Mike Prashker
Israeli Shared Citizenship Educator, Social Entrepreneur and Writer

The deed shapes the heart – and reduces prejudice

We can change people's minds by changing their behavior, because changed behavior changes minds
photo - Mike Prashker

Only a couple of weeks have passed since the publication of Dr. Roni Porat’s article summarizing a comprehensive, and important research-study into inter-group relations. “Is Reducing Prejudice by Training a Hopeless Mission?” (Haaretz, July 6, 2021).

This short time has sufficed to confirm two important psychological phenomena about which the entire “inter-group relations community” can agree: Firstly, that human beings do not respond well to threat, whether real or imagined. Secondly, that the way in which information is delivered is highly consequential, particularly when it is likely to be perceived as threatening.

From the outset, just about everyone in the “inter-group relations community,” myself included, was triggered emotionally by the cynical click-bait headline over which Dr. Porat, as an outside contributor, certainly had no control.

Then inevitably, given that the article presented very disappointing findings on the effectiveness of training programs and psychological interventions at large to reduce prejudice and advocated an approach that changes behavior through systematic institutional change, it was bound to cause some waves.

But above all, the article unfortunately, and I believe unintentionally, gave some a binary impression that our community will have to make a zero-sum choice between two “competing” approaches. Upon re-reading this is not the case. But it is understandable that anybody already annoyed by the title and disturbed by the findings might have gained this impression.

As practitioners, academics, public-servants, funders, policymakers, and politicians entrusted with the task of improving inter-group relations among Israel’s nine million citizens, it is now our responsibility to put our initial reactions aside. We need a frank conversation about the serious and highly consequential issues raised.

I propose that the focus of this conversation be about the correct balance, and integration of, the two approaches discussed: the attitudinal and the behavioral.

For those who have not yet read the article:

It summarizes a new study that Dr. Porat, a scholar at the Hebrew University, recently completed with colleagues from Princeton and Columbia Universities. (“Prejudice Reduction: Progress and Challenges,” Annual Review of Psychology, January 2021).

The researchers examined an astonishing 418 “experiments” to address aspects of inter-group prejudice and hate conducted around the world over the past dozen years, many in Israel. Tellingly, a large majority of the 418 were “prejudice-reduction” experiments. Only a small minority focused on “the reduction of prejudiced and discriminatory behaviors”.

The central research finding was unfortunately delivered in the article in a style that was always likely to make the unpalatable indigestible for many stakeholders:

“A dozen years’ worth of rigorous research shows these types of prejudice-reduction programs have little effect” [because] “we can’t train away prejudice.”

The researchers also raised important concerns about the methodology and reliability of various aspects of “lab-based” research on program design and the inherent limitations of measuring their impact on attitudinal change over time.

Having concluded that hate and prejudice cannot be “train[ed] away,” the researchers turn their attention to and place their hopes on the second approach which aims to reduce “prejudiced and discriminatory behaviors” through systematic institutional change. They call it, “Reformatting the System.”

At the heart of the debate lies an age-old dilemma with which countless generations of “stakeholders” in our line of work have struggled pedagogically, practically, economically, and morally:

Is change in human relations more effectively driven by changing attitudes or behaviors?

This might seem abstract but has countless real – often life and death – consequences.

For example, and assuming we all want our police forces to treat everybody equally and respectfully: Are we better served investing in training all officers to reduce the prejudices that each officer might harbor? Or are we better advised to put in place a robust system that through discipline, regulations, oversights, and sanctions achieves that outcome? Or maybe a combination of both?

Dr. Porat states that changing behavior is “as important” as changing attitudes.

My position is that changing behavior is more important than changing attitudes and I am ready to bet that an overwhelming majority of young black men between Tel Aviv and Los Angeles concur.

The Deed Shapes the Heart

To provide some historical perspective and add some moral and pedagogic weight to this deliberation, and in the wake of some fascinating conversations; it seems clear that Judaism has throughout the ages strongly favored the behavioral approach.

The stark two-word command in Exodus 24:7, “Na’aseh ve-nishma,” literally “We will do, and we will hear” also sometimes and more emotively translated as, “the deed shapes the heart,” leaves no room for doubt.

