Recently, the Kluwer Mediation Blog posted an interesting discussion about the cognitive biases at play during a dispute. What caught my interest is that the author- Charlie Irvine- used the example of driving to make his point. In his blog entitled, “What Mediators Know (Or Can’t Help Noticing) about Conflict”  he discusses the cognitive bias known as the “fundamental attribution error”. This bias means that when we want to give a reason for another person’s behavior, we tend to claim that the person had control over the situation, it was internal to her, yet when we seek to excuse our own behavior, we claim that it was situational; we had no control over what happened. As a consequence, we claim that anyone who “wronged” us, did it purposefully, having full control over the situation: yet, when we allegedly “wrong” someone, we will be quick to claim that it “was out of our control!” Especially here in Los Angeles where having a vehicle and driving are absolute musts, his example hits home:

… if I am driving and someone overtakes me at speed in the inside lane I am liable to guess that the driver is aggressive and impatient. I am attributing motives to a person I can’t see and will never meet, based entirely on the trajectory of a vehicle. I can’t know, for example, whether they are in a hurry on a mercy mission (his partner is on the way to the maternity hospital) or to out of consideration for someone else. I am even less likely to attribute their behaviour to MY contribution: perhaps I am driving unduly slowly in the outside lane, and the person is simply following all the other traffic in theirs. These would be situational explanations for the behaviour and we show a robust tendency to discount them when judging others. (Id.) ( Emphasis original).

He then notes that the “negativity effect” compounds the situation. If a person we dislike does something nice, we will “discount any well-intentioned or even ambiguous acts” (Id.) simply because we do not like the person.

In short, we overestimate the “bad” motives of others, and given our egos and our view of the world, underestimate our contribution to the situation. Again, using the driving example:

Suppose I am the one driving in the inside lane. I come up alongside a car travelling more slowly than mine. As I move forward to pass them I attribute my behaviour to the situation: “they were going too slowly”; “I am late home”; “people like that shouldn’t be allowed on the road.” I tend not not (sic) to think that I am aggressive or impatient. (Id.)

We fail to see our own contributions giving rise to the situation, and instead, blame the occurrence of the conflict on the other person:

Each sees the other person’s unreasonable and inexplicable behaviour, but appear[s] to overlook the most obvious cause: their own actions. These “actor/observer differences” help explain why we are acutely conscious of offence caused to us by others but are often blithely unaware of the offence we give. (Id.)

In short, no one party is completely right, and no one party is completely wrong. The “truth” is always somewhere in the middle and more times than not, our assumptions about someone else’s motives are completely wrong. Rather than ALWAYS assume that we are the GOOD guys and the others are the BAD guys, it would do us well to stop, cast aside our assumptions and instead ask questions and listen. Viewing the situation from the other person’s perspective will be eye opening. We will be amazed at what we hear and learn.

….Just something to think about.

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By Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis G. Pollack is a full time neutral in Los Angeles where, as President of PGP Mediation, she focuses on business, real estate, contract and “lemon law” disputes. She may be reached at Phone: 213-630-8810 / phyllis@pgpmediation.com / Website: www.pgpmediation.com