From the Theatre of War to the Stage of Peace: Role Playing and Building Empathy

Although web sites such as the Middle East Information Centre at provide a tremendously useful service for people who seek data, facts, and "objective" information, it is doubtful that increasing the volume of available publications gets to the heart of the matter. For conflict resolution, it may well be that the heart the matter is the heart as much as the brain.

For example, even experienced courtroom judges, who it would seem have trained themselves in legalistic objectivity to be blind to people's physical appearance, display a clear tendency to punish more severely defendants who lack "good looks". (Study of 1742 defendants appearing before 40 Texas judges in 1991 Chris Downs and Phillip Lyons, cited in Social Psychology, 4th ed., by David G. Myers, McGraw-Hill, N.C., 1993, p. 355.)

Indeed, a recent study shows that even 15 years of experience as a courtroom judge has no effect on the judge's ability to reason independently from the sentencing demands of the prosecutor. (Englich, B., & Mussweiler, T. (in press). Sentencing under uncertainty: Anchoring effects in the court room.)

How do these insights relate to conflict resolution, and specifically to the conflict between opposing camps in the Middle East?

1. Increasing the amount of information available can actually lead to an increase in conflict.

2. The only way to erode "belief perseverance" is to induce the psychological subject to "explain the opposite".

3. THESIS TO TEST: If a cognitive psychologist guides Palestinians and Jews to role play the drama of the other's sides righteous victimage, both sides should be able to build the empathy necessary for constructive dialogue.

CONCLUSION: An organization, such as the Hewlett Foundation, should fund a study that extends the findings of social and cognitive psychology into the realm of real-world conflict resolution. Specifically, the test case should be overcoming the failure of communication between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. The goal should be to more away from negotiation, which is rooted in self-interest, and towards common vision, which is rooted in a feeling of sharing a destiny with the other. The means to this end should be techniques that allow members of opposing camps to "walk in the shoes" of their opponent, to internalize the perspective of the other, and thereby to grow their capacity for empathy, thus creating the foundation for the partnership of peace. One such technique is role play. Indeed, from such role play a theatre troupe that contains Israeli Jews acting the roles of Palestinians and Palestinians acting the roles of Israeli Jews might perform for both audiences and set up workshops for members of both communities to do the same.