Biased About Biases: The Origins and Growth of Human Conflict
"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."
- George Orwell, 1946
When asked about what causes conflict, people are tempted to respond, “well, conflict causes conflict, it’s just a part of nature!” More ‘pragmatic’ people will say, “If my interests oppose someone else’s, we’re in conflict”. Well, sure, superficially. But it turns out that human conflict, at its core, is a much more psychological, subjective phenomenon than most believe.
Despite what your local worn-out cynic might say, it seems to be a fundamental desire of humans to achieve peace and cooperation. While “peace for whom” may change from group to group, people generally encourage peace for themselves and those they care about. Just ask any Miss America contender – she’ll tell you for sure. Take a stroll around the colorful streets of Berkeley, California, where you’ll be barraged with well-intended requests for worldwide peace (and love, man). Peruse through your Facebook feed, and before lazily rolling your eyes, take note of the wealth of posts and campaigns all expressing one essential idea: Dammit, why can’t we just all get along?
Whether it be for peace for the people of Israel and Palestine, support and love in a close personal relationship, or cooperation between governments and political parties, we find this unifying desire at every level of the human experience. People are increasingly capable of pursuing their disagreements with calm, rational discussion, civil debate, understanding, and efforts to reach acceptable compromises.
So if nearly every person deep down, beneath their painful experiences and their fostered hatred, yearns for peace and cooperation, why does it seem like conflict continually escalates and spreads?
The Conflict Spiral
If harmony and cooperation are a fundamental aspiration of humanity, conflict and aggression are surely its most expressed characteristics. We crave peace and produce conflict. We have fights with romantic partners, flame wars between Apple and Android device users, quarrels between political parties in congress, and friction between major religions. While research has shown that some adults are indeed less prejudiced and conflict oriented than others (think Mr. Rogers), destructive conflict and prejudice abound in each one of us. There are literally no exceptions. It’s everywhere, and every-when. (If the reader is a scientist, be not alarmed. This refers not to you but only to those primitive fools in the opposite camp who refuse to recognize that your theory is the only reasonable one. Of course.)
All too often, disagreement and conflict conspire to breed further disagreement and conflict in what feels like an endless progression. This “conflict spiral” occurs when opponents take turns attacking each other, each believing that the conflict began with the other side’s wrongdoings and that their own actions are merely a defensive, justified response. So what is it that causes disagreements to spiral into competition and conflict?
An interesting line of work, carried out recently by Emily Pronin’s lab at Princeton University, suggests an answer. She argues that it is the subjective (personal) perception that one’s opponents are hopelessly biased -- unable to see things objectively, or “as they really are” – that drives the escalation of conflict, and discourages its resolution.
“It is rarely reality that upsets man so, but rather his opinions about reality.”
-Epictetus, 135 AD
Biases are like lenses or filters that keep us from seeing things objectively, “as they really are”. They distort and limit our perceptions of reality, making reality feel more coherent, comfortable and predictable. Someone who is biased holds opinions on an issue that are unduly influenced by factors that get in the way of assessing the situation fairly and making the best judgments and decisions they are capable of. These factors can include self-interest, personal emotions and experiences, political partisanship, and rigid ideology.
(Although assessing the methodology of an experiment is extremely important for any conclusions we draw from any research study, for the purposes of this article and in the interest of space I refrain from a detailed description of the methodology of each experiment. I highly encourage interested and critical readers to check out the publications I am referring to here, which I’ve linked at the bottom of this page.)
Pronin and colleagues performed a clever series of experiments to test the relationship between disagreement, bias and conflict escalation. In the first set of studies, they showed that the more participants disagreed with a university president’s explanation of her position on affirmative action, the more they perceived her as biased. Conversely, the more they agreed with her, the less biased she seemed to them. Interestingly, when researchers varied how moderate or extreme the president’s position was, the extremity of the president’s position had no significant effect on how biased she came across – it was uniquely the degree to which participants’ own opinions on the issue were similar or dissimilar to the president’s that led them to interpret her position as fair or biased.
Having established that a greater disagreement leads to a greater perception of bias, the researchers proceeded to examine how people respond to disagreements. When confronted with a disagreement, people can respond in one of two ways: 1) a competitive, aggressive, conflict-escalating approach, and 2) a cooperative, harmonious, conflict-deescalating approach.
