The Bias That Can Help Explain Endless Conflicts

Protestors and counter-protestors shout slogans at each other during a demonstration against Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip, August 2, 2014 in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not news that people tend to dehumanize so called “outgroup” members — that is, those folks over there who just aren’t like us. They just don’t have the same values we have; they’re motivated by something sinister, something darker. All we want is to live in peace. A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helps explain this damaging mindset and also gives some hints on how to chip away at it.

To the press release:

The research involved the participation of almost 3,000 people: Israelis and Palestinians in the Mideast, Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. The study shows each side felt their own group is motivated by love more than hate, but when asked why their rival group is involved in the conflict, pointed to hate as that group’s motivating factor. This idea is called “motive attribution asymmetry,” one group’s belief that their rivals are motivated by emotions opposite to their own. The idea is driven by a group seeing its own members engaged in acts of “love, care, and affiliation” but, as the report points out, “rarely (observing) these actions amongst (opponents) because we only see them during moments of heated conflict.”

There’s a mismatch between what I think my group’s motive is and what you think my group’s motive is – there definitely seems to be an error or bias in the way that happens,” says Dr. Young.

Only when a financial reward was presented would a study participant come up with the correct assessment as to what the motivation behind an opponent really was.

“We just simply told people they would get a bonus for getting the answer right so they had to buy into this idea that there was a right answer,” says Dr. Young. “It seems like we can at least move around people’s judgments and that people aren’t so hopelessly lost that they can’t get it right when they are motivated to get it right.”

While the motive attribution asymmetry makes solutions and compromise unattainable, the research paper points out it doesn’t always have to be this way.

“Although people find it difficult to explain their adversaries’ actions in terms of love and affiliation, we suggest that recognizing this attributional bias and how to reduce it can contribute to reducing human conflict on a global scale.”

That idea of only seeing your opponents during instances of conflict is a key one. In Israel, for example, a fair number of organizations are devoted to simply normalizing everyday interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. This research suggests that while these initiatives are by no means panaceas, they are an important piece of the puzzle.

Anyway, social scientists have known for a long time that simply identifying a bias doesn’t dissolve it. But when you can posit a single, relatively simple quirk of human thought that can explain a wide variety of conflicts, that’s surely a good thing.