!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: How Differences in Perceptions Feed Conflict

Saturday, November 03, 2007

How Differences in Perceptions Feed Conflict

As explained in his blog, about a year-and-a-half ago Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, was
struck by the intractable nature of this conflict [in the Middle East] — by the seemingly endless cycles of attack and retaliation. No one knows what it takes to break this kind of recursive loop, but psychologists have learned a few things about loops and cycles that I thought might be worth sharing. So I wrote the following essay, which appeared in today’s New York Times. [link added]
The crux of the matter:
... research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.
Gilbert points out the research results in question are an outgrowth of "two innocent facts":
First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves — but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.

Examples aren’t hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it’s hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side’s identical claim as disingenuous spin. But research suggests that these claims reflect genuinely different perceptions of the same bloody conversation.


Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.
Just as I found the body of Gilbert's essay illuminating, I found the conclusion resonating with my own views, based on my own experience:
Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback. [The last bit is a reference to Gilbert's inevitable escalating squabbling with his brother when they were children riding in the rear of the family station wagon during a long trip.]
Without pretending that you don't need to look for evidence that people are acting in good faith, I echo Gilbert's advice to consider the possibility that what an "opponent" is telling you reflects their true view of whatever situation is in dispute and of what should be done about it.


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