Participants were asked how they would go about dealing with a US Senator who opposed their position (either cooperatively and reasonably, or competitively and aggressively) on a policy issue they cared about. The senator was portrayed in a psychological profile as either relatively susceptible to judgmental bias or as relatively objective.
Results demonstrated that participants were more likely to behave competitively (e.g., attacking the senator’s credibility) rather than cooperatively (e.g., listening attentively and trying to understand each point) when dealing with a senator who was biased rather than objective. Interestingly, nearly all participants preferred cooperation to competition in general. The magnitude of this preference, however, differed greatly depending on how biased they perceived the senator to be.
Finally, Pronin showed that participants were less hopeful that a disagreement with an opponent could be peacefully resolved when their opponent used competitive rather than cooperative strategies. They viewed the competitive opponent as more biased and unreasonable than one who acted cooperatively, and reported more inclination to respond with aggression to a competitive opponent than a cooperative one.
To tie these studies together, in other words: the greater our opinions oppose one another, the more bias I will implicitly accuse you of -- regardless of how you reached and communicated your judgment. Disagreement promotes the assumption of bias: the more we disagree, the more biased you must be. And I tend to respond aggressively rather than cooperatively based on these assumptions of bias, which in turn leads you to perceive me as more biased and threatening, thus responding in a conflict-escalating manner, thus "proving" my initial assumption of your bias (takes a breath)... and the spiral continues. By the end of a fight, it’s usually the case that both sides are asserting more extreme, aggressive, uncooperative, and incompatible opinions than either started out with.
Living in Separate Realities
If I think you are highly biased (because we disagree so strongly), I won’t expect calm reasoning and an exchange of facts to be effective in influencing your position, so cooperating is likely a waste of time and effort. I might feel that an aggressive response (e.g., intimidating you or targeting your credibility) will have more of the desired effect – you thoughtless sack of stubbornness!
People are by default “naïve realists”: we believe that we see the world as it truly is in “objective reality”. A consequence of this belief is that if you don’t share my view of reality, and if I feel that yours is incompatible with mine, then you must either be ignorant, incapable, or unwilling to view things from an unbiased perspective.
This is an importantly universal and deceptive phenomenon Dr. Pronin calls the Bias Blind Spot: it’s easy and natural for us to perceive other people as biased and unreasonable, but much more difficult to identify unfair bias as such in ourselves. When we do recognize bias in ourselves, we tend to think of it as “obvious”, and in terms of “common sense” –not as an unreasonable, prejudicial, personal bias. And when our biases are pointed out, we feel threatened and respond by accusing the other party of holding a “worse” bias that somehow redeems or negates our own.
The Bias-Conflict Process is Highly Exploitable
Persuasion is the name of the game in politics. You must persuade as many people as possible that you are right and/or your opponents are wrong. If you listen carefully to political rhetoric, it is intentionally engineered to highlight and exaggerate the differences between one party and another, one candidate and another, one position and another.
Democrats are “socialists”; Republicans are “trying to tear down the government.” Democrats “want to run your whole life”, and Republicans “only care about the rich.” Corporations are “evil”, and sharing financial and occupational burdens is “communistic”. Libertarians “don’t want us to have roads or healthcare”, and just about everyone has been a “Nazi” and “un-American” (whatever that means) at one point or another in the course of a disagreement.
According to the mass media, there is a “War” on just about everything: from Christmas to Islam, from terrorism to sexuality, from poverty to traditional values, from science to faith, from homeopathy to insulin, from men to women to kids to freedom to a War on War itself.
The trick is to select abstract, extreme, and cleverly decontextualized words and phrases that in the end all communicate one thing: there’s a huge distance between our position and theirs. And the more we disagree with their positions, the more biased they must be, the less they’ll be willing to cooperate and compromise, and the more alienated we become to one another. Which makes them more threatening. So we dig our heels further into our position and attack theirs, which in turn leads them to perceive us as even more biased and unreasonable, and presto! Conflict intensifies, for reasons totally unrelated to the actual issues at hand.
