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Paradoxical Thinking May Lead to Conflict Resolution

By Roberta Attanasio

Agreeing with people might be the best way for leading them to reconsider their beliefs. A team of scientists from Israel has recently shown that such a strategy may promote long-term conflict resolution — the study included 161 Jewish-Israeli participants, was based on the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, and was carried out in collaboration with The Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace (an American nongovernment organization).

According to the scientists, the Fund “felt that the Israeli–Palestinian peace process was at a dead-end, that both societies were dominated by deep despair, and that there was a need for a new psychological intervention to change the reality”. Thus, the Fund asked the team of scientists to develop an innovative strategy to mobilize public opinion for peace. The strategy used by the researchers is called “paradoxical thinking” — individuals receive information that is consistent with their current beliefs but presented in a way that makes the beliefs appear extreme or irrational.

Image credit: KungFuPlum (deviantART)

A paradox is something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible. For an almost complete list of paradoxes, you can head here. One of the most known paradoxes is the Catch-22 — a situation in which someone is in need of something that can only be had by not being in need of it. Another one is the Barber Paradox —  a barber (who is a man) shaves all and only those men who do not shave themselves. Does he shave himself? Tony Fang, in his book Chinese Business Negotiating Style, provides an excellent example of a paradox: Western negotiators often complain about Chinese negotiators being very deceptive and very sincere at the same time. 

An interesting study published a few years ago shows that the adoption of paradoxical frames  mental templates that encourage individuals to recognize and embrace contradictions — increases creativity. Paradoxical intervention can help people overcome problems using similar templates.

Let’s see how paradoxical intervention was used in the study based on the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians (Paradoxical thinking as a new avenue of intervention to promote peace, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 29, 2014). The scientists constructed video clips resembling commercials used in political campaigns. According to the scientists, “These clips emphasized how Israeli Jews — who traditionally perceive themselves as striving for peace and viewing the conflict as necessary, despite its negative consequences — construe their identity primarily on their experiences of the conflict.”

Each video focused on one core Israeli identity theme — including justice, morality, and unity. The videos ended by arguing that Jewish Israelis cannot afford to terminate the conflict because its continuation helps maintain beliefs of injustice/morality/unity. IndeedEran Halperin, the lead author of the study, told Julia Rosen (Los Angeles Times) that one of the most basic beliefs of the Israeli society is that it’s the most moral society in the world. The videos were shown to the study participants several times. A group of Israeli Jews watched a “control” scenario. 

The scientists state that they focused on “The perception of Palestinian responsibility for the continuation of the conflict, which engulfs several ethos of conflict beliefs: that is, that Israelis are peace loving and always reached out for peace and that the Palestinians are not real partners for peace because they prefer violence over negotiation. The latter premise, being continuously perpetuated by leaders, has become a major societal belief by Israeli society members.”

Thus, the goal was “To unfreeze cognitions regarding one of the most powerful societal belief held by Israelis: the exclusive blame of the Palestinians for the continuation of the conflict.”

Results of the study show that the intervention led participants to express more conciliatory attitudes regarding the conflict. This attitude was more noticeable among participants with center and right political orientation. Most importantly, participants who watched the videos designed for paradoxical intervention reported that they tended to vote more for dovish parties (which advocate a peaceful resolution to the conflict). The participants exhibited more conciliatory attitudes even 1 year after the intervention, showing that the effects can be long-lasting.

Halperin sees paradoxical thinking as a potentially valuable tool for promoting peace. He said: “You can say it’s a kind of propaganda, I just see it differently. We all agree that reducing violence and promoting peace is a good cause.”


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