How to Bring out the Best in People in a Polarized World
Research suggests that we have more influence than we might expect.
Posted Apr 26, 2019
Polarization and hate are on the rise. It’s important to examine what brings out the best in people, and why those strategies work.
During the brutal Nigerian Civil War, former WWII major Adam Curle did something remarkable. When he had the chance to talk to Nigerian military General Yakubu Gowon (who commanded forces that were killing hundreds of thousands of people), Curle chose not to approach Gowon with the assumption that he was evil. He decided to treat the General as if he was wise and compassionate!
Curle wrote, “if I act on the assumption that people, including you and me, have these capacities, those persons will manifest them. They will most probably not manifest them completely, but more so than before.” Curle spoke to Gowon as if he was someone capable of caring about his enemies. This might sound insane, but it achieved some jaw-dropping results.
Just about every observer predicted Gowon’s forces would engage in future mass slaughter. It didn’t happen. When asked why not, parties on both sides credited mediators like Adam Curle. His non-judgmental but persistent reminders about the terrible killings on the front lines, and about how the other side too was suffering, had, over time, changed how the warring parties felt and later acted.
Perhaps we can learn from Curle when addressing social problems today. Many research findings corroborate what Curle discovered—that what we believe and expect about others can shift how they come to behave.
For example, in an experiment to show the power of a perceiver’s beliefs to impact another party’s behaviors, two male students were placed in a competition. Each was given alternating access to a “noise weapon.” When they had the weapon, their opponent just had to sit and wait to be blasted. Each could choose the sound level to use against their opponent.
Unbeknownst to Student B, the researchers sometimes led Student A to believe that B was aggressive, and sometimes led Student A to believe B was cooperative. To start the game, when Student A expected aggression, he used high-intensity noise 61% of the time. When he expected that B was cooperative, he used high-intensity just 28% of the time. In response, students who were expected to be aggressive became aggressive!
Student A was then taken out of the game entirely and replaced with a new student who hadn’t been told anything about Student B. Student B continued to behave aggressively or cooperatively. Remember, this was now based on a randomly created expectation held by someone who was no longer even there!
Let’s consider an example many of us will be more familiar with: group work. In one study, researchers asked groups of students to work together, while secretly having one pretend to be happy. When that happy student was in the group, other members were far more likely to cooperate.
You might be thinking that findings like these aren’t surprising. But if you stop and consider it, they go against common beliefs many of us hold dear. We tend to think that we make rational decisions and that we choose for ourselves our own courses of action. If a random expectation held by someone we don’t know can make us more aggressive, or a well-placed actor can make us more cooperative, maybe we have a greater capacity than we think to bring out the worst, or the best, in those around us.
Here’s a final example—the most striking of all. Framingham Massachusetts is a town of about 67,000 residents. Since 1948, researchers have been collecting a great deal of data from many of those people. In 2008, a team decided to see what they could learn about the health, emotional wellbeing, and social networks of 4,739 residents of Framingham.
Exploring who each person was connected to every few years for three decades led to a remarkable finding. States of being were moving between people! If a friend became happier, it increased the probability that their friends also became happier. If a friend of a friend becomes happier, our happiness may also increase. Even a friend of a friend of a friend can affect our happiness. The effect size isn’t huge, but it’s there.
Think about that. Picture your closest friend, picture who their friends are, and then try to imagine the friends of those friends. The fact that those folks’ happiness would impact yours is remarkable. Only by four degrees of separation do these effects stop showing up.
Examining this data over time also allowed the researchers to look at how happiness was changing. They found that “clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness” rather than already happy people seeking out and befriending other already happy people.
In other words, other people change our experiences, and we change their experiences. We can pass feelings and behaviors on to others! We aren’t just isolated actors making careful logical decisions about how aggressive or cooperative to be or fully determining our own happiness.
This is a beautiful demonstration of our connectedness. Unfortunately, paranoid, hateful, or depressed states may be passed around as readily as happiness. So we need to take care of what we’re spreading. We have a lot of power to impact not just ourselves, but even folks we’ve never met.