Perhaps the classic example of extreme and prolonged large-scale conflict escalation is seen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where both sides perceive the other as hopelessly wrong and biased, both and neither side is at fault, and both and neither side is “simply responding to unjust aggressions by the other”.
You can clearly see the symptoms of this psychological process in the American government today. The escalation of perceived conflict contributes to the polarization of opinions on every side, as a sense of urgency grows that something dramatic needs to be done. The recent government shutdown serves as a good example. The more urgent politicians and political analysts tell us “the situation” is, the more extreme measures that are deemed reasonable to pursue. And the more extreme measures each side puts forth, the more biased they appear and the less likely people are able to cooperate.
You may now start to get a sense for the strong psychological roots of the paralysis and disconnectedness the American government is demonstrating today.
Previously escalated conflict acts as a sort of black hole for new events and experiences. They get pulled in and distorted by the biased views of all sides of the conflict, each frantically searching for current events that either support their view or contradict someone else's. Recently the government began enacting the Affordable Care Act. There are clearly many reasonable benefits and many reasonable concerns such an act carries with it. On the one hand, it allows millions of people without health insurance to receive affordable medical treatment. On the other hand, it puts additional financial burden on taxpayers, and increases the government's reach into daily life. With the current intensified conflict between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, however, the ACA never really had a chance to speak for itself on its own terms. It was immediately pulled into the black hole of conflict, riding the slippery 90° slope down to either be blindly praised as a noble symbol of liberal values, or mutated into "Obamacare": an apocalyptic and fascist attack on personal and corporate freedom. It has become a tool for further polarizing people's opinions, rather than what it could be: a wonderful platform to improve our articulation and exploration of legitimate concerns with the differences in our values.
Some may complain that I'm making the same sequence of points over and over, and I am. It is notoriously difficult for people to actually identify their Bias Blind Spot and to notice when it's occurring in themselves in the course of a disagreement, as most psychological defense mechanisms exist for precisely this purpose: to defend you from ideas and facts that compromise your self concept and worldview.
Therapists often spend many, many sessions attempting to help their clients recognize when their automatic judgments about people and events are being distorted by biases in their perception of cause and effect. Clients will often recognize the bias in the session, express their insight and relief, and then show up a week later with a "new" problem that occurred in a different context, but demonstrates the same essential errors in judgment they felt they had overcome the week before. We are, not surprisingly, very attached to our beliefs -- especially when they are criticized or contradicted.
Conclusion: Disagreement is Valuable; Conflict is Toxic
There are few psychological phenomena that are so universally destructive as the escalation of conflict that occurs through the brewing of confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and us vs. them thinking. It unnecessarily strains and destroys relationships between friends and lovers, between governments and nations, and between groups and organizations. If people were better able to identify their own biases and values, and recognize them as inherent to every human being, we might see more patience and understanding between groups of people who would love nothing more than to free themselves of the poison of hate and violence.
I feel that deep down, most people recognize their biases as irrational and exclusionary, but there is definitely a real pleasure in finding that your biases are shared by others. You help each other to rationalize the biases in new ways, thus validating and strengthening them. You don't only see this with ideologies or political orientations, but with sports team fans and school pride as well. Anything that increases your sense of belonging to something, and feeling valued by the members of a group you try to identify with.
Perhaps conflict is something innate to the evolution of our world and our species, and isn’t something we can eliminate. Disagreements are in fact an important part of the development of our values and collective problem solving abilities. Differences of opinion serve to protect a person, group and culture from stagnating in dogmatism and outdated, maladaptive coping mechanisms. It keeps a mind, a business, and a culture alive. In essence: disagreement tends to be healthy and constructive, conflict tends to be unhealthy and destructive.
It is a problematic balance of historic proportions: we must strive to encourage an atmosphere that permits the free expression of authentic disagreement, while valuing our demand for peace by preventing valuable disagreement from escalating to unnecessarily damaging conflict wherever possible. Where we fail in this, we all suffer.
So the next time you feel your position is being attacked and misrepresented by a friend or politician, take a moment and ask yourself, "Am I doing the same thing to them?"
Kennedy, Pronin (2008). When disagreement gets ugly: perceptions of bias and the escalation of conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 34(6): 833-48.