‘People can change’ key to Mideast peace

STANFORD (US) — Fostering the belief that people are capable of change could be a powerful tool in resolving political conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, according to a new study.

The warring parties often seem unable to picture a world outside of conflict, with disastrous results. Israelis may believe that Palestinians will always be violent—and Palestinians may believe that Israelis will always be oppressive.

“Most conflict resolution strategies require you to bring the two groups together,” says Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. “But just attempting this in an incendiary conflict can cause people to react negatively.”


A new study published in Science finds that simply teaching Israelis and Palestinians that groups of people are generally capable of change—without mentioning a specific adversary—can have a markedly positive effect on their willingness to compromise.

The researchers conducted a national survey of Israeli Jews, with surprisingly encouraging results. The more people believed that groups could change, the more favorable were their attitudes toward Palestinians—and the more willing they were to make major compromises for the sake of peace. These included support for important territorial compromises and for joint sovereignty over holy places in Jerusalem.

To examine whether the beliefs about group change might have caused the respondents’ willingness to compromise, the researchers presented a new sample of Israeli Jews with a news article. Half the subjects read an article arguing that groups could change, giving examples of political violence that had decreased over time—as in Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia. The other subjects read an article arguing that groups couldn’t change.

Even though Palestinians weren’t mentioned in either article, the Israelis who had read that groups could change expressed more favorable attitudes toward Palestinians, and were more willing to compromise with them for peace.

When the researchers repeated the study with Palestinians—both within Israel and in the West Bank—they found identical results.

“I think the most amazing results were from the West Bank Palestinians,” says Dweck. “These included members of Fatah and Hamas—people who have no stake in the continued existence of Israel.”

Dweck emphasizes that a longer-term study still needs to be performed, in order to demonstrate that the educational approach “can withstand constant episodes of violence.” But the researchers have already repeated the study in Cyprus—another area with a longstanding political conflict—with promising results.

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