People are different, let's bring out the best in them

By Matthew Legge (Different Strokes)

Published: Sat 27 Apr 2019, 8:45 PM

Last updated: Sat 27 Apr 2019, 10:46 PM

Polarisation 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 jaw-dropping results.
Just about every observer predicted Gowon's forces would engage in future mass slaughter. It didn't happen. And 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.
Here's an 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.
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 happy people.
In other words, other people change our experiences, and we change theirs. We can pass feelings and behaviours 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.
-Psychology Today




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