The Importance of Believing People Can Change
Somewhere deep in the cable television netherworld there’s an endless stream of 80’s Lifetime movies in which a heartbroken protagonist is admonished by their best friend for naively believing that a person can change. If you should ever happen upon such a film, disregard the advice of all characters in it.
Recent work by psychologist Eran Halperin demonstrates that believing others can change is an important driver of reconciliation, even when conflicts are fierce and deep-rooted. Halperin made a splash last year with his finding that Israelis and Palestinians are more likely to compromise when they believe groups are capable of changing their beliefs. A new study by Halperin and his colleagues confirms and extends the previous finding by demonstrating that one way beliefs about group malleability induce compromise is by decreasing intergroup anxiety.
We experimentally manipulated beliefs about group malleability in the context of the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and then assessed intergroup anxiety and motivation to engage in intergroup contact. Turkish Cypriots who were led to believe that groups can change (with no mention of the specific groups involved) reported lower levels of intergroup anxiety and higher motivation to interact and communicate with Greek Cypriots in the future, compared with those who were led to believe that groups cannot change.
As rising partisanship portends an American political crisis, there is a legitimate question as to whether this is the new normal, or merely the extreme edge of a cycle that will eventually swing back to a place of non-paralysis and occasional compromise. One key to answering that question is figuring out whether our march toward a hyper-partisan environment is a linear one. If it is, then it may be easy to retreat back to normalcy. But if it isn’t, then we may fall down an incline that’s too steep to climb up.
Unfortunately, Halperin’s work adds to some other psychological research that suggests the latter is true. Rising partisanship, grandstanding on the House floor, and sniping in the media all contribute to the presumption that political parties will never change their beliefs. Believing the other side won’t ever change leads to less compromise, and the decrease in compromise reinforces the idea that the other side won’t change. The negative feedback loop continues to grow, and before you know it the two parties are too far apart to ever get back together again (not unlike certain characters in 80’s Lifetime movies.)
Tune in next week for another exciting edition of “Eric takes an optimistic and inspiring study and uses it to depress the hell out of you.”
Halperin, E., Russell, A., Trzesniewski, K., Gross, J., & Dweck, C. (2011). Promoting the Middle East Peace Process by Changing Beliefs About Group Malleability Science, 333 (6050), 1767-1769 DOI: 10.1126/science.1202925
Halperin, E., Crisp, R., Husnu, S., Trzesniewski, K., Dweck, C., & Gross, J. (2012). Promoting Intergroup Contact by Changing Beliefs: Group Malleability, Intergroup Anxiety, and Contact Motivation. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/a0028620