Radio relief for Rwandans’ social conflicts

A specially designed radio soap opera stimulates cooperation and tolerance toward other ethnic groups

For those who see no social value in soap operas, stay tuned. A field experiment directed by Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth Levy Paluck finds that a reconciliation-themed radio soap opera that ran for a year in the genocide-ravaged nation of Rwanda encouraged greater cooperation, tolerance of public dissent and acceptance of marriage across ethnic lines among its listeners.

POWER CHAT A Rwandan research assistant, right, interviews a Rwandan villager for a study that found that a yearlong reconciliation-themed radio soap opera increased listeners’ tolerance for public dissent, along with cooperative efforts and positive views about marriages across ethnic lines. E. Paluck

Rwandans who instead heard a yearlong radio soap opera about AIDS and other health issues displayed no such signs of increased tolerance or cooperation, Paluck reports in the March Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

It’s no mean feat for a radio show to lessen prejudice in Rwanda. In 1994, ethnic and political conflict led to killings of about 800,000 Rwandans, mainly from the Tutsi ethnic minority. Hate-filled rants on a popular radio talk-show helped to instigate the genocide. Mistrust now pervades Rwandan communities, where survivors, returned refugees and accused killers live side by side.

It’s also no mean feat to show scientifically that the media can reduce social conflict. Researchers have looked at ways to use the media to reduce prejudice for nearly 80 years, though usually in laboratory settings with college students.

“My research provides some of the first clear evidence that the mass media can reduce intergroup prejudice and conflict, without having to change political institutions or laws,” Paluck says.

Provocatively, the new findings suggest that effective anti-prejudice media programs directly alter listeners’ social norms, or assumptions about what their peers actually do and should do in real-life situations, rather than altering listeners’ underlying beliefs. If individual listeners retain their personal dislikes but adopt more-tolerant norms, such programs can still change behavior, Paluck concludes.

The reconciliation story revolved around one Rwandan community attacking another over long-standing conflicts, with various characters forming political alliances and romantic relationships across community lines. Rwandans listened to the program in groups, and peers’ emotional reactions to the story and ardent discussions during and after the shows reshaped social norms, she proposes.

“Paluck’s paper is groundbreaking,” remarks psychologist Eric Uhlmann of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

In a commentary accompanying the new study, two psychologists who assisted in developing the reconciliation soap opera say that Paluck’s research “showed that a theory-based educational radio drama can have powerful effects, including effects consistent with its aim of changing behavior.”

The psychologists, Ervin Staub of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Laurie Anne Pearlman of the Trauma Research, Education, and Training Institute in New Britain, Conn., consulted with Rwandan writers hired by a Dutch organization that produced the radio program.

Paluck randomly chose 12 Rwandan communities representing different ethnic and political regions to hear either the reconciliation or health radio programs. Rwandan research assistants helped her locate 40 adults, ages 18 to 87, in each community who had been randomly selected from official lists of residents.

Over the course of a year, ending in 2005, research assistants visited each community monthly to play the latest four 20-minute radio episodes on a portable stereo cassette player for the group.

At the end of the year, Paluck’s team asked each participant how much he or she agreed or disagreed with certain personal beliefs, such as “mass violence comes about suddenly,” and social norms, such as “there is mistrust in my community.” Single-sex groups of 10 also discussed ethnic intermarriage, violence prevention, trauma and trust.

The two groups reported much the same personal beliefs. But compared with health-program listeners, reconciliation-program listeners were more likely to view intermarriage as constructive, tolerate public dissent, trust others and discuss traumatic experiences, all reflections of social norms, Paluck says.

At final meetings, the researchers presented each group with a stereo and cassettes of the reconciliation program. While reconciliation-program listeners held spirited discussions about how to share the gift fairly, health-program listeners gave decision-making responsibility to their village leaders with little discussion.

Staub and Pearlman suspect that the reconciliation program did in fact alter individuals’ prejudiced beliefs and values, which then led to changes in social norms.

But Uhlmann agrees with Paluck that social norms underlie the behavior changes seen in the new study. “A prejudice reduction process mediated by changes in social norms is highly consistent with half a century of psychological research on the power of social situations to influence human behavior,” he says.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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