symbols and stories (Wilhelm Tell), territory and physical objects (Alps), cultural traits, even seemingly superficial associations like characteristic foods. Indeed, a truly comprehensive CAM should be able to incorporate images, sounds, smells and tastes.

But establishing the reified construct in the mind of a group member is not all that it takes to create a group identity. After all, the same construct of “Switzerland” will be present in the minds of non-members as well, at least partially, depending on the extent of that non-member’s contact with the concept. The incorporation of an externally received and reified set of mental representations into identity is more of a process, depicted as follows5: (Fig. 3)
Fig. 3

Representation of Swiss identity

This process leads not just to the adoption of a set of mental representations, but also the activation of a characteristic pattern of emotional valences that impact how these mental representations will interact with others within the individual mind. The concept of “Swiss” is inherently connected to the concept of “Switzerland”. Therefore, once an individual’s belief system includes the proposition “I am Swiss”, the mental representations and valences associated with “Switzerland” are imported as a whole coherent system into the individual’s cognitive-affective network. They may be imported imperfectly, according to the specificities of the individual’s unique experience of the construct. And once imported, they are subject to interaction with other elements of the individual’s cognitive-affective map. This can account for differences between group members with regard to their mental representations of and relationships to the group. But the individual is not unconstrained in choosing what mental representations are adopted along with the identity association, at least concerning a certain number of common essentials.

The received representations are communicated to the individual via social signals and therefore experienced by the individual as external and given, similar to natural objects and laws. This is not to say that they exist outside of the individual. Everything depicted in these diagrams is internal to the mind/brain. The point is that the internalization of the concept of “Switzerland” involves the internalization of a network of representations determining what “Switzerland” means; and, though internal to the mind, the boundary mechanisms and symbolic content of this network are determined prior to their importation, the product of processes of social communication, and therefore experienced as originating and residing outside of the self, beyond control of the self. Anyone can see a mountain, and, with a rudimentary set of representational tools, can form a mental representation of a mountain. This much can be classed as “universal”. But it takes the internalization of a particular set of external social signals to know that a mountain is the Matterhorn (and it’s not just called the Matterhorn; it is the Matterhorn), and it takes a mechanism for the importation of that set of social signals into one’s identity to respond emotionally to the Matterhorn as a national symbol.

What then happens if an external stimulus (e.g., scientific reasoning, personal experience, the influence of other potentially conflicting group constructs, etc.) generates individual mental representations in conflict with the ones that have been imported from the social environment? To pick a random example, let’s say the individual is shown a reason (how and what is unimportant for now) to disapprove of the notion of neutrality (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Challenging the identity concept “neutrality”

The result is the introduction of conflict between concepts into the CAM that must be resolved in order for the system to remain stable. There are three types of solution. One can alter the conflicting mental representation (Fig. 5), the mental representation associating the individual with the identity construct (Fig. 6), or the contents of the received identity construct (Fig. 7). These solutions become more difficult the more they involve the received identity construct. Since this construct is perceived as an unchanging natural object or law, its permanence is something each group member depends upon for social stability.

The easiest thing for the self to do is therefore to change her mind about, reason her way around, or at least soften her emotional commitment to the offending concept in the face of the seemingly unmoving influence of the imported and shared social construct (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Solution 1 to offending identity concepts

The individual depicted above still could not be said to believe in neutrality. Nonetheless, she has imported the concept and thereby come to accept it along with its positive valence as part of her system of identity representations. This illustrates how attachment to a collective construct of identity can compel a person to alter his or her behavioral and emotional environment around a concept that he or she does not personally believe in. This might explain, for example, how individuals who are not religious believers can nonetheless be sincerely moved to mobilize, fight and sacrifice for symbols and objects of a religion associated with their group identity.

