Cognitive and neural bases of decision-making causing civilian casualties during intergroup conflict

Xiaochun Han, Shuai Zhou, Nardine Fahoum, Taoyu Wu, Tianyu Gao, Simone Shamay-Tsoory, Michele J. Gelfand, Xinhuai Wu, Shihui Han

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Civilian casualties occur during military attacks. Such ‘collateral damage’ is prohibited by international laws but increases with substantial consequences when intergroup conflict escalates. Here, we investigate cognitive and neural bases of decision-making processes resulting in civilian harm, using a task that simulates punishment decision-making during intergroup conflict. We test two groups of Chinese participants in a laboratory setting, and members of two ethnic groups (Jewish and Palestinian) in Israel. The results dissociate two psychological constructs, harm preference and harm avoidance, which respectively characterize punishment decision-making related to outgroup combatants and outgroup noncombatants during intergroup conflict. In particular, individuals show decreased avoidance of harming outgroup noncombatants when conflict escalates. Brain imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) reveals that decreased harm avoidance is predicted by inhibition of the left middle frontal activity during selection of punishment decisions. Our findings provide insight into the cognitive and neural bases of decision-making involving civilian harm during intergroup conflict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1214-1225
Number of pages12
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'Cognitive and neural bases of decision-making causing civilian casualties during intergroup conflict'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this