Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why We Need Everyone to Believe We're Correct

When you're right, you're right. Right?

When people disagree on an issue, there are several ways they might deal with that disagreement. They might avoid it altogether, either by putting off a discussion or just agreeing with the other person in order to end the conversation. On the other hand, people can be active in resolving disagreements. 

In that case, we have the choice between being competitive or cooperative. Competitive resolution means that people are trying to convince the other person to change their belief. Cooperative resolution means that people are seeking some kind of middle ground.

Many factors lead people to take a cooperative or a competitive stance when dealing with a disagreement. For example, the personality characteristic of openness reflects how willing people are to consider new ideas. People high in openness are more likely to be cooperative than those who are low in openness. The characteristic of agreeableness reflects how much people want to get along with others. Agreeable people are also more likely to seek a compromise than disagreeable people.

An interesting paper by Kimberly Rios, Kenneth DeMarree, and Johnathan Statzer in the July 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin examined the way people’s certainty about their beliefs affects their tendency to be cooperative or competitive. 

People’s certainty about their beliefs can be broken down into two components: clarity and correctness. Clarity refers to whether people are sure about what they believe. Each of us has some beliefs that we hold deeply and others to which we are not as firmly attached. Correctness focuses on whether we think our belief is “correct” in some broader cultural or moral context. 

The authors suggested that the more strongly people believe their attitude is correct, the more competitive they will be in their discussions. In contrast, they did not assume that clarity would be as strongly related to competitiveness.

In one study, participants read about a proposed tax on junk foods that would be used to defray medical expenses for people who ate unhealthy foods. Participants read about the issue, and then used a scale to rate both how clear they were about their own attitude as well as whether they believed that their attitude was the "right" one to have. 

After that, participants were led to believe that they would engage in a discussion with a person who had the opposing view. They were given the opportunity to select messages that would be sent to the other person before the discussion. Some of these sentences suggested competition (“I plan on winning this debate”); some suggested cooperation (“I hope that you will also want to find some common ground on this issue”); others reflected a desire to learn about the conversation partner’s beliefs (“I’m curious to learn about your position in this debate”).

In this study, the more strongly that people believed that their attitude was correct, the more likely they were to select competitive sentences to introduce themselves to their partner. Being clear about the attitude, however, did not have a strong influence on people’s sentence selections.  

Other studies in this paper manipulated correctness and clarity experimentally. To manipulate correctness, people were shown a story suggesting that most other people agree with their attitude (leading to high correctness) or that most other people disagree (leading to low correctness). To increase clarity, people were given opportunities to repeat their belief, which makes it easier for people to state what they believe.

In these studies, manipulations of correctness made people more likely to adopt a competitive stance in discussions. But manipulations of clarity did not have a strong influence on the way people approached discussions. 

Putting this together, then, being certain of your attitude can affect whether you try to convince other people that you are right. In particular, the more strongly you believe that your attitude is the right one, the more you will focus on convincing others. 

That also means that if you find yourself in conflict with others on a regular basis, you might want to evaluate whether you generally assume that your attitudes are the correct ones. If so, you might consider discovering other people’s perspectives in order to see whether there is validity to opposing points of view. That may reduce your tendency to treat discussions as invitations for coercion.

 

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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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