Every day, the media reports on ethnic conflicts that seem intractable: Darfur. Kurdistan. Israel-Palestine.

But new research offers some hope. A study has found that peace-building workshops may increase participants’ positive emotions toward members of a rival ethnic group long after the initial workshop has ended.

Researchers Deepak Malhotra and Sumanasiri Liyanage conducted their study in Sri Lanka, where the Sinhalese and the Tamil have been involved in violent conflict for over 20 years. The Sri Lankan government sponsors annual peace workshops for Sinhalese and Tamil student leaders. During these workshops, men and women ages 18 to 21 live together in a “peace camp,” participating in lectures and other activities where they learn about the other ethnicity.

For their study, Malhotra and Liyanage recruited over 80 people who had participated in this peace camp one year earlier and assessed their level of empathy toward the other ethnic group.

Their results, published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, showed that students who participated in the peace camp program felt more empathy for the other ethnic group than did students from similar backgrounds who had not participated. In addition, peace camp participants were more willing to donate money to help poor children belonging to the other ethnic group. These results were true for both Sinhalese and Tamil students.

These results are especially encouraging because they suggest a lasting impact: All participants had returned to ethnically divided settings after the peace camp, yet one year later they still showed greater empathic concern for members of the rival ethnic group than did other members of their community. The authors note that feeling empathy for members of a rival group during conflict may lead people to be less violent and more willing to compromise. In the future, they hope to investigate the impact of interventions at various stages of conflict and on other attitudes and behaviors.

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