Could summer camp be the key to world peace? Perhaps. Jane Risen of Chicago Booth is studying Seeds of Peace, a Middle East coexistence program that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers every year for three weeks in rural Maine. Using surveys that the young people fill out independently, Risen tracked participants' feelings and attitudes toward the other national group and has found something profoundly useful: Campers who made friends with someone from outside their own group developed more positive feelings toward all members of that group, and were more likely to retain those feelings long after returning home.
Risen and Booth doctoral student Juliana Schroeder examined three years of surveys to measure participants' attitudes toward the other group, or outgroup, both before and after camp. They then surveyed the campers for a third time after they had been back in their home countries for nine months, and still found that the camp had a positive effect on participants. They have explained their findings in a new paper, "Befriending the Enemy."
In the work, Risen and Schroeder note that nearly every camper has a more positive attitude on the last day of camp than he or she did on the first day. However, they also observed that once teenagers get home, the positive emotions fade—but most showed more positive feelings toward the outgroup—even months later—than they did before camp.
One of the key elements that make the camp successful is that the young people are placed in a neutral location, allowing them to get away from family and societal pressures. This relocation also offers them the opportunity to form new and different types of friendships, and it is these friendships that the researchers demonstrate may be the key to improved relations between the two groups.
Risen and Schroeder's data shows that campers who made friends at camp, and especially those who maintained those friendships once program was over, retained the strongest feelings of positivity toward their outgroup. In fact, the found that maintaining friendship for a year was one of the best predictors of warmer feelings toward the other group.
"When Seeds of Peace was started, its founder's advice to campers was that they should make one friend," Risen says. "But after looking at the results of our work, we would modify his advice slightly to, make and keep just one friend."