Historical memories without (much) historical hatred?

We are all part of a culture: certain behaviors and practices are deeply ingrained in our society and, by implication, in all of us. For example, one strongly normative behavior in the United Kingdom is to queue politely for the bus or the checkout in the supermarket. (Apparently this norm is so strong that disproportionately more Britons died on the Titanic than Americans, because the former politely queued for life boats whereas the latter elbowed their way forward).

Where do those cultural mores come from? How are they “transmitted” from one generation to the next? After all, Britons did not stop queueing after the Titanic went down more than a hundred years ago, so these practices must have been passed on to subsequent generations.

recent article in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory & Cognition examined the transmission of one aspect of culture, namely the transmission of historical memories. Researchers Connie Svob and colleagues examined historical memories in young Croatians whose parents were, to varying extents, affected by the war in the 1990s that tore apart the former Yugoslavia into its constituent, newly independent states, including Croatia.

The war caused numerous casualties and despite the cessation of hostilities more than 20 years ago, inter-ethnic tensions remain acute in Croatia whose population is primarily Catholic but contains a sizable (4.5%) Serbian Orthodox minority.

How do those ethnic conflicts and their violent history affect the current generation of Croatians who have reached adulthood without any direct experience of the war? Svob and colleagues were particularly interested in two specific questions: First, how are the memories of parents who experienced the war remembered by their children? Second, how do these memories impact attitudes towards particular ethnic groups?

Svob and colleagues examined those questions in two regions of the country that were differentially affected by the war. Eastern Croatia was devastated by the war, whereas western Croatia was largely spared the direct effects of the violence. Separate groups of participants were recruited in the two parts of the country.

The study focused on how participants experienced their parents’ lives. Thus, participants were first asked to report the 10 most important events from the life of one of their parents. Once recalled, those 10 events were then represented to participants for a variety of further tasks: Participants first estimated the year when each event occurred, and they then rated how much each event had affected the parent’s life on a number of dimensions, before rating how much each event had affected their own life. After completion of these memorial tasks, participants responded to a questionnaire that measured their social distance to various ethnic groups (viz. Albanians, Croatians, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Russians, Serbians, and Slovenians).

Several aspects of the results are worth emphasizing. First, if the events recalled from the parent’s life were war related, they were rated to have a greater impact on the participant’s generation’s identity than non-war-related events.  War-related events were also rated to be less positive and to have produced more material and psychological changes in the parent’s life.

Second, and quite intriguingly, there were relatively modest differences between the two groups on those memorial measures. In particular, both groups shows an “upheaval bump” in the recall of items from their parent’s life as reflected by the disproportionate number of war-related events among the 10 that had to be produced for the parent. That bump was somewhat—but not dramatically—larger for the sample from Eastern Croatia.

Finally, unlike for the memorial measures, some notable differences were observed between the two regions of the country in terms of the judged social distance to various outgroups. The table below summarizes those results, using a scale for which larger magnitudes translate into greater social distance.

It can be seen that for the Eastern Croatian sample, judged social distance was significantly greater than in the west for 4 ethnic groups (identified by asterisks) that were  implicated in the war against Croatia. (Russia was widely considered to be an ally of the Serbs at the time.)

Given that the respondents were not directly affected by the war, the results suggest that those attitudes towards ethnic groups were transmitted from one generation to the next. However, the inter-generational transmission was also accompanied by considerable attenuation of those attitudes: in comparison to another sample of Croatians who were polled in 1993 (not shown here), the social distance scores in the above table were far less extreme for all ethnicities in the current samples. Svob and colleagues underscore this particular result by noting that “for the most part, explicit ostracism and aggression toward ethnic out-groups was not expressed” in their sample.

Thus, although memories may be passed on from one generation to the next, and although those memories have an impact on participants’ identity, these intergenerational memories need not be accompanied by intergenerational hatred.

Article focsed on in this post:

Svob, C., Brown, N. R., Takšić, V., Katulić, K., & Žauhar, V. (2016). Intergenerational transmission of historical memories and social-distance attitudes in post-war second-generation Croatians.Memory & Cognition. DOI: 10.3758/s13421-016-0607-x

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