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Belief in a Noble 'True Self' May Help Heal Our Divisions

New research finds bringing that widely held idea to the surface reduces polarization and prejudice.

Down deep, people are basically good. That's a debatable proposition, but a widely held one, and it could be key to reducing the hostility toward perceived outsiders that is threatening the social fabric of the United States.

Two Harvard University psychologists make that intriguing argument in a newly published study. They write that, while the familiar my-group-good, your-group-bad mindset may be firmly implanted in the human psyche, there's an even deeper belief that is far more benign—and can potentially be harnessed to reduce hate and hostility.

"Although we tend to view in-group members as mostly good and out-group members as mostly bad, neither is viewed as rotten to the core," Julian De Freitas and Mina Cikara write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "Directing people to consider this common, essential good may lead to more nuanced representations of 'us' and 'them,' fostering more equitable treatment across the group divide."

De Freitas argues that "people exhibit a robust, invariant tendency to believe that, inside every individual, there is a 'good true self' calling them to behave in morally virtuous ways." This concept can be found in many (if not all) cultures, and apparently reflects a deep psychological impulse.

In the first of the study's three experiments, De Freitas and Cikara demonstrate that this belief transcends ethnic hostility. Just two months after the San Bernadino shootings, 613 Americans recruited online read short scenarios featuring men with either traditionally American or Arab-sounding names. They were then asked if the described behavior—good or bad—reflected the person's "true self."

"Even stereotypically threatening out-group members were equally subject to the good-true-self bias," the researchers report. Those with Arab and non-Arab-sounding names "were judged as having equally good true selves."

In the second, similarly structured experiment, participants (759 Americans) again "judged improvements (in their behavior) as a better reflection of targets' true selves than deteriorations." More importantly, thinking about the true-self concept "significantly reduced intergroup bias."

This reduction in prejudice was due to a combination of two factors: improved attitudes toward outsiders, and less-positive attitudes toward members of one's own group. Apparently people were reminded that even members of their clan have good and bad sides, and this reduced group-based hubris.

The final experiment was again similarly structured, except it had a real-world monetary component. The 678 participants were told they received a 50-cent bonus, which they were asked to split between the American Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Not surprisingly, the Red Cross received the majority of the money. But "the average donation amount to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was significantly higher when the true-self question was presented first," the researchers report.

These are genuinely encouraging findings. If we are prone to "thinking of individuals in terms of morally good essences," gently activating that belief could be a simple way to reduce knee-jerk hatred of one's opponents.

As De Freitas and Cikara put it: "It would appear that the main ingredient for change comes conveniently pre-packaged in people's intuitive psychology."