Culture & Society

Rethinking the Peace Process

How even small psychological interventions can help reduce conflict.

April 27, 2012

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso



Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Ariel Sharon (right) meet in 2003.

It’s one of the world’s most intractable problems: bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to resolve the Middle East conflict. But while such a complex and systemic issue may seem overwhelming, recent social science is showing that even small interventions can help people move their attitudes and actions in directions that promote peace.

Speaking at “The Science of Getting People to Do Good” briefing, sponsored by the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford GSB on March 30, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discussed experimental interventions that are making a small but impressive dent in the Middle East peace process. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of psychology, focused on one major barrier to successful conflict resolution in the Middle East: each group’s intensely negative attitudes toward the other group in the conflict. Because direct attempts to alter attitudes toward an adversary can backfire by making people more defensive, her research with four colleagues tested the value of a more indirect route: getting people to think about whether groups in general can change.

In earlier research, Dweck and others had shown that when individuals are faced with others’ negative behavior, those who believe people can grow and change are less likely to seek retaliation than those who believe people’s human traits are fixed. Mindsets about whether people are malleable or fixed “play a major role in the perpetuation of hatred and the unwillingness to compromise,” Dweck said.


Investigators undertook four studies to test how this insight might be used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first study, using a nationwide sample of Israeli Jews, showed that a belief that groups were able to learn and change predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which, in turn, predicted Jews’ own willingness to compromise on issues such as settlements on the West Bank.

In three other studies, the researchers gave a scientific article demonstrating that “violent groups can change their ways” to Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Palestinians in the West Bank. Among those who read the article, which did not mention any particular adversary, such an intervention led to more positive attitudes toward the opposing group and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace. “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,” Dweck and her coauthors wrote in a recent issue of Science magazine.

Other studies at the conference looked at how to close the achievement gap in schools with just simple self-esteem building interventions, how to encourage people to lose weight and improve their health, and how to get people to vote.

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