TRICKS OF THE MIND THAT PERPETUATE CONFLICT

 

 

This section is a change of pace.  I hope you will stay with me here.  Several years ago, I read an article in the New York Times (July 24, 2006) that continues to inspire me.  The writer, Daniel Gilbert, a professor at Harvard, entitled his essay, “He Who Cast the First Stone, Probably Didn’t.”  The article talks about how kids and nations use two justifications when confronted about being in a fight:  “He hit me first” and “He hit me harder.”

 

Gilbert explores these.  We label those who give punches #1, #3, #5, etc, as the instigators of the fight.  When we think we are giving punches #2, #4, #6, etc, we can convince ourselves that we are the victim and the blameless one.  In this context, our actions are seen by us as reactions.  We tend to perceive a conflict as starting when we first feel pain.  Therefore, it is natural to experience that the other person offended first and that we are only responding with even-numbered punches.

(A story for you.)  CHAPTER ONE:  Kenny and Benny are children who often play together:  the same neighborhood, same age, and same size.  They fight a lot.  Who starts it?  Kenny is sure that Benny is the one that starts and escalates their conflicts and that he, himself, only does what he has to do to defend himself.  But when you talk with Benny, he will tell you that Kenny is the one who starts and escalates everything, while he just does what he has to do to defend himself. 

 

In his article, Professor Gilbert refers to a psychological study done at the University of Texas, by William Swann and colleagues.  Pairs of volunteers are assigned roles as world leaders in conflict and then asked to dialogue about whether to initiate a nuclear strike. 

CHAPTER TWO:  Our fictitious friend, Ken, now a college student, needs extra money, so he volunteers for the Swann conflict study.  He is paired up with a stranger, Fred, for the experiment.  After the initial dialogue, volunteers were shown some of their own statements and asked what was said before and afterward.  Ken looked at a list of his own statements and tried to recall what Fred said before and after these statements.  Like the other pairs of volunteers, Ken could usually recall the statements made before his, i.e. Fred’s statements that he, Ken, had responded to.  But Ken could seldom recall the statements Fred said after his (Ken’s) statements. 

 

When shown the other person’s statements, it was in reverse.  Ken looked at the statements Fred had made and could recall the after statements - his replies to Fred’s statements, but not the before statements of his which had preceded the statements made by Fred.  Fred followed the same pattern of strongly seeing his words as reactions to what he heard, but seldom seeing or remembering how his own words may have elicited the response that he got from Ken.  This documents the tendency to see ourselves as being reactors rather than causers, always throwing the even-numbered punches, so to speak. 

(You can see why modern parenting instructors often report that it is a counterproductive starting point to try to determine who started it.  The only way out is to announce boldly, “Something has happened.  Let’s see what needs each of you are trying to get met.”)

 

We see other people’s actions and hear their words more easily than we observe our own words and actions.  We have access to our inner dialogue; therefore we usually know the reasoning behind our actions.  Our behavior makes sense to us, and, therefore, our words and actions are less jarring, less memorable to us. 

 

Compounding this, Gilbert refers to another study done by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, addressing “He hit me harder.” 

CHAPTER THREE:  The next semester, Ken is studying abroad in London.  Ken’s old friend, Ben, is visiting.  They have gone to all the tourist sights and are bored.  They do not have anything better to do on a Thursday afternoon, so they both volunteer for Shergill’s study.  Volunteers are wired to a device that measures the pressure each applies to the other’s fingers.  They are instructed to exchange touches of equal force.  Ken and Ben concentrate to follow instructions.  Even with the best of intentions, like the other volunteers, they routinely increase the pressure on each other.  Across the board, volunteers applied about 40% more pressure than they received, each time!  Why?  The pain we receive is more tangible / real to us than the pain we give to others. 

 

Recent studies find that our brain numbs out our awareness of sensations that are familiar and/or expected.  It overrides our continued noticing of the chair we are sitting in or the mildly pinching shoes we have on.  We do not hear the noisy fan and traffic, but the much softer cry of a baby gets our attention.  If we initiate a physical action toward ourselves or others, our brain registers less than if someone else does the same action.  When a friend massages our feet, our brain will take more note of it than if we massage our own feet, especially when they make unexpected moves. 

CHAPTER FOUR:  That very weekend, Ken and fiancée, Polly, get into a terrible argument.  They yell at each other.  They say unkind things.  He storms out.  She is in tears. 

CHAPTER FIVE:  Polly calls her friend Molly and tells her how wounded she is because of all the cruel things Ken said.  Molly listens for nearly an hour to a list of Ken’s devastating comments.  Ken and Ben go out to a local pub where Ken relates to his friend all the hurtful, mean things that Polly said to him.  They agree she was a bitch and maybe he should not get married after all. 

CHAPTER SIX:  So, shall we make this story have a happy ending?  Shall Ken receive in the mail a few days later, the report on what the recent Shergill psych study was all about and, by some odd coincidence, on the same day shall he read in the paper an article on the Swann psych study he participated in the last semester?  And with even greater coincidence, shall Ben go with a friend to a workshop on Nonviolent Communication?  Shall Ken then call Ben, who is at home by this time, and shall they confer about how they could apply all of this information to understanding the fight Ken had with Polly?  Shall they then consider what steps Ken might take to invite Polly to join him in digging themselves out of the hole they together dug themselves into? 

 

I leave the ending to you.

 

Here is a summary of the ways our brain misinforms us. 

 

  • We usually perceive a fight as starting when we first experience pain, therefore everyone involved can easily conclude that the other person started it. 

 

  • We know the details of our own lives and our own thinking, therefore, our words and actions seem to us to be reasonable, logical, and ethical. 

 

  • We seldom know the details of the life and the inner dialogue of the other person, so their words and actions can often seem unreasonable, jarring, and startling. 

 

  • We notice stimuli that are surprising to us more than those familiar to us.

 

  •  The physical and mental pain we receive is more real to us than the pain we give to others. 

 

Throughout Connection, we will look at many ways to get beyond the illusions of our minds.

 

 

CATCHING AN ALIVE ILLUSION OR TWO

 

1.  Think of any interaction you have observed in person or on TV that might illustrate any of the above ideas.  Describe briefly what happened.

 

 

 

 

2.  Think of one interaction between you and a friend wherein they said or did something you did not appreciate.  Can you find or imagine any words or actions of your own that they might be reacting to?  Describe briefly what happened.