Civil war: Changing a stuck mind

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Civil war: Changing a stuck mind

In a world studded with intractable conflicts, none seems more nettlesome than he one between Israelis and Palestinians. In this and many other conflicts, people are often trained to believe the worst about the other side, who are variously stereotyped as immoral occupiers or immoral terrorists.


Two men in tree wave Palestinian flags, three soldiers with guns stand in foreground

December, 2005: Mario Ortega
Palestinians from the West Bank village of Bil-lin confront the Israeli army near the wall separating Israel from the West Bank.

These conflicts, as history has shown, are not ideal for peacemaking based on compromise, and yet the conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa have come to peaceful resolutions.

But during the conflict, even mentioning the opposing side can backfire, says Eran Halperin, a professor of political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya Israel. “When you try to tell an Israeli something positive about a Palestinian, or vice versa, the immediate reaction is defensive. In many cases, they are not willing to hear positive information about the other side.”

A sideways approach, however, may be more effective at changing attitudes and creating a willingness to compromise. In a study just published in Science1, Halperin and co-authors demonstrated that simply reading a few sentences about the successful resolutions of historic conflicts elsewhere made Israelis and Palestinians more amenable to compromise.

“There are positive pieces of information that the parties could absorb, that could lead to a change in positions,” says Halperin, “but people in almost every group involved in a conflict are not willing to hear it. But if you try to go more indirectly … to talk in a general way, you hope they will apply these beliefs to the other group, and this is what our results show.”


Dozens of Africans stand behind fence, several people hold up posters with Afrikaans words on them

Photo: Chris Sattlberger, United Nations
Apartheid ended in South Africa without the feared bloodbath. Here, jubilant crowds listen to President Nelson Mandela, after the nation’s first all-race elections. Signs read, in Afrikaans, “Vote ANC! A better life for all.” (ANC is the African National Congress, Mandela’s political party.)

Testing tolerance

In a series of experiments, Halperin and colleagues asked Palestinians and Jewish and Arab Israelis to read a few paragraphs in a supposed “reading comprehension” test. Then, as part of a supposedly different study, the same people were asked about their attitudes toward the opposing side.

The tested paragraphs that contained a more positive interpretation of history strongly affected willingness to compromise to resolve conflicts.

Courtesy Eran Halperin
Here’s the research. Mouseover to see study results from reading “control” text.

Mural painted on side of building with various protest scenes, says Remember the Hunger Strike

Photo: Miossec
A mural in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland, commemorates the 1981 hunger strike, during which 10 member of the Irish Republican Army starved themselves to death. After festering for more than 80 years, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland have gone a long way toward resolution.

Two smiling men in center have arms around each others' shoulders, crowd of people around them cheers

18 Sept. 1978, Warren K. Leffler
A hopeful moment in the Middle East: Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, greet the U.S. Congress after signing the “Camp David Accords,” which lead to the first and only treaty between Israel and its neighbors. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 in retaliation for signing the treaty.

Instead of confronting the subjects by stressing that the other side could change its views, Halperin says, the test paragraphs “say that people in other conflicts went through meaningful change in their positions and behavior, and we expect people to understand by themselves that this can happen here.”

The study opens a crack in the despair aroused by prolonged conflicts, says Halperin. “We have now the first indication of what kind of message we should convey to people, to make them more open to the other side. And we already have preliminary data showing that the exact same pattern occurs in other long-term intractable conflicts around the world.”

Still to come, he acknowledges, is “the biggest challenge, using a larger scale intervention to make these changes.” Using the education system and mass media, he proposes a “simple message: Groups change, and behavior that is violent and immoral is a result of a specific situation, leaders and economics. They are not the result of a long-term culture with a fixed character.”

The intervention was focused on hope, Halperin says. “One of the biggest barriers to peace is because people don’t have hope, they don’t believe that the other group can change. If you don’t believe the other side can change its attitude, and as a result its behavior, there is no reason to offer a gesture or compromise, to take a risk in negotiation, and then you can’t make any progress in any intergroup conflict.”

— David J. Tenenbaum



  1. Promoting the Peace Process by Changing Beliefs About Group Malleability, Eran Halperin et al, / 25 August 2011 / Page 1 / 10.1126/science.1202925
  2. Conflict and Peacemaking social psychology links.
  3. Conflict: apes do it too.
  4. Articles about conflict resolution research.
  5. Attitude change: persuasion and social influence (PDF).
  6. The connection between beliefs, attitudes and behavior.
  7. Beliefs and attitudes.
  8. Psychology of compromise.
  9. Psychology of hope.
  10. The Peacebuilders.
  11. Israel-Palestine conflict: a brief history.
  12. Timeline of Israel-Palestine conflict.