Making allies out of adversaries: contact and cooperation as tools for persuasion

I attended the United World College of the American West, which is a school based on a noble but incomplete premise. The idea is that if we bring people from different countries and cultures together, they will learn about each other, build international understanding, and be a force for peace in the world.

It’s a great idea, but it’s not quite that simple. In “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini explains why.

In his chapter on liking, he talks about the role of contact and cooperation, and specifically an experiment in creating adversity of cooperation among boys at summer camp.

The study authors found it quite easy to create hostility and competiveness between two groups of boys: separating them into houses, naming the houses, and having contests between houses all increased animosity between the boys.

It wasn’t so easy to undo this hostility, however. Simple contact wasn’t enough. After creating this sense of rivalry, if they just brought the boys together, the animosity came forward. If they tried to have shared lunches, they turned into food fights.

To create a sense of camaraderie, the researchers needed to manufacture situations when they boys needed to cooperate. For example, the camp bus got “stuck,” and all the boys needed to cooperate to push it out. Or they wanted to rent a popular movie, but they were told that neither house had enough money to rent it on their own.

By orchestrating a series of encounters like this where the boys had to cooperate across house lines to achieve a goal they all cared about, the researchers were able to overcome the hostility they had built up between the two groups.

Contact alone wasn’t enough. They needed cooperation.

What does this mean for organizing:

  • Desegregation isn’t enough. We need to look for ways to create diverse cooperative communities if we hope to see race relations improve.
  • Coalition work is an important part of building a just world. When diverse coalitions come together, the cooperation to achieve a shared goal helps bridge the gap between communities that have been in conflict.
  • Dialog is not enough. A lot of interfaith and anti-racist work focuses on dialog. It assumes we can talk our way out of oppression and to common ground. Dialog is important, but we will probably get farther with cooperation for a shared goal (which also relates to the commitment and consistency principle).

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