Reappraisal defuses strong emotional responses to Israel-Palestine conflict

December 18, 2012

Reappraisal is a widely-used cognitive strategy that can help people to regulate their reactions to emotionally charged events. Now, new research suggests that reappraisal may even be effective in changing people's emotional responses in the context of one of the most intractable conflicts worldwide: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Negative intergroup emotions play a crucial role in decisions that perpetuate intractable conflicts," observes lead researcher Eran Halperin of the New School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel.

With this in mind, Halperin and his colleagues wondered whether cognitive reappraisal, a strategy that involves changing the meaning of a situation to change the emotional response to it, might be effective in diminishing such negative intergroup emotions.

Their research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the first study, 39 Jewish Israeli participants viewed a series of photos that were deliberately selected to induce anger. Some of the participants were trained in cognitive reappraisal -- they were taught to respond to the images like scientists, considering them objectively, analytically, and in a cold and detached manner. The other participants received no instructions.

Then all of the participants watched an anger-inducing presentation. The four-minute presentation -- with pictures, text, and music -- described Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian response, including the launching of rockets, the election of Hamas, and the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier. Before watching, participants were asked to apply the reappraisal technique they had learned.

Halperin and colleagues found that participants who were taught to reappraise their emotional responses expressed less anger towards Palestinians, greater support for conciliatory policies, and less support for aggressive policies than the participants who received no training. The results suggest that the increase in support for conciliatory policies could be explained -- at least in part -- by decreased intergroup anger.

To examine whether these findings would extend to conflict-related events as they occurred in the real world, Halperin and colleagues conducted a second study.

The researchers knew that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas would be presenting a bid to the United Nations seeking full UN membership for Palestine in September 2011. They recruited 60 Jewish Israelis to participate in a study and, six days before the UN bid, they asked the participants to rate their current positive and negative emotions and their general support for different types of policies.

Once again, the researchers trained half of the participants to use cognitive reappraisal. Over the course of the following week, the participants received three text message reminders to use the technique they had learned. A week after the training and two days after the bid, the researchers assessed participants' emotional and political reactions.

As Halperin and colleagues expected, there was no difference in negative emotions among the participants before training took place. A week after training, however, the reappraisal participants reported lower levels of negative emotions toward Palestinians. The data suggest that the reappraisal actually made them more supportive of conciliatory policies and less supportive of aggressive policies, effects which could be attributed to a decrease in negative emotions.

Even more surprising, however, was the fact that these results held up five months later when the participants were asked to complete a brief questionnaire by an unfamiliar experimenter.

"We consider our findings to be preliminary yet provocative," write Halperin and colleagues. "Political positions in conflict situations are considered rigid, well entrenched, and driven mainly by ideological rather than emotional considerations. It is therefore surprising to see shifts in these attitudes based on such minimal interventions."

These results provide evidence that emotion regulation strategies like reappraisal can influence intergroup emotions, not just intrapersonal emotions, and can even shape political reactions.

The researchers believe that this research could eventually lead to interventions that incorporate cognitive reappraisal as a way of increasing support for peace in long-term conflicts.
Study co-authors include Roni Porat of The Hebrew University and Interdisciplinary Center - Herzliya (Israel); Maya Tamir of The Hebrew University (Israel); and James Gross of Stanford University.

For more information about this study, please contact: Eran Halperin at APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "Can Emotion Regulation Change Political Attitudes in Intractable Conflicts? From the Laboratory to the Field" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak.

Association for Psychological Science

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