The focus on changing behavior is of course the obvious choice for a faith-based system stressing obligations. Whereas the attitudinal approach is closely affiliated with the secular, democratic preference for the primacy of rights; including the right to express — not only feel — a wide range of attitudes.

Just as with the attitudinal-behavioral conversation, when framed in stark binary terms as an obligations versus rights zero-sum game proposition, the secular-religious divide is calcified and with it the prejudice, hatred, and wasted shared opportunities that our professional community works to address.

Nevertheless, the Jewish rationale for preferring the behavioral approach is not only about obligations it is also moral, pedagogic, and pragmatic:

…even if he does so not for their own sake, as through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake. (Babylonian Talmud – Pesachim 50b).

The logic goes that by changing behavior, whether by command or more contemporarily by systematic institutional change through law, organizational procedures, oversights, censure and so forth, behaviors will change. In turn, with better behavior and inter-reactions, attitudes might well improve over time. But in any case, behavior has already improved.

From this perspective, Dr. Porat’s assertion that the “Reformatting the System” approach is “bolder and more radical” than the attitudinal, is correct only in the sense that it flies in the face of modern “orthodoxy.” This is clear given that the great majority of the 418 programs studied took the attitudinal approach. However, from an historical perspective, the attitudinal approach is the “bolder and more radical.”

The evidence presented in one of the most comprehensive research studies ever conducted cannot be ignored because of any annoyance over the presentation and tone of the article. The very serious arguments that have been made need to be addressed directly.

Beyond frank engagement with the research findings, prioritizing the systems approach also makes sound sociological and overwhelming economic sense with surprising win-win benefits for investments in attitudinal change.

From a sociological perspective, ever-changing historical, social, economic, geo-political, climatic, demographic, and other external conditions are the dominant factors in shaping inter-group relations. Only recently, relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens were rocked by the encroaching Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However much we might want to implement a successful encounter program to reduce prejudice, fear, resentment, and even hate between young Jewish and Arab residents in the three neighboring communities of Caesarea, Kibbutz Maagan Michael, and Jisar El Zakar, this is currently unrealistic.

Israel has one of the widest income gaps in the developed world. The gulf between two of Israel’s richest Jewish communities and one of its poorest Arab towns is simply too great for any encounter to overcome. We need systems change to reduce the gaps before we can reasonably convene the encounter.

Consideration of costs is going to be a central factor in shaping strategy. On this issue, prioritizing the systems approach wins hands-down and to a degree that if properly structured and leveraged, should increase budgets for attitudinal change interventions where they are most valuable.

Initiatives to change attitudes through programming are inherently expensive. Highly trained and experienced facilitators are essential and can only work with small groups and over time.

Conversely, systems change on a national level will save the economy quite literally billions of shekels.

When police behave appropriately when interacting with minority communities; trust grows, serious crimes like the scourge of organized crime plaguing Arab communities can be better addressed with positive consequences both for the economy and inter-group relations.

When chronic unemployment levels among people with disabilities are reduced through effective systems change, in addition to the moral, civic, mental health and economic benefits, prejudice towards people with disabilities will decrease as colleagues stroll and roll together to their next meeting.

One last example is the integration of Arab teachers in Jewish schools which Dr. Porat identifies in her article. The program, initiated and run by Merchavim (which, full disclosure, I founded) has to date resulted in the placement of around a thousand previously unemployed Arab teachers in Jewish schools. It has since been expanded to place Ethiopian teachers and teachers with disabilities of all backgrounds. They also face many barriers to teaching positions, including prejudice. The program has a well-researched triple bottom-line of educational benefits, economic savings estimated at 300 million shekels for only the first 500 teachers over the first five years and of course, most importantly for the matter in hand, has measurably changed attitudes both among those it directly touches and beyond.

The systems approach does this, among other ways, by making the interactions between “others” institutional, routine, sustained and crucially, by changing power-relations. When Jewish-Israeli parents consult with their child’s outstanding and trusted Arab math teacher, behavior has changed and with it attitudes. When Jewish and Arab colleagues celebrate birthdays, weddings, religious holidays, and comfort each other at times of loss, behavior has changed and so too attitudes.