There may be situations where the individual is unable or unwilling to adjust the emotional valence attached to the offending representation. In that event, the next easiest approach is to weaken one’s association with, or alter the emotional valence of the entire identity category that has caused the conflicting representation to be included in one’s belief system (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Solution 2 to offending identity concepts

If one simply cannot reconcile oneself to a representation received as definitive of a given identity construct, one may question whether one really has a right to consider oneself part of that identity group. This is more difficult because it magnifies the overall impact of the solution on the rest of the individual’s belief system. When one distances oneself from an identity group like the nation one is born into, one’s perception of the reality of all other representations associated with that group come under question as well, exposing the individual to a demoralizing anomie.

This dynamic illustrates a potential threat to social cohesion. If the environment of a significant number of group members changes such that these individuals start to receive continuous and undeniable signals that conflict with an essential element of the reified group identity, the resulting cognitive-affective incoherence may cause the group to collapse and effective in-group co-operation to degenerate; at least if it is unable to conspire collectively to alter its received identity constructs accordingly through solution number three.

This third solution, however, is the most difficult: keep the individual opinion, keep the identity association, but remove the offending representation(s) from the received identity construct in order to restore cognitive-affective coherence not just in the individual mind but for the entire group (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

Solution 3 to offending identity concepts

If we were to treat received representations the same as other mental representations, this would appear to be the most straightforward solution. But the special nature of collective identity constructs causes these sub-systems of mental representations to function according to different rules. Because the mental representation of Switzerland with the essential component of neutrality is received and validated via external signals, it cannot be altered without the connivance of those external, collective forces; namely, the whole (or at least a critical mass) of the group (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

Resignation in the face of offending identity concept

Neutrality is a social convention. But to someone who has internalized the Swiss identity construct it is a natural and inherent attribute of an actual thing called Switzerland. In principle, there is no reason why the social convention of neutrality cannot be removed from the concept of Switzerland, save for the fact that if it were really that easy, the larger concept would not seem real enough to secure the loyalty and submission of group members in the first place.

This has significant implications to the way one would approach situations of ethnic or national conflict. When a group’s symbolic attachments are the cause of conflict intractability, such as when disputed territory is imbued with religious or national significance, this third solution—removing the offending concept from the group’s construction of identity—is often presumed by outsiders to be the easiest and preferred approach. So long as one rejects the primordialist assumption that such attachments are embedded in the group’s essential nature, the simplest course of action would appear to be to convince disputants to forego this attachment by exposing its irrational, inessential and historically contingent character. Symbolic attachments are not built into our DNA, so if they are the cause of strife we should have the sense to change or abandon them.

But symbolic attachments do not have to be primordial in order to be deeply felt, or for there to be dramatic and unforeseen consequences to their disruption. And each of the coping mechanisms described above points to a corresponding danger to the simplistic assumption that a group can or should be talked out of its symbolic attachments when these become inconvenient. An individual does not have to be personally convinced of the religious significance or even historical accuracy of a myth or symbol in order to continue to experience and be moved by it as part of the reified group construct. Whereas efforts that successfully cause members of a group to question or discard a concept integral to their group construct can have unforeseen effects on other connected components, possibly threatening the equilibrium of the construct as a whole and weakening bonds of social communication and norms of social constraint. Fear of such breakdown, and the very real dangers of violence and suffering that accompany it, generates fierce emotional resistance in the face of such change against anyone—insider or outsider—who would threaten it.

Our cognitive approach demands that we treat reification not just as a fallacy, but as a cognitive-emotional process that can be integral to the maintenance of group cohesion and the continuation of group behavior. A challenge to any mental representation that is an integral part of a reified collective identity construct threatens to upset the coherence of the system as a whole. To the extent that identity concepts are linked to material realities under contestation—for example, territory that two groups deem to be objectively theirs—a cognitive lens on the structure of identity can reveal more about the conflict and possible paths and pitfalls toward resolution than any rational approach.

