Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What Makes You Open to Conversations With the Opposition?

We are sensitive to signals about the willingness to settle a disagreement.

There is a lot of conflict in the world these days, and it seems like it is getting harder than ever to find compromises.  In the United States, Democrats stake out a position, and Republicans immediately claim the opposite.  The Middle East is a constant source of tension.  Palestinians and Arabs cannot find common ground to support a peaceful settlement of a conflict that has raged for decades.

What would be required to open up the possibility of a dialogue?

This question was addressed in a fascinating set of studies by Tamar Saguy and Eran Halperin in the June, 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

They used the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a starting point.  They suggested that when someone hears a member of an opposing group criticizing their own group, that increases people’s hope that the conflict might be resolved and that leads people to be more open to discussion.

In one study, Israelis read a copy of a (fictitious) report discussing the conflict between Israelis and Palistinians.  One group read a passage that also included a quote from a Palestinian official criticizing Palestinians for the violence.  The other group read a passage without this quote.  After reading the passage, participants rated their hope and optimism for the future and their openness to considering the opposition’s point of view.  Those Israelis who read the passage with this self-critical quote were more hopeful for the future and more willing to consider the opposition view. 

A second study obtained the same effect, but this time the self-critical quote by the Palestinian official was unrelated to the violence.  The official was criticizing the Palestinians' attention to education.  Again, those who read the passage with the self-critical quote were more hopeful for the future and more open to considering the opposition view.

A third study also included measures of people’s beliefs about change.  The work of Carol Dweck and her colleagues (which I have written about several times in this blog) suggests that people are most likely to trust others who have hurt them in the past when they believe that people can change their behavior than when they believe that people can’t change. 

In this third study, people’s tendency to be hopeful for the future and to be willing to consider an opponent’s message after hearing self-criticism was influenced by their beliefs about change. Those who believe that others can change were more hopeful for the future and more willing to listen to the opposition when they heard self-criticism by the opposition than when they didn’t.  Those who believe that people cannot change were not influenced significantly by self-criticism by the opposition.

One final group extended this finding by demonstrating that after people hear self-criticism by a member of the opposition, they are also more interested in compromise.  Essentially, people who read an opponent’s self-criticism who also believe that other people can change were more hopeful about the future, which led to a greater openness to consider the opposition viewpoint, which related to a greater willingness to consider a political compromise.

What does all this mean?  There are a variety of signals that people send during conflicts.  When people criticize themselves, they send a signal that they do not agree with everything that their group has done.  That opens the door to thinking about ways to move beyond the conflict.  In general, resolving conflicts does require some degree of compromise. 

Ultimately, when you are engaged in some kind of conflict (which presumably is less thorny and longstanding as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians), you are also sending signals about your willingness to settle the disagreement. It is worthwhile thinking about the signals you are sending to see whether you are reinforcing people’s opposition or whether you are opening doors to resolving your conflicts.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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