In the first part of his career, he focused on the study prosocial behavior and development of social psychology of education. His book Prosocial Behavior: Theory and Research was published in 1976, as the first book in this field. It served many social psychologists as the first stimulating manuscript which introduced them to this new and emerging area of prosocial behavior. Together with founding this new area in social psychology, he was also among the first pioneers in the area of social psychology of education, co-editing the first comprehensive book in 1978 about social psychology of education. For the next 10 years he was one of the leading persons in these two fields, organizing symposia and conferences, and publishing articles and books. Development and Maintenance of Prosocial Behavior (Plenum, 1984), The Social Psychology of Education: Theory and Research (Halsted, 1978) and New Approaches to Social Problems: Applications of Attribution Theory (Jossey-Bass, 1979).
Shared Societal Beliefs
Bar-Tal directed attention to the importance of shared beliefs in groups and societies and later to the importance of collective emotions. He developed major theoretical frameworks on these subjects, which served as foundations for further conceptualization and research. His concepts of group beliefs, societal beliefs, and collective emotional orientation were well accepted and integrated into the socio-political- psychological lexicon. This line of research pointed out that there is a major difference for a group or a society between the cases when a belief is held by members of society which are not aware of their sharing, and cases when a belief is held by group members who are aware of this sharing. The awareness of sharing turns shared beliefs into powerful psychological mechanism, which has crucial effects on a group, or society. with this line of work, Bar-Tal was breaking the boundaries of social psychology and leading pioneering conceptualization and research. This approach led him to analyze bloody and long lasting conflicts (called intractable conflicts), which are the most vicious and threatening the well-being of the societies involved and the international community as well.
In the early 1980s Bar-Tal moved into the discipline of political psychology, which thereafter shaped his academic career. During his prolonged work in the area work of political psychology, Bar-Tal made several significant and original contributions to this field of research.
Socio-psychological Theory of Intractable Conflict
Bar-Tal developed a theory of intractable conflicts which offers a holistic and comprehensive narrative that has interconnected parts in a causal relationship and can explain and predict the development, escalation, de-escalation, resolution and reconciliation cases of intractable conflicts in general, and in different parts of the world. It focuses on the socio-psychological aspects of the conflict, but takes a multidisciplinary approach, drawing from political sciences, sociology, psychology, education, communication and cultural studies.
The theory describes the context and characteristics of intractable conflict, which necessarily leads to negative experiences of loss, stress, insecurity, hardship, uncertainty and suffering. These experiences create challenges for a society involved in intractable conflict and its leaders: of coping with stress, of satisfying individual and collective needs, and of opposing the rival society. In order to meet these challenges, it is necessary to construct a functional psychological repertoire of beliefs, attitudes, values and emotions. This repertoire is systematized and structured in the form of conflict supporting narratives, as well as collective emotional orientations. These narratives and emotional orientations are transmitted to society members through various agents of socialization, such as mass media, cultural products, societal institutions, schools, etc. – and eventually becomes institutionalized. The result of these acculturation processes is the evolution and crystallization of a culture of conflict and a collective identity which becomes interwoven into the fabric of societal life on every level and every domain. The socio-psychological repertoire of the culture of conflict serves as individual and collective “eyeglasses” through which to absorb, interpret, process, and evaluate information which functions as a basis for decision- and policy-making. However, it must also be noted that this repertoire is selective and distortive by nature, being over-simplistic, moralistic, and one-sided. Thus, the theory presents a kind of vicious cycle of violence, as the sociopsychological repertoire leads to violent actions towards the rival group, while its violent reactions serve as validation and reinforcement to this culture of conflict.
Socio-psychological Barriers to Peacebuilding
An extension of the theory of intractable conflict, Bar-Tal and colleagues proposed a conception of socio-psychological barriers that inhibit peaceful conflict resolution. The concept of barriers suggests that the sociopsychological repertoire which evolved during the conflict – with its various elements – serves as a powerful barrier to resolving these conflicts peacefully. These barriers are institutionalized and grounded within the culture of conflict, preventing the processing of new and alternative information which may open new perspectives. On the collective level, societies involved in intractable conflict often make active efforts to maintain their conflict-supporting narratives and prevent the penetration of alternative beliefs which may undermine their dominance. They use various societal mechanisms to block the appearance and dissemination of information which provides an alternative viewpoint regarding the conflict, its goals, costs, and outcomes. Bar-Tal and his colleagues identified several factors as barriers to peacebuilding, among them issues of distrust , emotional orientation of fear and hate, routinization of the conflict, as well as self-censorship of alternative information. They also elaborated on several mechanisms which may enable to overcome such barriers, through critical and paradoxical thinking.
