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New research carried out by Emile Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe of MIT and recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology provides evidence that dialogue programs targeting members of groups engaged in community or ideological conflict work, albeit differently for those belonging to the dominant group as opposed to those of the non-dominant group.

The article is aptly entitled ‘The Power of Being Heard: The Benefits of Perspective-Giving in the Context of Intergroup Conflict.’

Many dialogue programs operate under the assumption that it is possible to undo or soften negative attitudes by confronting individuals from each group with each other and encouraging them to assume the other’s perspective. This so-called ‘perspective-taking’ exercise, also considered of primary importance with respect to social relations more generally, can be effective, but is not so always or sustainably.

One reason for this, already known from sociological research on community conflicts, has to do with asymmetrical power relations between groups. Taking this into account, Bruneau and Saxe designed their research to distinguish between ‘perspective-taking’ and ‘perspective-giving.’ Their hypotheses were tested in Arizona where Mexican immigrants were confronted with White Americans and in the Middle-East between Israelis and Palestinians.

Participants were divided in two groups. Those assigned to the ‘perspective-giving’ group were asked to write down a brief description of the problems faced by their social group. Those assigned to the ‘perspective-taking’ group were instructed to relay this information back in their own words. Both groups had to answer a questionnaire measuring intergroup attitudes before and after the study—in Arizona immediately after the completion of the experiment, in the Middle East a week later.

The MIT research team found out that assuming the perspective of the ‘other’ worked better in the case of the members of the dominant group, that is to say among White Americans in Arizona and Israelis in the Middle-East. Insofar as Mexican immigrants and Palestinians were concerned, their attitudes were more likely to change if and when they were encouraged to tell their own story and had the impression they were being heard.

Future research will have to establish whether the results can be reproduced also under non-experimental conditions when participants are directly interacting for longer and fully aware of the objective of the exercise. In this specific study respondents only briefly interacted by video; and they were not provided with complete information as to the objectives of the experiment.

Bruneau and Saxe will also be looking into the neuroscience of this, using neuroimaging to tap on the role of the right temporal-parietal junction, which has been identified as that region of our brains which ‘thinks about thoughts,’ or is engaged in self-analysis so-to-speak. Since 2000, Rebecca Saxe has been actively pursuing this line of research—check out her inspiring talk on this at the online literary & scientific salon Edge.

To add some sociology to this new line of psychological research, it might be useful to keep in mind that community conflicts are often framed as stories of both domination and subjugation and that by both groups involved in a conflict. That is to say, the group currently thought to be the dominant one, will often endorse a narrative of past subjugation; and similarly that group currently victimized will often assume a glorious past. Furthermore, this diachronic interplay of power narratives is often used to justify unwillingness or inability to engage in conflict resolution.

These changes of perspective within one and the same group—on their own and in interaction with the corresponding changes of perspective within the outgroup—are equally interesting subjects of study and might provide even more useful insights into how our brains think when we construct stories about what we feel.