On numerous occasions we have discussed the work of Lee Ross, the Stanford social psychologist who coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error,” which refers to the tendency to overestimate the influence of a person’s disposition and to underestimate the influence of his situation. Ross has also worked with several Situationist contributors, including Emily Pronin (on the bias blind spot) and Aaron Kay (on situational cues).
On Thursday, April 10, Professor Ross spoke at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania on psychological barriers to conflict resolution. He was a guest of Professor Andrew Ward and Liz Hipple of the Daily Gazette was there to cover it. We excerpt her story below.
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Naïve realism is the conviction that one sees the world as it is and that when people don’t see it in a similar way, it is they that do not see the world for what it is. Ross characterized naïve realism as “a dangerous but unavoidable conviction about perception and reality”. The danger of naïve realism is that while humans are good in recognizing that other people and their opinions have been shaped and influenced by their life experiences and particular dogmas, we are far less adept at recognizing the influence our own experiences and dogmas have on ourselves and opinions. We fail to recognize the bias in ourselves that we are so good in picking out in others.
This high opinion of our insusceptibility to bias might explain why so many people agree about the bias of the media, though not on the direction of that bias. A study of Ross’s on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict found that both Palestinians and Israelis who saw the same media coverage of an event thought that it was biased. Palestinians thought that it was biased in favor of Israelis, and Israelis thought that it was biased in favor of Palestinians.
Overcoming naïve realism is difficult because group dialogue, usually thought to be a good way of helping people to see things from the other point of view, can actually only further polarize opinions on a topic. Ordinary dialogue does not necessarily lead to recognition of the ambivalent nature of “right and wrong” on an issue. Ross’s suggested solution to this problem is to have members of a group discussion each give one point of the other side’s argument that they think has some legitimacy. The study that Ross has done on this potential solution to conflict had the impressive result of 100% agreement being reached using this method.
While naïve realism is an unfortunate characteristic of the human psyche that none of us are immune to, resolutions to conflicts can be found through the acknowledgment of the other side’s point of view. In another study of Ross’s, having a confederate positively acknowledge the subject by saying something along the lines of, “I’ve heard what you’ve said, and so I’m going to discard the proposal I came in with” greatly increased the chances of coming to an agreement, rather than the confederate sticking with his original proposal that he arrived with. While walking a mile in another person’s shoes may not be the solution to conflict resolution, it seems that it could not hurt to be aware of the mile that that person has come.
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