Still better for those who like me believe that programs to address prejudice have an essential role to play; a virtuous cycle can now be established: Significant savings to the state budget resulting from systems change can and should be invested in programs that address prejudice to further entrench the systems change.

Potentially, the savings generated from the systems approach can even provide appropriate funding for the level of investments we should be making to “market” attitudinal change through advertising (Benetton-style for those old-enough to remember), and outstanding series like “Excuse the Question” and “Arab Labor” and initiatives to improve inter-group attitudes though social media. All of these require utilization of the best knowledge and practice in the field of attitudinal change.

For an honest and constructive conversation, we must set aside any unintended binary, and zero-sum game impressions that some clearly feel the article conveyed.

Re-Framing the Binary Conversation

We do not need to pick sides!

In the real world, all major agencies across the society-building “eco-system” routinely integrate elements of both approaches in their work, though certainly to very different degrees.

Hence the conversation is more precisely and usefully about the right balance between the integration of both approaches to achieve the best outcome and how organizations that specialize in each can partner.

We need to sharpen our understanding of the best use of each approach. Clearly, without the attitudinal change capabilities appropriately deployed, we cannot persuade systems’ leaders to do the hard work and take the risks and responsibilities required to make systematic institutional change.

To do this, in addition to understanding the tangible benefits for the institutions in which they work and for which they hold responsibilities and to be persuaded in the first place, they also need to acquire the language, awareness, sensitivity, knowledge and motivation to understand the complexities and lead the process.

At key junctures throughout any long-term system reformatting intervention, the toolbox of the attitudinal approach is essential. In the case of the Arab teacher integration initiative; mutual fears must be addressed, trust built, prejudices lurking among faculty addressed. It is always challenging but still harder when external conditions such as the conflict intervene. Young Arab teachers become “suspects,” they are fearful for themselves and their families. Jewish colleagues, parents and children are torn between their growing trust, affection, respect and bond with the teacher and their fears and anger.

Without the attitudinal toolbox, these emotions cannot be addressed. Teacher retention rates would plummet and an important systematic initiative with a triple education-economy-inter-group relations bottom line, would be in retreat and so too inter-group relations and the cohesion of Israeli society.

In conclusion, the publication of a major research study and the spotlight the article has placed on the research and the critical issues it raises, provides all those engaged in society-building an important opportunity and responsibility to think deeply and plan how to better serve our mission of strengthening the fabric of Israeli society.

Central to the success of our work is to help Israelis of all backgrounds to move beyond win-lose binary thinking which divides the world starkly into winners and losers, good and bad.

We do this work by providing consensual civic language, re-framing the conversation by pointing out and celebrating complexity and nuance, identifying overlapping values, identities, and interests, and providing collaborative civic purpose and opportunities.

As is to be expected, there are significant differences among us as to the weight that should be given to each approach and there is a lot at stake for practitioners, funders, policymakers, and institutions. Hence, there are inevitably going to be some tense moments.

Whenever these occur, we will all be well-advised to reach for our attitudinal toolbox and choose empathy over anger and to focus on our shared commitment to strengthening the cohesion of Israel society and with it the State of Israel.

Because once all is said and done: the deed shapes the heart.

About the Author
Mike Prashker is an Israeli educator, social entrepreneur, writer and public speaker. He founded MERCHAVIM - The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel in 1998 and directed the NGO for 17 years before joining the Board of Directors. In 2014 Mike was appointed Senior Adviser for Strategic Partnerships at The Ted Arison Family Foundation where he is leading social cohesion initiatives, including "The Social Cohesion Leadership Program". Prashker’s book "A Place for Us All - Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel" (Alouette 2017) is published in a single volume in Hebrew, Arabic and English The book aims to contribute to the promotion of social cohesion by providing a precise definition, identifying geo-political, social and economic conditions conducive to its promotion and presenting a range of strategic initiatives for its practical advancement in Israel. While acknowledging Israeli society is in democratic crisis and at a critical cross-roads between accommodation and fragmentation, it also offers an optimistic re-assessment of the historical trajectory of Israeli democracy and inter-community relations.
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