Rethinking anger on the road to peace

Cognitive reappraisal, a technique for reinterpreting negative emotions in a more balanced or detached way, may have come across as a weak link in the mental modification toolkit last week: it did not succeed in making people more compassionate, and in fact seemed to make it easier for people to push away any guilt about taking a more selfish path. But while cognitive appraisal might not make people more altruistic, that reevaluation of emotion can make people less angry, and therefore more forgiving.

When it comes to high anger and difficulty forgiving, few things are as emotionally and politically charged as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where two different cultures have struggled to live together in one land both have strong emotional ties to. The conflict began before my parents were born, and has seen plenty of actions to induce extreme anger on both sides. One such recent action was the Palestinian application for United Nations membership in September 2011, which was reportedly viewed by Israelis as a betrayal of peace negotiations. The days around that bid for recognition would have been tense, with enough publicity and accusations to raise Israeli ire. Unless, perhaps, they were making use of cognitive reappraisal.

Five days before the official bid for Palestinian membership in the UN, a group of Israeli young people (around 18 years old, on average) were asked to say how much they would support different conciliatory actions toward the Palestinians (such as supporting ceding control of certain Arab neighborhoods) or different aggressive actions (such as preventing Palestinians from entering Jewish territory for medical treatment). They were then split up into groups (who had equal support for the conciliatory and aggressive actions). Everyone was shown six “anger inducing pictures” – the precise details being left to our imagination – but half of them were told to think about the pictures “like scientists”, clinical and detached, while the other half were just told to react naturally.

During the following week, when the Palestinian bid would have been all over the news, they received three texts to remind them to use that technique. Two days after the bid had been made, they were brought back to declare their support for different conciliatory and aggressive actions again – this time, to specific potential responses to that bid. Finally, five months later, most of those Israeli young people were approached again, by a different person in a different location, and asked about their support for another set of possible actions toward the Palestinians.

Just that one training session and three texted reminders to cognitive reappraise any emotional responses were enough to reduce support for aggressive actions, and increase support for more conciliatory ones. Two days after the UN bid, Israeli young adults who had been reminded to use cognitive reappraisal were more likely to support conciliatory actions, and less likely to support aggressive ones, than those who hadn’t received any training. This preference for more peaceful actions remained even five months later.

Use of cognitive reappraisal helped Israeli young adults support more peaceful policies after a controversial Palestinian political move. Darker colors show those who learned reappraisal, while lighter colors are the control group. Green bars show support for conciliatory actions, orange for aggressive actions, and blue for a composite of both kinds of questions. 

Although the researchers themselves focused on the differences between the reappraisal and control groups, and the role that reduced anger seemed to play – the reappraisers reported less anger both 2 days and 5 months after the Palestinian bid, and that seemed to explain their greater support for peaceful policies – we can also see some hints of what’s happening in the change over time. From a few days before to a few days after this controversial action, all Israeli participants seemed to lessen their support for conciliatory policies (the sets of green bars), but that drop is more extreme for the control group (a full point on the 6-point scale) than it was for the reappraisers (only 0.6 points). When it comes to aggressive policies, on the other hand, the control group was slightly more willing to support those actions (although only 0.3 points), but the reappraisers kept their original support (actually dropped 0.1 points, which seems effectively identical). Sadly, there were no statistics to back these specific contrasts up, but they suggest that the reappraisal helped hold the Israeli’s support for aggression steady, and (mostly) protect their support for reconciliation.

Obviously, it’s hard to say exactly how less than a point on a 6-point-scale translates into any real world action. It’s an impressive increase for such a simple manipulation, when we can’t even be sure how many of the participants actually did anything in response to those texted reminders. But it’s also an average shift of saying “slightly opposed” to “slightly in favor”, or from “slightly in favor” to “strongly in favor”.  Would that change in attitude appear in anything other than a survey? Would it be enough to change which politician would earn their vote, or turn into a willingness to speak against whatever action they oppose where others might be influenced? At that level, behavior becomes far too complex to predict; we will never track anyone so finely, or be certain what combination of ideas led to a specific action. But it does suggest a realm of possibilities.

Personally, I’m curious whether the Israelis who had been taught reappraisal only used it that one week when they were getting reminders, or if they adopted it as an ongoing strategy for dealing with events. If it was just that one week, and the difference in support for peaceful policies lasted for five months, then we have surprising evidence of the lingering effect that just one political move can have on the opponents’ attitudes, and of how cognitive reappraisal in the heat of that moment can help. On the other hand, if some of those participants did keep reappraising emotions over the entire five months, then we can see how easily such a technique can be adopted. Either way, more thorough and widespread cognitive reappraisal training could shift the balance in conflicts, perhaps allowing the way for less anger and more understanding. It might not work for the older generation actually making decisions today, who may have more entrenched emotions built over a lifetime of perceived injustices, but perhaps reappraisal can contribute to the change in thinking that will allow peace for the next generation.
Halperin, E., Porat, R., Tamir, M., & Gross, J. (2012). Can emotion regulation change political attitudes in intractable conflicts? From the laboratory to the field. Psychological Science, 24 (1), 106-111 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612452572


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