Research suggests that Belief that Groups Can Change facilititates Reconciliation

Recently, I was forwarded a research article entitled “Belief in the Malleability of Groups Strengthens the Tenuous Link Between a Collective Apology and Intergroup Forgiveness” that was recently published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin.  From the abstract:

Although it is widely assumed that collective apologies for intergroup harms facilitate forgiveness, evidence for a strong link between the two remains elusive. In four studies we tested the proposition that the apology–forgiveness link exists, but only among people who hold an implicit belief that groups can change. In Studies 1 and 2, perceived group malleability (measured and manipulated, respectively) moderated the responses to an apology by Palestinian leadership toward Israelis: Positive responses such as forgiveness increased with greater belief in group malleability. In Study 3, university students who believed in group malleability were more forgiving of a rival university’s derogatory comments in the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an apology. In Study 4, perceived perpetrator group remorse mediated the moderating effect of group malleability on the apology–forgiveness link (assessed in the context of a corporate transgression). Implications for collective apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

In summary, apologies facilitate reconciliation IF there is a belief that groups can change.  A related article was published in Science in 2011, showing that even in the absence of an apology, the induced belief that groups can change has an effect on intergroup attitudes.  You can read the study here and below is that abstract:

Four studies showed that beliefs about whether groups have a malleable versus fixed nature affected intergroup attitudes and willingness to compromise for peace. Using a nationwide sample (N = 500) of Israeli Jews, Study 1 showed that believing groups were malleable predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which predicted willingness to compromise. Next, experimentally inducing malleable vs. fixed beliefs about groups among Israeli Jews (Study 2, N = 76), Palestinian Citizens of Israel (Study 3, N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (Study 4, N = 53) (without mentioning the adversary) led to more positive attitudes toward the outgroup and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace.

Among the more notable things in this last study is that it was done on individuals in the midst of a real intractable conflict that we all have an interest in resolving.  To make this a bit more concrete, I think it is helpful to see exactly what the authors mean by “group malleability” and how it was changed.  In this last paper, the details are here and the belief that groups can change was measured by these 4 items:

“As much as I hate to admit it, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks–groups can’t really change their basic characteristics,” “Groups can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can’t really be changed,” “Groups that are characterized by violent tendencies will never change their ways,” and “Every group or nation has basic moral values and beliefs that can’t be changed significantly.”

Perhaps more of applied interest to those working to bring groups together is how they manipulated beliefs that groups can change through a scientific-style article.

Manipulation of beliefs. Participants were randomly assigned to the “malleable” or “fixed” condition. They read a short Psychology Today-style scientific article (in Hebrew) describing groups that had committed violence and reporting studies on aggression. These studies suggested that, over time, the groups had (malleable condition) or had not (fixed condition) changed. In the malleable condition the research suggested that violence resulted from extreme leadership or environmental influence, whereas in the fixed condition the research suggested that aggression was rooted in the nature and culture of the groups.

Is extreme and violent behavior “influenced by context and leadership” or is it “entrenched within the nature of individuals and groups”?  Certainly we should encourage the former if we want to improve relationships between groups and luckily there is a lot of research that supports this view as well.

- Ravi Iyer