The Role of Friendships in Prejudice Reduction: Evidence from the Middle East

If you follow the news or even social media, you are likely aware of the tensions among people from different ethnic groups and religious traditions. In the US, some people with political aspirations seek to bar Muslims from entering the country. There is continual fighting around the world among people who have different belief systems or who are from neighboring areas. The disheartening news of strife, war, and bloodshed seems to be constant and could lead one to ask how it will end. 

New research from Juliana Schroeder and Jane Risen shed light on one possibility.* The researchers reported on the results from a 3-week Seeds of Peace Summit. Here, teenagers from Palestine and Israel, all of whom are selected from their government, attended a three week camp designed to improve attitudes toward the out-group--that is, toward people who are different from them. They engaged in activities with out-group members and attended dialogue sessions focusing on open communications and perspective taking. This is a similar setup to Sport for Peace programs we have used in other settings (see here and here for examples). The researchers asked the participants to complete questionnaires over a three year span so they could determine how the camp experience impacted them over the long run. 

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They observed the following:

  • Compared to the pre-camp responses, attitudes toward out-group members improved immediately following the camp, one year later and again two years later. Thus, the positive effects remained over time. 
  • The closeness of friendships matters. Across all three years, participants who formed at least one close friendship with an out-group member felt more positively toward people from the other country. 
  • The positive feelings toward out-group members can vary based on when the friendships were formed. People who formed close friendships with dissimilar others during the camp had positive out-group feelings in the time closely following the camp. For those to be maintained and strengthened, they needed to form additional friendships with dissimilar others later in life (following the camp). This occurred in many cases. 

The study shows that the peace camps can have lasting effects on how people view and feel toward others. They come to see people who are different in relation to the self. I found one of the more powerful pieces of evidence to be reflected in the following exchange:

What is the most important thing you realized since coming home from the camp?

That the other side aren't animals--they're humans--and they have their own beliefs and thoughts. 

Thus, the camps helped people move from demonizing those who are different to seeing them as people, as individuals who have their own beliefs, their own thoughts. 

These benefits are also available through sport, which, because of its popularity around the world, can serve as an activity to draw in people. The activities can then be structured to promote education, peace, and understanding among otherwise dissimilar people. An overview of some efforts along these lines is available at the Sport and Development site

Finally, I find that the study illustrates what many other studies have shown in the past. Attitudes and beliefs are learned, not immutable. And, if people can learn to discriminate and subjugate, they can also learn to accept and love. #chooselove.

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* Schroeder, J., & Risen, J. L. (2016). Befriending the enemy: Outgroup friendship longitudinally predicts intergroup attitudes in a coexistence program for Israelis and Palestinians. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 19, 72-93.