Belief in Change Can Lead to Open Mind

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck says a belief in people's ability to change is the first step on the path to open-mindedness and compromise.When conflict resolution seems impossible because of deeply held negative views, the answer may lie in trying to convince both parties to a dispute that people can change.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck says direct attempts to alter attitudes toward an adversary can backfire, intensifying a dispute and making people defensive. But persuading people that individuals can grow and change is a successful psychological intervention to reduce conflict.

Speaking at "The Science of Getting People to Do Good" briefing, sponsored by Stanford's Center for Social Innovation, Dweck cited her earlier research that showed people who believe their adversaries can grow and change are "less likely to seek retaliation than those who believe people's human traits are fixed."

"Mindsets about whether people are malleable or fixed," Dweck said, "play a major role in the perpetuation of hatred and the unwillingness to compromise."

To prove her theory as it applies to the unstinting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, investigators working with Dweck undertook four studies. The first involved a nationwide survey of Israelis, which showed a correlation between a belief in people's ability to change and a willingness to compromise, even on issues such as West Bank settlements, to reach resolution with the Palestinians. 

Three other studies involved giving Israeli Jews, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians on the West Bank an article about how "violent groups can change their ways."  People in all three groups who read the article displayed more positive attitudes toward opposing groups and increased willingness to compromise for peace.

"Our research shows," Dweck and her coauthors wrote in an article appearing in Science magazine, "that even in the face of prolonged conflict, deeply rooted beliefs may be malleable and mechanisms may exist for bringing more constructive attitudes to the fore."

Dweck's book about the psychology of success contrasts a fixed mindset with a growth mindset, where people are willing to try, fail and learn.