8 Case in Point: Global Climate Change Negotiations

In this final section we apply the concepts developed above to the case of global climate change governance, illuminating non-violent conflict dynamics in the UNFCCC negotiations with the help of identity concepts. The same analytic framework can easily be applied to more obvious and clear-cut cases of conflict, including ethnic violence, revolutions or genocide. Here, we focus on the beliefs of two types of climate change negotiators, who tend to take strongly contrasting positions: representatives of small island states and of the United States (US). We present and analyze cognitive-affective maps of the private belief systems of one individual from each group. Using Empathica we generated these CAMs based on semi-structured interviews conducted in 2012 as part of Milkoreit’s research project on cognition in global climate politics. The CAMs were shared with the research participants, who were encouraged to provide feedback and request changes to first drafts. We support our arguments with evidence from multiple additional interviews not depicted as CAMs.

The interview-based CAM of a US diplomat is complemented with a CAM based on multiple text sources, including speeches and press conferences given by prominent negotiators like Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing. Rather than representing the beliefs of an individual, this supporting CAM represents the collective position of the US delegation to the negotiations that is perceived by other negotiation participants as the will or beliefs of the United States. This reflects the fiction of collective cognition at the level of a state and the unitary actor (and brain) assumption common in international relations scholarship.

Conflicts can challenge group identities in different ways and to varying degrees. Climate change presents very different identity challenges to various political actors, triggering in turn different political demands and concerns. In highly simplified terms the contrasting negotiation positions of small island states and the US can be explained by the differences in their diplomats’ and likely citizens’ respective threat perceptions regarding climate change. Islanders perceive climate change impacts as a fundamental threat to their collective identity, even to their existence as a group, and consequently desire urgent and significant collective action to address this problem. Americans do not feel threatened by the impacts of climate change itself, but by international demands to take economically costly mitigation action in response to climate change. The negotiation positions presented by these different groups reflect their attempts to protect reified national identity constructs (Figs. 9, 10).
Fig. 9

CAM of small island state representative

Fig. 10

CAM of US representative

These CAMs demonstrate that each individual’s belief system contains not just one but multiple concepts that specify group identities, including those groups the person identifies with—the in-groups—and those perceived as other—out-groups. The most important in-group for negotiators is usually the country they represent. Others include their own negotiation alliance (e.g., AOSIS) and other negotiation blocks, “poorer countries” or even the “human community”. Individual negotiators envision themselves as members (or outsiders) of these groups and have a range of ideas regarding the nature of these collectives. Only very few of these ideas are depicted here because interview questions did not inquire about these groups directly. They include concepts like “island state”, “vulnerable,” or “welfare system.”

One of the most important differences between the CAM of the small island state representative and the US diplomat concerns the connection between climate change impacts and national identity. The small island state representative is concerned about specific climate change impacts, including sea-level rise, hurricanes and droughts. These are perceived as a significant threat not only to the physical integrity of the country—eroding and inundating cost lines, flooding roads and disrupting food and water supplies—but also the cultural identity and existence of the island nation because they are destroying cultural sites near the ocean and changing the place in a way that affects all social activity. Concepts like “Everything we are about”, “Cultural Loss” and “Tragedy” indicate that the person conceptualizes climate change as a threat to the most basic, fundamental elements of island society. Other CAMs offer similar clues, including concepts like “fishers become farmers,” “change to the social fabric,” and “my poor little country will be no more.”

A specific subset of concepts related to the issue of identity loss concerns place-based identity [54]. The concept has received little attention in international relations scholarship, but as the CAMs demonstrate place-based identity elements are an important feature of belief systems about climate change and help understand how material features of a person’s or group’s environment—parts of the system structure in a neo-realist sense—can be linked to individual and group identity. These elements can shape conflict dynamics because threats to the physical features, for example ritual or burial sites near the ocean that are being eroded by sea-level rise, become threats to the person’s or group’s identity.

The negotiation positions of small island states are an effort to protect current national and cultural identity concepts from the threat of climate change. At the same time some island states have begun the hard work of changing previously reified identities—akin to removing “Neutrality” from the Swiss identity—forced by the physical realities of sea-level rise and extreme weather. Kiribati is starting to relocate its population off their island territory, leaving behind national symbols, cultural sites and practices. Along with these social and physical realities they abandon previously reified parts of their collective identity.

