Feedback can often spark a conflict, especially when it’s negative in tone. This can often be due to the differing interpretation of the situation and the facts by the giver and the receiver.
For instance, we might have certain rules or heuristics by which we tend to view the world. Often, we view these rules as the only rules that could possibly exist, rather than simply the rules we ourselves abide by.
We also tend to view things through the narrative of ourselves as the hero of the piece, and the other person as the villain. This situation was emphasized by a recent study exploring how our interpretation of events can so often lead to conflict.
The paper, published by researchers at Boston College, explored a range of conflicts from around the world, whether Israel vs Palestine or Republicans vs Democrats. They spoke with around 3,000 people involved in each conflict to explore their motivations, and their perceived motivations of the opposition.
The study uncovered what’s known as motive attribution asymmetry. This basically suggests that people often assume that their own motivations are pure and noble, whilst those of their opponents are the polar opposite.
So group members would see their own actions as driven by love, care and affiliation, but would rarely see these behaviours in their opponents. A big reason for that is that we only tend to see our foes when we’re arguing with them.
“It’s interesting to see that people can be blind to the source of behavior on the other side, that you can go from saying you are motivated by love of your own group and you can’t seem to apply that to reasoning about the other side,” the researchers say.
“What’s interesting to me is there’s so much work on social psychology suggesting we first think about who we are and what motivates us and we tend to apply that other people,” they continue. “What we’re seeing here is just the opposite where I say one thing for me and instead of extrapolating that it would be the same for you, I say it’s just the opposite for you, that you’re motivated by your hatred of my group. That’s pretty striking to me.”
Suffice to say, when we project such negative characteristics onto our rivals, it makes negotiating with them much harder. We tend to then believe them to be unreasonable, thus entrenching the conflict further.
There is a way out however
The researchers do believe there is a way to overcome these misconceptions however. They found that when financial rewards were presented to participants, they came up with a more accurate assessment of their rivals motivations.
“We just simply told people they would get a bonus for getting the answer right so they had to buy into this idea that there was a right answer,” they suggest. “It seems like we can at least move around people’s judgments and that people aren’t so hopelessly lost that they can’t get it right when they are motivated to get it right.”
They believe that highlighting that the asymmetry exists is often the first step to overcoming the challenges that exist in conflict situations. All of which makes a good flow of information so valuable.