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A new way to think about social relations

An article in todays Boston globe details the work by Harvard social psychologist Todd Pittinsky. Pittinsky challenges the widely held belief that we can improve society by eliminating the negative attitudes people hold towards other people and groups. Pittinsky is critical because this approach has nothing to say about the benefits of generating positive attitudes towards others. Pittinskys research is showing that negative and positive attitudes are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but are independent. Instead of training people to hate each other less, Pittinsky says, it may be time to teach them to like each other more.

Pittinskys work (which is under peer review at the moment) focuses on positive attitudes or what he has called ?allophilia? borrowed from greek ?love of the other? . Pittinsky say?s that at the moment he is at the beginning of his life work, and is verifying the existence of allophilia. In his surveys he has found that, compared to low levels of prejudice against a group, those possessing high levels of allophilia towards a particular group predicted positive behavior - donating to relevant charities and supporting sympathetic policies.

These findings are adding to the small emerging body of research which is studying positive emotions across groups. For example, studies from social psychology show that asking people to take the perspective of others can enhance empathy and generate more positive emotions.  Other research has shown that friendship with a member of a group can promote an affinity for that group as a whole.

In Pittinskys research, high levels of allophilia predicted positive behaviors better than a lack of prejudice when studying attitudes towards rival colleagues and gay men.  Allophilia was a better predictor than altruism and liberal political outlooks in predicting positive behaviors .  Pittinsky has found that allophilia is linked with enthusiasm for supportive policies and even social activism on a groups behalf.

There are some critics, such as Professor Brian Nosek, who say that it is possible to feel warmth for a group without wanting to change its position in society.  Nosek gives the example of the view some people hold of woman as being caring and cooperative. 

Pittinsky hopes that allophilia  promotion will be taught in Universities and that this will be  in addition to the work on prejudice reduction.  He believes that introducing this concept into the ?public imagination could disrupt ossified assumptions about social relations? To read this article  click here
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