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Conditioning: The Deep Undercurrent

We've discussed how unmet human needs can block success in political negotiations, and how cult behaviour can fuel extremism.

We'd also like to point out another critical dimension that can block resolution and sustain conflicts: conditioned beliefs and behaviour.

In her book, The Manipulated Mind, therapist and author Denise Winn describes conditioning as “a learned association between two things which consequently affects one’s actions.”

Many of us have heard of the famous experiments conducted by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. While studying digestion patterns in dogs Pavlov discovered that certain reflexes could be inculcated, or conditioned, in animals.

Pavlov noticed that the dogs he was feeding would salivate in his presence before being given any food. He suspected that the dogs were associating him with the food, and decided to test this. By striking a tuning fork just before feeding the dogs, he later saw that he could induce salivation in the canines at will - just by striking the fork before mealtime. The dogs came to associate the tone of the tuning fork with nourishment. This procedure would later come to be known as “classic conditioning.”

Although knowledge of conditioning was held by earlier cultures in human history, Pavlov’s recent experiments opened the door to its formal study in the West. As a result of his work, and that of others, we’ve since learned that there is a whole range of conditioning patterns - learned associations - that impact human beings on a regular basis.

Not only is conditioning a necessary part of daily human life, but it is something that almost always goes unnoticed by our conscious minds - and is therefore difficult to acknowledge. Our actions, attitudes and most deeply held beliefs are often a result of these learned associations brought about by our environment, circumstances and sometimes the deliberate efforts of others.

Here is the sobering implication: how we see and interact with the world is something that is largely predetermined. In other words, we don’t freely choose to see the world the way we do.

When we look at the Middle East, we can see that decades of violence and warfare have created learned associations between parties in conflict. These rigid perceptions of "the other" simplify and generalize individuals and populations to the point distortion.

Many Palestinians have been conditioned to viewing ALL Israelis as occupiers, and of being militaristic, aggressive and duplicitous.

Many Israelis have come to see Palestinians and other Arabs as hostile, anti-Semitic and uncivilized. Because of the their history of persecution, Jews have been conditioned to have defensive reflexes that include, at times, a lack of trust, fear and paranoia of outside cultures.

What this conditioning does is to create a rock solid caricature of the other which is standardized, one dimensional, and which is applied across the board.

These caricatures are then passed along and reinforced by parents to children, and between peers. They find their way into the media and education systems and eventually become conventional wisdoms - fixed principles that remain deeply entrenched in the mind of the general populace.

The proclivity towards conditioning is, in part, the human brain’s way of learning and streamlining perception as a survival mechanism. But what gets lost in the process is the more complex and subtle realities of a situation: in the case of Middle East conflict, that Israelis and Palestinians are much MORE than how the other side is conditioned to see them.

Peacemaking therefore becomes extremely difficult, not only because the crude beliefs that belligerents hold of one another stand in the way of the brave decisions needed to transcend conflict, but also because the beliefs become cherished and inviolable. In other words they become vested interests - even property - that are to be maintained and protected at all costs.

Because people don’t realize that their beliefs are, in a sense, not their own, it leaves little possibility for them to exchange them for more nuanced views that are closer to reality.

Should it come as any surprise that peace negotiations between even the best intentioned leaders often fail when their conditioned societies (married as they are to their beliefs and behaviour) fail to support those negotiations - or as is more often the case, work against them?

John Zada