The belief system of the US negotiator also acknowledges significant impacts of climate change, including domestic ones, but it lacks threat perceptions that link climate impacts to group identity. Instead US positions often reflect a concern about the material-economic costs of climate policy, especially of immediate mitigation. The individual CAM depicted above does not contain any concepts that directly confirm this argument, but the CAM of the US negotiation position (Fig. 11) offers some evidence in this respect. Solution-oriented concepts evolve around the idea of mitigation effectiveness, which requires complete legal parity of all parties to a multilateral agreement, in other words, no differentiation of rules for emerging or developing countries, and large emission coverage of such an agreement. Those concepts are based on the assumption that any economic cost imposed on the US must be equally imposed on all other countries to maintain a ‘level economic playing field’.
Fig. 11

CAM of the US negotiation position in 2012

Underlying this rather abstract reasoning about multilateral rules is a deep domestic concern about economic competitiveness with rising powers coupled with strong conservative ideological attachment to neoliberal values including free markets and enterprise, small government, protection of private property and the right to exploit natural resources for profit. Those values form the center of the national identity of many Americans, and are threatened by proposals that the US should lead global mitigation efforts, should act earlier than others and do more than others because of its large emission share and economic capacity. Such mitigation leadership would require major government intervention (‘big government’) curbing the free market by regulating production processes, and maybe even limiting individual freedom by constraining consumption processes. These ideas pose fundamental challenges to the American way of life in a society that is increasingly polarized over the role of government and markets for social wellbeing.

In this case it is not climate change but climate change action that challenges national identity constructs and is the target of resistance in the US negotiation position. While this resistance takes the form of climate change denial in the domestic political sphere it is expressed in terms of economic reasoning at the multilateral level.

In short, much of the contestation within the climate negotiations can be traced to different threat perceptions of two distinct groups of individuals: those who perceive climate impacts as a threat to their national identity and even existence as a country, and those who perceive climate action as a threat to their national identity and way of life.

This key difference in threat perception has important implications for a range of dispute dimensions, for instance, the importance and meaning of justice and fairness, or more generally the relevance of norms. They also affect concepts of time and urgency. Perceived long-term existential threats to small island states create an acute awareness of the importance of time, a focus on the systemic linkages between action today and effects tomorrow and therefore a strong sense of urgency. Consequently AOSIS members plead for immediate action and ambitious temperature targets. No sense of urgency exists in the belief systems of US representatives. Concepts of time are almost absent or very vague; linkages between today’s and future generations are not important although they are occasionally acknowledged.

Apart from these differences in content, one can also observe very different levels of emotional involvement between island representatives and US diplomats. The interventions of the former are often infused with heightened emotions: they give passionate speeches and referring to the present and expected loss and suffering in their home countries they seek to mobilize the international community with pleas for immediate action on climate change. Emotions matter for Americans as well, especially when a concept that is linked to group identity is challenged. This was observable in Durban (COP 17, 2011) when an intervention by an NGO representative challenged the self-perceptions of the US delegation regarding their leadership role in the negotiation process. The challenge triggered a statement by a visibly shaken Todd Stern during the subsequent press conference, seeking to “correct the misconception” that the US was blocking a legally binding agreement in Durban and wanted to delay action until 2020 (Stern, US Press Briefing 12/08/2011). Self-perceptions in line with the US national identity as a responsible global leader and problem solver contrasted starkly with the perceptions of other negotiation parties regarding the role of the US in the negotiations. But the notion of US leadership is fully coherent with their overall view of the political history and situation today. More generally, the American negotiation position and interventions are affectively muted or ‘cool’ in comparison to the statements and arguments brought forward by islanders.

This observation offers provisional evidence for our hypothesis that collective identity challenges intensify the emotions associated with threatened identity elements and trigger a defensive response.

