Comprehensive coverage

Intractable conflict - is there such a thing?

Disputes and conflicts that seem insoluble are not strangers to us, certainly in a challenging time like the one we are experiencing during the Iron Swords War. But is there still a way that will allow us to see the light at the end of the tunnel?

dispute resolution. Credit: The Science website via DALEE
dispute resolution. Credit: The Science website via DALEE

Dr. Boaz Ha'Meiri is a senior lecturer and head The program for mediation and conflict management in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tel Aviv University, which allows you to acquire tools for resolving conflicts in various fields: business, family, intra-organizational, community, conflicts between groups and more, and all this in just one year. He holds a doctorate in social psychology from Tel Aviv University, and in 2020 he completed his post-doctorate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In his research, Dr. Meiri examines various barriers that stand in the way of changing attitudes and resolving conflicts. He develops psychological interventions to deal with these barriers, resolve conflicts peacefully and promote better relations between groups. These issues are examined by him in the laboratory and in large-scale field studies, among different populations and in diverse contexts.

Changing attitudes is one of the most important and complex challenges faced by social psychology in order to improve the quality of life of individuals and groups. When it comes to attitudes related to issues such as racism, inequality, and especially violent conflicts between groups, changing attitudes is a more difficult challenge because people are often frozen in their positions.

psychological barriers

In his research, Dr. Meiri faces two important questions: What are the psychological barriers that prevent changing attitudes and resolving conflicts peacefully, and how can we develop psychological interventions that can deal with these barriers? Together with Dr. Nimrod Rosler from the School of Society and Policy, Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal from the School of Education at Tel Aviv University and Dr. Keren Sharvit from Haifa University, Dr. Meiri developed a theory that is divided into four stages. These stages make it possible to establish interventions in order to resolve conflicts, even when it comes to stubborn and uncontrollable conflicts that last for many years and include violence.

Acceptance and legitimation

"The first step reveals the reasons for the development of the attitudes and narratives that satisfy the psychological needs of the parties in the conflict," explains Dr. Ha'Meiri. "On the one hand, we are witnessing the psychological experience of people living in a continuous conflict. In order to deal with the impossible reality, they develop a psychological infrastructure that includes concepts such as the righteousness of the road or victims, which justifies harming the other side - if there is such a thing. For example: 'We are the injured party that needs to protect itself and this is the right and moral thing to do.'"

"In the second stage, there is an experience of normalizing the situation and perceiving it as a situation that also occurs in other companies, which gives legitimacy and reduces the sense of threat for both parties. The first two stages represent acceptance and legitimization of the feelings of the parties, in order to reduce barriers."

Possibility of change

"The next steps represent a possibility for change," says Dr. Ha'Meiri. "In the third stage, which usually occurs when an opportunity for peace appears, the opposing sides' positions become barriers. The intervention actually exposes people to the fact that such a psychological infrastructure is developing and why it is normative and legitimate for this to happen. That psychological infrastructure is actually a barrier and has prices - in the intervention we try to emphasize the prices we pay for it. Therefore, in the fourth stage we offer the possibility to fulfill the psychological needs also through other narratives that can end the conflict. That is, we challenge people to think about the possibility that the same psychological needs can be fulfilled in other ways."

It is also possible otherwise

"One of the interesting things we discovered," says Dr. Meiri, is that the mere exposure to conflict research causes a perceptual change. That is, as soon as the parties to the conflict are exposed to the study of conflicts, they become more interested and look for information about the other party in the conflict, are ready to reconsider their positions and even become more conciliatory."

"Together with the advertiser Romem Saranga, we created 40-second videos, which deal with the narrative related to a stubborn conflict and try to change it," explains Dr. Al-Meiri. For example, in one video, accompanied by the sound of the sounds of war, we initially see only a pair of eyes and in the background running subtitles in which sentences delegitimize the other side, its denunciation and the explanation of the need for self-defense. The viewers get the feeling that this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which they belong and which they know, but then a picture of a person who belongs to another conflict, for example from Northern Ireland or Algeria, is revealed. At the end of the video, the narrator briefly tells about that conflict and how it ended, noting that 'it is also possible in another way'."

40 seconds that change positions

"We looked at participants who signed up for the study and divided them into two groups," explains Dr. Hamayri. "The first group is an experimental group, which included subjects who watched two videos about two different conflicts. The second group is a control group that included subjects who watched two generic TV commercials. After watching the videos or advertisements, the participants were asked to answer a questionnaire that examines whether there was a compromise in their positions, as well as their feelings after watching, their desire to re-evaluate their perceptions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their willingness to meet with people who have different positions from their own (e.g. Palestinians), to hear them and support the negotiations."

Consistently, we discovered that in the experimental group there was a thawing of attitudes, a desire to receive new information about the other side and to listen to it, and a willingness to support negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the conflict," explains Dr. Al-Meiri. "In other words - two short videos of 40 seconds in length led to a change of attitudes towards the other side and increased conciliatory attitudes. The videos are a form of initial intervention - this is a good way to capture attention, reach the masses and thus promote social change and conflict resolution, but it may be that in a few days, or months, the subjects' position will return to normal. In the future, we are interested in testing additional interventions for conflict resolution, such as a Ted lecture that can have a longer-term impact."

Written by Michal Bachar, Tel Aviv University