When societies are engaged in long-standing, intractable conflicts, individuals tend to develop highly polarized views on how to resolve them, which can make it even more difficult to come to an agreement. But it’s possible that making things seem worse can make them a little better.
A recent study published in PNAS showed that when people with extreme opinions are exposed to even more extreme opinions, they tend to moderate their opinions. Unfortunately, exposing moderates to the same intervention messages makes them more extreme in their opinions, so this technique can be a double-edged sword.
The study’s authors examined the attitudes of people living in a conflict-ravaged region of Israel. The Israeli conflict has been going on for decades and individuals’ views on it are closely related to their political beliefs and degree of religiosity. The authors tried to use a model called “paradoxical thinking” to change people’s view of this deep-seated conflict.
The authors defined paradoxical thinking as an attempt to change attitudes by exposing subjects to beliefs similar to their own, but much more extreme. The idea is that exposure to more extreme attitudes would cause people to step back, effectively tempering their attitudes. This approach was based on the classic debate technique of reduction ad absurdum, in which debaters extend their opponents’ arguments to their most absurd and extreme conclusions in order to undermine them.
(A common example of this kind of argument was made by those opposed to same-sex marriage: “If you get two men to marry each other, people will marry their dogs before you know it.”)
The authors mount a large-scale intervention targeting an entire Israeli city. They delivered their paradoxical thinking intervention (which they dubbed “The Conflict”) to residents of this city using Internet advertising, including online banners and YouTube ads. The internet campaign lasted six weeks and was accompanied by physical billboards, which were placed in 20 central locations in the city.
Slogans used for “The Conflict” intervention campaign included pro-conflict messages, such as “Without it we wouldn’t have united against a common enemy…For unity we probably need the conflict” and “Without it we wouldn’t have done. had heroes… We probably need the conflict.” In addition to this intervention, the researchers also did eighteen days of fieldwork, during which they distributed T-shirts, balloons and leaflets to residents.
After this comprehensive intervention, the authors determined whether conflict-supportive attitudes were impaired. They found that paradoxical thinking led participants to feel less attached to conflict-focused attitudes after controlling for participants’ baseline in terms of political orientation or religiosity. Controlling for these two covariates was an important step in their analysis because of their influence on attitudes, as mentioned above.
The authors found that participants who were initially more aggressive in their views on the conflict were less supportive of aggressive political policies and more supportive of reconciliation efforts designed to lead the region to peace. This shift suggests that interventions in paradoxical thinking may be effective in individuals with the most extreme views.
In comparison, participants whose initial views were more centrist were not significantly affected by the paradoxical thinking intervention, perhaps because their initial perspectives were not extreme enough for the intervention to make sense. However, these centrists showed a slight, non-significant preference for more aggressive policies after the intervention. This result surprised the authors, who suspect that these participants may have taken the paradoxical thinking messages literally rather than paradoxically.
These results seem to show that paradoxical thinking has a promising ability to change people’s minds. But clearly this kind of message should be used very carefully, otherwise the effect on moderates may be the opposite of the intended effect. More research will be needed to ensure that paradoxical reporting is interpreted in the intended way.
Designing interventions to manipulate people’s psychology is very tricky and can easily backfire, so this kind of research should be conducted with caution, especially before being used in conflict situations where the stakes are already extremely high.
PNAS2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1606182113 (About DOIs).
Frame image by Python (Monty) Pictures, BBC