9 Conclusion

We have argued that understanding group identities and the individual-group relationship are key for making sense of social disputes, whether they are violent ethnic conflicts or contentious climate change politics. A cognitive approach is particularly well suited to tackle this challenge theoretically and methodologically. Introducing cognitive theories like emotional coherence and tools like CAM into security and conflict studies also opens up new prospects for the empirical exploration of the multifaceted belief systems of political actors and the emotional logics that hold them together.

The mind can be conceptualized as a complex system consisting of a vast number of networked mental representations whose interactions create emergent patterns of thought and meaning. Identity constructs are sub-systems of the mind—clusters of mental representations at a meso scale that define and give rise to social groups. Collective identities are synchronized mental constructs that exist in the minds of individual group members and specify the nature of one’s in-group. Due to their special social stabilizing functions and their dependence on external networks of communication, collective identity constructs adhere to special rules within the mind’s overall tendency toward emotional coherence. Most importantly, they are highly resistant to change. If elements of a collective identity are challenged the individual is most likely to resist that challenge and to protect the identity status quo. Consequently, group members experience actions or events that stand to threaten the perceived reality of collective identity as attacks that provoke emotional reactions difficult for outsiders to predict or comprehend. It is in this way that they can become catalysts for misunderstanding and conflict, while internal challenges—for instance, group members seeking to remove or change identity concepts—can lead to social destabilization.

The methods we have proposed, predicated on an understanding of identity constructs and their associated emotions as brain processes, offer a means to model these “sticky” mental representations in a given case and thereby to identify actions or perturbations that might be experienced by group members as threats to the group’s ontological security. At the same time, our theoretical argument challenges not only international relations scholarship but also cognitive science to explore the role of cognitive identity constructs and our hypotheses outlining the special cognitive rules that apply to them due to their reification and special social functions. Finally, our focus on emotion contributes to an emergent literature on the role of emotion in political decision-making within international relations, calling for more sophisticated multi-disciplinary approaches to studying this phenomenon.


  1. 1.

    This view coincides with the theories of Durkheim [39] and Geertz [40] on the meaning and function of religion in society. In constructivist international relations literature, it could relate to Mitzen’s argument that in addition to physical security, political actors seek “ontological security” in the form of the preservation of rigidly routinized relationships with others to which they have become attached, and that this tendency may contribute to the perpetuation of even dangerous routines such as protracted conflict [41].

  2. 2.

    For example, sociobiologists such as van den Berghe [42] who view nations as extensions of the evolutionary mechanism of kin selection explained by, among others, Dawkins [43]; or culturalists such as Grosby [44], drawing from the works of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz who saw groups as forming around perceived a priori “givens” such as descent, language or religion [40]. From the standpoint of our argument, we could also include in this category the “ethnosymbolist” approach of Smith [45, 46] that frames the nation as a modern social construct nonetheless dependant on continuity with durable pre-modern ethnic communities.

  3. 3.

    A view most forcefully articulated by Brass [47, pp. 40–41], but also evident in the works of Laitin [48]; as well as historians Breuilly’s [49] notion of nationalism as a form of politics geared toward control of the state and Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of nationalism as the product of “invented traditions” engineered by elites to mobilize masses in the age of mass politics [50, 51].

  4. 4.

    Anderson [52], for example, saw the nation a consequence of the decline of universal religions, leading to the formation of territorial states formed around the vernaculars generated by the market demands of print capitalism. Gellner [53] saw them as the product of the social changes needed to maintain a modern growth economy, accelerated by the impacts of industrialization on the relationship between imperial cores and their culturally distinct peripheries.

  5. 5.

    With the stick-figure, borrowed from, standing in for the sum total of remaining mental representations, structures and processes that make up the human individual.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Waterloo Institute for Complexity and InnovationUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Global Institute of SustainabilityArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  3. 3.Balsillie School of International AffairsUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

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