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Can awareness of psychological biases foster intergroup understanding in intractable conflicts?

Illustration of a corporate food fight

By Eran Halperin, Meytal Nasie and Ruthie Pliskin

We all know that people, by their nature, are biased—and we tend to know this especially well about the people who disagree with us. Indeed, people are readily willing to dismiss others’ views as biased by ignorance or self-interest, even when those people are friends or family members, but rarely recognize such biases in themselves. This gap in the attribution of bias is a psychological bias in itself, known in the social sciences as naïve realism. But if we’re biased to dismiss even the ideas of close others when these are at odds with our own ideas, what happens when our group’s adversaries voice views that conflict with our own? In such cases, naïve realism may be an even more powerful phenomenon, and one with potentially grave consequences.

Intractable intergroup conflicts are rife with assumptions about the adversary’s bias. In these realities, each side tends to see itself as a victim with righteous goals, while viewing the other as a perpetrator with few legitimate claims. These views by both parties lead to the creation of parallel and wholly contradictory perceived histories, fostering a sense that any acknowledgement of elements from the adversary’s  narrative undermines the ingroup’s own narrative. The narratives hold a dominant status among society members, who grow up with them and adhere to them, with the greatest adherence voiced by those with hawkish views. Anyone voicing an alternative view—especially the adversary—is seen as lying, politically motivated, or just plain ignorant, and thus these alternative views are rejected out of hand. Unfortunately, each party’s blind adherence to its own narrative fuels the conflict by further entrenching the differences at the root of the conflict and creating a new battleground on the issue of historical facts. Thus, individuals’ narrative adherence constitutes a serious socio-psychological barrier to peaceful conflict resolution, especially in the context of violent, long-lasting, intractable conflicts, which are generally perceived as insolvable.

But if this barrier is tied to such a fundamental psychological bias, how can it be overcome? Based on findings from previous research that dealt with psychological biases, we assumed that people are often unaware of their biases, and that raising awareness of them could lead people to identify and consequently to try to correct for them. In other words, if people learn about naïve realism, they should then see that they too are sometimes naïve realists and consequently be slower to dismiss ideas with which they do not initially agree. More important, however, is the question of whether such awareness could have similar results in the unique context of intractable intergroup conflicts, in which the parties’ narratives are deeply entrenched and fundamentally at odds with one another. Could raising awareness of the concept of naïve realism open even long-term adversaries to each other’s narratives?

To examine this question, we conducted three experimental studies in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (see Nasie, Bar-Tal, Pliskin, Nahhas, & Halperin, 2014). Looking at the narratives of both sides (two studies were conducted among Jewish citizens of Israel, and one sampled Palestinian citizens of Israel), we wanted to examine the causal effect of raising people’s awareness of naïve realism on their openness to the opposing side’s narrative of the conflict. In each study, participants were randomly assigned to either a naïve realism condition, in which they read a text describing the psychological bias of naïve realism, or a control condition in which they read a neutral text. Studies 1 and 2 revealed that both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel with hawkish political ideologies—those whose narrative adherence is most entrenched—reported greater openness to the adversary’s narrative in the naïve realism condition than in the control condition.

Study 3 again looked at Jewish Israelis, confirming that hawkish participants, at the baseline level, adhered to the ingroup narrative and resisted the adversary’s narrative more than dovish participants. Interestingly, in the naïve realism condition, they were also more able than dovish participants to identify the bias in themselves after reading about it. This identification may explain why the manipulation led to bias correction only among hawkish participants.

These encouraging findings teach us that it is possible to increase people’s openness to views opposing their own even when these views are at the core of an adversary’s narrative in an intractable conflict, and especially among those most dismissive of that narrative—those who hold hawkish political views. This can be achieved by raising people’s awareness of their cognitive limitations, which in our case was done by simply describing the psychological bias of naïve realism without making any direct reference to the specific rival or conflict, and allowing them to identify the bias in themselves. Our research emphasizes how important it is for us to be aware of biases that influence our views, and the possible improvements such awareness can foster in political conflicts. This approach may also encourage future research with the goal of identifying additional psychological biases that are relevant for intergroup conflicts, in order to develop more interventions that may help to overcome them.


Eran Halperin is an Associate Professor and the Dean of the New School of Psychology at the IDC Herzliya in Israel. Meytal Nasie and Ruthie Pliskin are both PHD students at Tel-Aviv University and at the IDC Herzliya. They all study the psychological aspects of intractable conflicts and, as part of the PICR lab, try to reveal new theory-driven interventions to promote the resolution of such conflicts.

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