Peacebuilding and Culture of Peace
Bar-Tal also sought to go beyond the theorizing of conflict, and conceptualize the processes of peace making and reconciliation. Reconciliation constitutes the societal psychological process that is necessary pre-condition for building a stable and lasting peace. It involves changes of motivations, goals, beliefs, attitudes and emotions by the majority of society members. Peace building refers to continuous efforts excreted by society members, Institutions and channels of communication in order to realize lasting peaceful relations with past rivals, within the framework of a culture of peace. It consists of major societal changes which often consists of major socio-psychological and cultural changes. Both societies need to garner and co-develop vested interests in peaceful relations and secure coexistence. Within this framework, Bar-Tal also developed the concept of peace education, aimed at altering and constructing student’s worldview in a way which facilitates a peacebuilding process and prepares them to live in an era of peace and reconciliation. Bar-Tal and colleagues proposed to differentiate between direct and indirect types of peace education, as methods of challenging and changing the views of younger generations, based on the different stages of the conflictual situation.
He proposed a new psychological approach to conflicts, extended and defined the notion of intractable conflict; defined, elaborated and outlined the scope of patriotism; expanded, co-developed and study the concepts of epistemic authority; introduced the concept of siege mentality; proposed a new conception to the security issue; introduced and outlined the concept of delegitimization; co-developed a new conceptual framework for the understanding of the self-perception of collective victimhood; proposed a new conception of collective orientation emotions and specifically analyzed collective fear and hope; co-proposed a conception of socio-psychological barriers that inhibit peaceful conflict resolution and then co-proposed ways how to overcome them; defined and outlined the phenomenon of reconciliation; co-developed a new conceptual framework of transitional context that includes major events and major information; co-proposed a new conception of peace education for societies involved in intractable conflict; co-developed a new conceptual framework for collective identity that provides a wide perspective and possibility of operationalization; began a new direction of study as well as developed a new conceptual framework for studying the behavior of societies that carry prolong occupation; co-proposed a theory for the development of negative intergroup repertoire among children and carried pioneering studies of children and adolescents with new paradigm; co-developed a model about changing collective memory with stages and influencing variables; co-developed a conceptual framework that analyses the development of stereotypes and prejudice in societies engaged in conflict; developed a new and original conception of self-censorship; co-developed a conception of how hegemonic conflict supporting narratives are formed and maintained in societies engaged in intractable conflict; co-developed the conception how children in societies engaged in intractable conflict are politically socialized; and developed two original framework for attitude change called paradoxical thinking and Informative Process Model (IPM). In addition, co- developed new conceptual framework for the explanation of the deterioration of democracy and rise of authoritarianism.
One of his greatest achievements, as he sees it, was leading, mentoring and supervising a group of graduate students (mostly PhD, but also MA and post-docs) who came from different disciplines and different universities, all united in their interest in studying conflicts and peacemaking. (In total I supervised 25 doctoral students over 25 years.) They all have done their dissertations, theses and research derived from my conceptual frameworks and especially the major theory of the socio-psychological dynamics of intractable conflict. They have been carried in the spirit of multidisciplinary tradition by drawing knowledge, evidence and concepts from such disciplines as sociology, political sciences, cultural studies, Middle Eastern studies, history and communication. Also these areas were studied with different scientific methods ranging from laboratory research to survey polls, half clinical interviews and content analysis. We were a group of 15-20 at a time and met every two weeks for a session in which we hosted guests' lecturers and presented our work, cooperatively developed concepts, conducted small groups of research, participated in various professional conferences and meetings, reviewed papers, and also had social activities. This assembled group was of very high quality, picked up selectively. Many of the published papers were coauthored with the group members. In fact, almost all of them have won major prizes and awards given in Israeli academia. Two of them, for example, received the award for the best dissertation in Israel in political science, one of them received a very prestigious award of spending a year at Yale University, three received very prestigious post-docs at Stanford University, University of Syracuse and University of Maryland, and others got prestigious fellowships and awards. They now climb the academic ladder or are engaged as practitioners who aspire to change the reality of conflict.