Paradoxical Thinking: Changing Individuals’ Beliefs by Agreeing with Them to an Extreme Degree

Paradoxical thinking is intended to shock the participants with its absurdity and cause them to reevaluate their beliefs.

By Ashton Yount

Over the past 30 years, violent conflicts have taken more than two million lives and caused millions more to become refugees. Often, this violence stems from unresolved intergroup conflict, between Turks and Kurds, Burmese and Rohingya, or Israelis and Palestinians.

Social scientists and psychologists have long attempted to develop strategies for addressing these intergroup conflicts, with limited success. A new paper from Boaz Hameiri, a postdoctoral fellow with the Peace & Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication, offers an innovative solution he calls paradoxical thinking.

Interventions are traditionally based on the inconsistency principal, which involves presenting information to participants that disproves or conflicts with their beliefs.

But paradoxical thinking exposes individuals to amplified, exaggerated, or even absurd messages that are still congruent with their held societal beliefs. Paradoxical thinking is intended to shock the participants with its absurdity and cause them to reevaluate their beliefs.

“In the context of intergroup conflict,” Hameiri says, “it’s difficult to persuade people to change their beliefs because they hold their worldviews very strongly. If you present contradictory information, they’ll just ignore it or resist it. So we developed an intervention that agrees with their views, but exaggerates it to an extreme degree.”

Growing up Jewish in Israel, Hameiri has personal experience with intergroup conflict. A few years ago, he had an opportunity to participate in a year-long dialogue group that brought together Israelis and Palestinians. This was the first time he had sustained interactions with Palestinians on an equal playing field, and this experience was incredibly meaningful for him. However, he still left the experience feeling frustrated — because many of his Israeli peers were not open to the views and stories of their Palestinian counterparts.

This experience spurred his research into intergroup conflict and compelled him to develop new techniques for reaching those with the most deeply held extreme beliefs. In a new paper, published in Social Issues and Policy Review, Hameiri summarizes his dissertation research, which includes four studies designed to test the paradoxical thinking approach.

For example, in one study, Hameiri asked participants who had expressed a view that Palestinians were not interested in peace this question: Why do you think that the real and only goal the Palestinians have in mind is to annihilate us, a goal which even transcends their basic needs, such as for food and health?

This question, an absurd and extreme extension of the belief that Palestinians do not want peace, was carefully crafted to agree with participants’ expressed beliefs, while also offering them an opportunity to consider that those beliefs might be inaccurate. Across the four studies, Hameiri found that individuals with more extreme beliefs were receptive to the paradoxical thinking approach and exhibited a moderation in beliefs about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Hameiri hopes that researchers, practitioners, activists, and policy makers will take the paradoxical thinking approach and develop campaigns to address other intergroup conflicts around the world, and he offers guidelines for doing so in the paper.

The article, “Paradoxical Thinking Interventions: A Paradigm for Societal Change,” was published in Social Issues and Policy Review. Other authors include Daniel Bar-Tal (Tel-Aviv University) and Eran Halperin (Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya).