Archive for January, 2009

Psychology of war

January 24, 2009

by Janet Nicol

When University of British Columbia professor Ara Norenzayan entered his second year of university in the United States after emigrating from wartorn Lebanon, he took a course that would change his life.  

The course was psychology.  

“I loved it,” Norenzayan says. “I never looked back.”

And it would help Norenzayan make sense of the violence he witnessed growing up in a Beirut suburb during the 15-year civil war.  

Norenzayan’s wartime experiences combined with his natural curiosity and academic training have now led him to groundbreaking research in a relatively new field — cultural psychology.
“In North America, cultural influences are not visible,” he says. “They are on the margins.”

In the Lebanese mosaic, however, the civil war provided “a confrontation of cultural influences. These influences were in the foreground,” he says.

Growing up within the small Armenian community in Beirut, Norenzayan witnessed good people — both Muslim and Christian — commit terrible acts. In the final months of Lebanon’s civil war, which began in 1975, life in the capital city was so chaotic, schools were forced to close. Norenzayan missed six months of Grade 12 classes. When he emigrated with his family shortly after his final exams, he describes leaving behind a “hellhole.”

Despite the trauma of his past, Norenzayan moved forward, the first in his family to take a scholarly route. Already equipped with three languages, Armenian, Arabic and French, he learned English while taking first-year college courses in Fresno, California.  

And once he found his passion for psychology at California State University, as well as a mentor in his psychology professor, his path was set.

“The doors opened for me,” he says.  

And those doors led to doctorial studies on scholarship at Michigan State University. Norenzayan then spent a year in Paris and came back to teach in the United States, before seeking his current position at UBC.

“I had been to Vancouver and liked it,” Norenzayan says. He also knew colleagues at UBC and was attracted to the opportunities for meaningful research. Last year, he was given tenure at age 36, an impressive accomplishment for someone of his age.

Recently, Norenzayan and his colleagues have been studying how religion affects group behaviour — their approach and ideas compelling and timely.

“It is tragic that we spend so much money on the sciences, but not on the study of cultures, religion and war,” Norenzayan observes. Despite the complexity of his research, Norenzayan also sees simple motives for war.   “Ignorance is at the root,” he says.

After visiting Lebanon during a peaceful interlude, he adds, “It was cathartic and positive.”
With remarkable determination and sheer hard work, Norenzayan has taken the darkest moments of his past to bring light to the present.

 Reprinted from the Canadian Immigrant, January, 2009.