Beliefs That Others' Beliefs are Changeable Are Key to World Peace, New Studies Find

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993.
Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, and Yasser Arafat during the Oslo Accords on 13 September 1993.

Successful conflict resolution –especially long-standing conflicts — requires over-coming barriers to peace and compromise. Chief among these barriers are the intensely negative feelings and attitudes towards the ‘other’; there is a natural and pervasive belief shared by both sides in a conflict: that the other group’s beliefs are fixed and inflexible (Kelman, 2007).

However, direct attempts to change the beliefs of members of a conflict – whether through government policy or outside (foreign) intervention or mediation — often fail by fostering a defensive reaction (Bar Tal, Rosen, 2009).

In four recent studies (Halperin et al), psychological researchers decided to test less direct approaches to conflict resolution —  focusing on beliefs about whether groups can change.

Previous research on intergroup conflict and group beliefs

This recent research was prompted by previous studies on intergroup beliefs about the flexibility or inflexibility of other group’s beliefs.

In two such studies, researchers found that those who believe people are “malleable” (versus “fixed”) are less likely to judge wrong-doing as being part of a person’s fixed traits, and are less likely to advocate punishment for the wrong-doer, and more willing to support negotiation (Chiu et al, 1997, second study: Chiu et al, 1997).

Further, when faced with negative behavior, group members who believed that human traits/qualities are malleable were more likely to understand the behavior and more likely to attribute it to a person’s immediate motivation and situation, as opposed to their fixed traits (Chiu et al, 1997). These types also tended to propose solutions to the negative behavior that would alter said motivati0n and situation, such as negotiation or education.

Not unexpectedly, punishment and retaliation were the predominant reaction amongst those group members who attributed wrong-doing to unchangeable traits.

The current research findings:

In these most recent studies, the research team of Israeli political scientists and US psychologists, conducted surveys amongst groups of Israelis and Palestinians, the largest of which drew upon a nationwide sample of 500 Israeli Jews. Results of this study showed that a prior “belief that groups were malleable predicted  positive attitudes towards Palestinians, which in turn predicted willingness to compromise.”

Israeli-Paletinian peace process map
Israel with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights (latter three territories shown in orange)

In the three remaining studies (of smaller sample sizes), the researchers “experimentally induced malleable versus fixed beliefs about groups” using Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and West Bank Palestinians — without mentioning the enemy (“adversary”) by name. This produced “more positive attitudes towards the outgroup and…increased willingness to compromise for peace.”

The key findings and conclusions:

Not surprisingly, the more positive the attitudes toward the outgroup, the greater the support for major compromises with that outgroup (such as land concessions, travel/work freedoms, social autonomy, etc.).

Perhaps the most crucial finding in these studies was the key role that willingness to meet (with the other) plays in mediating the relation between attitudes toward another group and contact with member of that group. This  supports long-standing findings from other researchers (Ajzen, Fishbein, 2005) showing that “the willingness to act or interact was one of the most robust predictors of behavior.”

Boiling things down even further, the researcher found a “high correlation” between this desire or willingness to meet and the willingness to compromise.

The researchers ponder whether adding a “beliefs about groups” component to current conflict resolution programs would increase the effectiveness of these efforts in the short and long-term.

Halperin et al conclude:

“Our research shows that even in the face of prolonged conflict, deeply rooted beliefs may be malleable, and mechanisms may exist for bringing more constructive attitudes to the fore. In thinking that groups have the potential to become better, adversaries may be more likely to bypass fixed, global, negative judgments — judgments that delegitimize or dehumanize each other — even when they have a long history of mutual antagonism.”

The study ‘Promoting the Middle East Peace Process by Changing Beliefs About Group Malleability‘ (Halperin et al), was published in the 23 September issue of Science.

Author Comments:

Translation – If you are willing to meet with me, I am willing to compromise with you. It seems to me that the findings in these studies are almost self-evident or obvious; how could something (seemingly) so simple and basic be ignored or unconsidered in previous (via third party) negotiations? Makes one wonder how many past conflict resolution efforts were just people acting instinctively or just blundering through a process hoping for the best (or expecting the worst)…?

While I am gladdened by this research overall, I will only note that the three smaller surveys did not include Israeli settlers living on contested Palestinian land (mostly in the West Bank). Would the “willingness to meet” criterium still hold in this case? If so, can one assume that forces internal and/or external to that group (the settlers) are reinforcing  barriers to compromise (either actively or through neglect)?

What often goes unmentioned in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the issue of water rights/access on the West Bank (which encompasses land above a large section of the main aquifer in the region); the land is, after all, a desert.

So, to what extent are barriers to compromise and peace between groups driven/reinforced by resource allocation (or appropriation) and scarcity? Must any resource imbalance be addressed before actual negotiation or compromise takes place?

Top photo: Vince Musi / The White House

Peace process map: ChrisO at en.wikipedia

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