Can Paradoxical Thinking Promote Peace?

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Israeli researchers report a counterintuitive psychological intervention can soften hard-line attitudes.

By Tom Jacobs

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Israeli police frisk a Palestinian man at Damascus Gate. (Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

News of two more violent deaths on Sunday was a grim reminder of the never-ending conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Attitudes are clearly hardening on both sides — a situation that will have to change for there to be any chance of peaceful co-existence.

But how? Newly published research shows the surprising effectiveness of an unorthodox approach: paradoxical thinking.

The study reports a campaign that took hard-line attitudes to their logical extreme caused the most hawkish Israelis to soften their stance.

This “unique approach to societal attitude change” is explained in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A research team led by Tel Aviv University psychologist Boaz Hameiri describes a large-scale field experiment that took place over six weeks in the autumn of 2015 — a highly tense period when a series of Palestinians, apparently acting on their own, committed knife attacks on random Israeli citizens.

Against this bleak backdrop, the researchers “targeted a small city in the center of Israel, whose population is largely right-wing and religious.” Residents were exposed to an intensive media campaign featuring 20-second videos, brochures, billboards, and even T-shirts and balloons.

The videos, which resembled political campaign commercials, “emphasized how Israeli Jews — who traditionally perceive themselves as striving for peace … construe their identity primarily on their experiences of the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict.” They essentially argued that Jewish Israelis “cannot afford to terminate the conflict,” because its continuation helps maintain their core beliefs.

So the campaign did not refute the hard-liners’ point of view, “but rather amplified it to extrapolate an absurd conclusion such that to be moral, Jewish Israelis actually need the conflict.”

The researchers randomly sampled 215 residents of the city they targeted, plus 320 from nearby areas with similar demographics. All were asked about the conflict both before and after the six-week campaign; researchers measured their “support for aggressive and conciliatory policies.”

“The paradoxical thinking intervention had a significant effect on the beliefs and attitudes of right-wing, hawkish participants,” Hameiri and his colleagues report. “There was a significant decrease in their adherence to conflict-supporting attitudes over time.”

Compared with their fellow hard-liners who were not exposed to the campaign, they “expressed lower support for aggressive policies, as well as higher support for conciliatory policies,” the researchers add.

The results suggest using “conflict-supporting beliefs” to draw an “exaggerated, absurd conclusion … overcomes the barrier of resistance, and at the same time forces individuals to reconsider their views.”

This is a relatively small study, of course, but it does offer hope that creative interventions can change minds. Peace through paradox: A peace-loving man who lived in this same region a couple of thousand years ago would no doubt approve.

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