Watch this fantastic short clip by the great (Israeli) Daniel Kahneman to see what insights Psychology can offer into the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Looking at the issue from the point of view of Israel, Professor Kahneman says that peace is difficult – very difficult. Here is why:
Power imbalance [1:07]: A power imbalance makes the powerful look down on the powerless (indeed, according to N. Epley (Epley 2014, Ch. 3), it often leads us to dehumanize our powerless adversaries), they are less empathetic, prone to contempt and they have a sense of entitlement. Israel is by far the more powerful party.
Habituation [2:53]: We very easily ‘habituate’ to a certain state of affairs – thinking that it is going to last forever. Israel enjoys a number of privileges it would have to give up in order to attain peace. It is very hard to do that.
Loss aversion [4:45]: Losses (esp certain and immediate losses) loom larger than benefits (esp uncertain, future benefits). If Israel struck a deal now, it would have to give up a number of things (not least territory it has occupied, not to mention the settlements) and hope that this might translate into peace and good-neighbourliness in the future.
The right to self-defence [6:20]: Whenever there is a conflict, we perceive ourselves as the injured party, simply responding to aggression, insults etc. It is never the other way round. Not once has any of the two sides admitted that they were the initiators.
Disproportional retaliation: Another great Jew (E. Aronson) quotes research showing that it is all but impossible to restrain our tendency for excessive retaliation (Tavris & Aronson 2007 – p. 192). Time and again, our brain magnifies the other party’s offences and our own deeds seem insignificant by comparison.
Attribution [7:38]: We act in the way we act because of the circumstances; the other side however acts the way they do because of their nature – because they cannot help it (e.g. ‘Because they are anti-semites’ etc. – Palestinians also perceive Israelis as racists). This is such a common phenomenon, there is a special term for it: the Fundamental Attribution Error.
Mistrust [8:05]: Psychologically, we don’t mind so much if we miss an opportunity (e.g. to achieve peace). We do mind an awful lot however if we choose to trust the other party, we take a step towards reconciliation (e.g. by dismantling a settlement or releasing prisoners) and then we feel that this is turned against us (instead of appreciated).
So – what is to be done? Professor Kahneman says there is little hope in trusting that there will be a gradual change of attitudes among the Israeli people (or the Palestinians come to that). What is needed here is leadership – someone who will help steer the nation in the direction of peace. Will the Israelis manage this? The best answer perhaps is a Hebrew word from the Old Testament: ‘timshel’ ( = thou mayest).
Epley, N. “Mindwise” Allen Lane 2014
Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. “Mistakes were Made (But not by Me)” Pinter and Martin 2008