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How Little Disagreements Can Destroy the Best Relationships

New research shows what leads trivial matters to ruin close relationships.

Key points

  • Disagreements about matters of opinion are a natural part of any relationship.
  • Before you know it, a simple dispute can become a complex wedge in your relationships.
  • Understanding how easy it is to judge harshly those who disagree with you can help you find common ground.
Goksi/Shutterstock
Source: Goksi/Shutterstock

When it comes to matters of taste and judgment, there is always room for differences of opinion. You loved a particular movie and your friend hated it. That’s fine for you to take these very different views but if the dispute starts to escalate, even this seemingly trivial matter can create a wedge in your relationship. Something about your positive view of that movie has struck a nerve with your friend, perhaps because its theme reflected a political, gender-based, or racial bias. Your liking of that movie means, your friend points out, that you share that bias, making you someone your friend would rather not be with anymore.

Perhaps the dispute is not just with a friend, but your closest romantic partner. For years, you’ve trusted your partner to be open-minded and fair, sharing your general views about life. Both of you value such ideals as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and both of you have made decisions that confirm these ideals. However, your partner is starting to develop relationships with other people who don’t hold those ideals. These people, who your partner meets through work, engage in what you regard as dangerous and risky behaviors. Making matters worse, not all of them have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, and don’t intend to. Doesn't this mean that your partner has become someone whose judgment you can no longer trust?

How Do Differences of Opinion Create Wedges in Relationships?

According to a newly published study by Princeton University’s Nathan Cheek and colleagues (2021), disagreements are just a normal part of life. However, “Though disagreements are often harmless, they can sometimes trigger arguments, anger, resentment, and even the dissolution of relationships or violence” (p. 167). The Princeton authors support their case by citing what they refer to as an “almost unbelievable example of the escalation of trivial disagreements that emerged in 2017, on the topic of pineapple pizza” (p. 167). When the President of New Zealand admitted that he liked the tangy taste provided by the pineapple, the people of his country went so far as to question his “sanity.” The President of Iceland, in turn, declared that if it was up to him, his own country would make pineapple pizza illegal.

When it comes to such subjective experiences as art and food, Cheek and his colleagues note that, unlike objective differences (i.e. matters of fact), these less-defined qualities can’t be inherently “right” or “wrong.” You could be wrong in thinking that a particular actor starred in that movie your friend hated so much. This you can determine through a quick online search. However, who’s wrong and who’s right about the movie’s aesthetic if not politically laden message, clearly falls into the subjective domain. Similarly, with your partner, you can quote all the data you like about why the choices your partner’s new buddies make are so bad. Even though your partner might agree with these “facts,” though, it’s still possible for your partner to feel that you’re being too conservative about staying away from those risky behaviors.

The problem that can occur when people disagree on a subjective matter, as Cheek et al. point out, is that the person on one side of the issue can come to regard those on the opposite side as having negative personal attributes such as being ignorant, ill-informed, lazy, and biased. Even though everyone may recognize that many views can be right on a subjective matter, when people adopt one set of views, other people can start to view them from this negative perspective.

What Explains the Pathway from Disagreements to Relationship Wedges?

The Princeton authors propose that behind this polarizing tendency is the idea of “naïve realism,” or the tendency for people to have the “’unshakeable conviction’ that they see the world objectively and that other rational and informed perceivers will therefore share their perceptions and reactions” (p. 168). This naïve realism then becomes translated into “a bias projection effect” or the tendency to see other people as the ones who are biased rather than yourself. As your partner starts to dabble in unhealthy behaviors, it’s you who your partner sees as being on the wrong side of science.

When it comes to matters of taste, then, Cheek and his colleagues suggest that even people who agree with the idea of subjectivity leave that theoretical view aside when they find themselves on those opposite poles.

In a series of online studies, the research team first determined through a quick survey of 40 participants that people view art as involving more subjectivity than political stances. The researchers continued to investigate this objective-subjective difference in later studies, comparing politics-based vs. art-based differences in a variety of experimental manipulations.

Across the series of studies that Cheek and his team conducted, participants were placed in simulated situations in which another person ostensibly disagreed with them in the judgment of a particular painting. The findings continued to support their proposal that disagreements about art can morph from subjective to objective in which the person holding one opinion views those holding the opposite opinion as factually wrong. The negative perceptions of disagreeing with others even went so far as to include judgments by participants that those who don't see eye to eye with them are biased and worse, as unlikeable, dishonest, and even as lacking in such qualities as leadership potential. The participants stated that their dislike extended to a desire not to want to be friends with these people, invite them to a neighborhood group or even vote for them in an election.

How, you may ask, can people who claim to regard disputes about art as matters of taste still denigrate the “disagreeing others” who don’t like what they like? The Princeton authors suggest that when you form an opinion of a particular artist, you dig down into your own thoughts and feelings through a process of introspection. You don’t think that your preferences reflect any biases. Let’s say that your favorite painting is Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” You’ve always loved this painting and you even have a coffee mug with its image. However, what if you were to encounter someone who gave you a quizzical stare when you mention this in conversation? Would you start to wonder about this person’s judgment? Would they seem to you to be ignorant? Obviously (to you) this is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created.

As the authors concluded, such seemingly “trivial” matters as disagreements about art become not so trivial at all. People infer negative qualities with those who don’t see eye to eye with them. A minor disagreement snowballs, through this inferential process, into a “serious interpersonal conflict” (p. 180).

What Can You Do to Stop a Disagreement in Its Tracks?

Armed with the knowledge about how easy it is to jump from a disagreement about the subjective into a general disparagement of the person on the other side of you, there are definite steps you can take to keep the difference of opinion from ruining your entire relationship. Consider your friend who regards you as prejudiced based on your liking of that movie. Before the divergence of opinion grows into massive proportions, stop and examine where your friend is coming from. Is there some truth to this interpretation of the movie’s theme and characters? In the back of your mind, do you feel yourself resonating even a little to your friend’s objection? If so, you can use this as a basis to walk the conflict back so that your friendship remains intact. You might even find that you’ve learned something important.

When it comes to your partner’s newly adopted lifestyle choices, you may feel that the objective facts are truly on your side, but is there some aspect of this behavior that you’re missing? Instead of concluding that your partner is obviously behaving in a way that flaunts your joint value system, figure out, preferably with your partner, how to come to an acceptable compromise. Maybe you can get your partner to draw the line between behavior that’s fun and behavior that both of you can see as objectively just too risky.

To sum up, the next time you find that you and someone you care about differ in matters of taste, the Princeton study can help you pause and reflect before your own “naïve realism” takes over. Knowing how easily differences can escalate can help you avoid letting them interfere with the fulfillment you can gain from your most important relationships.

Facebook image: Goksi/Shutterstock

References

Cheek, N. N., Blackman, S. F., & Pronin, E. (2021). Seeing the subjective as objective: People perceive the taste of those they disagree with as biased and wrong. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 34(2), 167–182. doi: 10.1002/bdm.2201

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