WHEN two groups are in conflict, how can you improve relations between them?
One strategy is to encourage positive personal contact among individuals from each group. If a Catholic and a Protestant in Northern Ireland would only sit down together to talk—learning about one another’s families, hearing about one another’s fears—the encounter, according to this approach, would foster understanding, humanize the enemy and lessen bigotry. The scholarly version of this idea is known as interpersonal contact theory.
It’s an intriguing hypothesis, but does it work in reality? For four years, we studied Seeds of Peace, a program that every year brings together several hundred teenagers from conflict regions such as Israel and the Palestinian territories for a three-week summer camp in Maine. The teenagers sleep, eat and play games together, and engage in daily sessions to talk about the conflict between their groups and their own experiences with it.