John Timmer at Ars:

The hypothesis focused on the motivation for continuation of the conflict. Individuals on any side of it will believe that their own group is driven to work together by love of each other. They’ll refuse to recognize that same love in their opponents, instead assuming that the opposition is driven by hatred. That hatred, naturally, is directed at your own group. By assuming your opponents have an intractable negative bias against you, you end up with no desire to work with the opposition and pessimism about the prospects for any compromise. “If adversaries believe inflexibility on the other side renders mutual compromise impossible, they will be unlikely to adopt seemingly rational strategies for conciliation,” as the authors put it.

To test this, the authors surveyed both US citizens about the Democrat-Republican divide, and Israelis and Palestinians about their conflict. In general, their hypothesis held up well. Most groups felt that their own members were motivated by love of each other, while the opposition was united in their hatred of the survey subjects.

To quantify the negativity, the authors measured the relative bias between how much individuals ascribed mutual love to their opponents and how much they ascribed hatred to them. The strength of this bias correlated with a reduced willingness to negotiate, reduced perception that a favorable compromise could be reached, and other measures of optimism. In short, once you’re convinced your opponents hate you, then future prospects start to look bleak.

Is there a way out of this morass? Since money makes the world go around, the authors decided to try a small payment. They told a group of US participants that they’d give them $12 if their evaluation of their opponents’ motivations matched the value their opponents gave for themselves. In other words, if a Democrat gave Republicans a self-love/opponent-hate rating that matched the one Republicans gave themselves, they’d get $12.

The goal wasn’t really to harness greed; rather, it was simply to get people to stop and think of their opponents more carefully—to view them as humans, rather than some generic “other.” To an extent, it worked. Simply offering the payment reversed the general trend, with people ascribing more self-love than other-hate to their opponents.

It would be easy to dismiss this as participants simply matching what they’d expect their opponents to say in order to get some money. But this change had the effect of reducing the bias score the authors calculated above. And they again showed that bias correlated with pessimism about compromise, a sense that a win-win agreement wasn’t possible, and a tendency to assume that the opposition’s opinions were an essential part of their nature. By reducing this bias, the small payment made people more open to the idea of compromise.

Paper is here.