Hidden Variables in Conflict: Bias and Belief

When conflict arises, it seems de rigueur for parties to blame the other and to focus only on how we are right/virtuous and the other is wrong/flawed. Two psychological processes help us to understand that tendency. Confirmation bias and selective recall means we only notice or remember data that confirm our hypothesis or position but ignore or forget the information that refute it.   These tendencies may be especially pervasive when we become emotional during the conflict. As a result, we each become entrenched in our righteousness, and gridlock occurs.

Hopefully, once parties calm down, reason can prevail. But it doesn’t always happen, especially if emotions stay high around the issue and forgiveness evades either or both parties.

I have never seen a conflict where, after talking to both parties, I thought one side was completely at fault and the other entirely innocent. That is not to say, however, that both parties behaved equally well after the conflict began.

Considering the possibility that you are wrong or at least equally responsible is a hard thing to do. We are often invested in the illusion/delusion that we are perfect or always right because otherwise we will be abandoned or not OK/loved/accepted/safe/included/understood. These schema beliefs provide the emotional gasoline for that conflict spark.

And don’t think you don’t have any schema beliefs. We all do.

So consider that, at minimum, we each bring confirmation bias, selective recall and schema into any interpersonal dynamic, especially conflict.   It’s a natural human tendency, so don’t feel bad.  But don’t feel like you’re off the hook, either.

In the end, if we wish to have healthy relationships we have a responsibility to understand and manage our own biases and beliefs.

Understanding and accepting that we all have these tendencies is a good starting place to explore our roles and responsibilities when we have conflict with others. Those responsibilities include focusing on our own part in the conflict in a constructive manner. A constructive approach means understanding how our own biases and beliefs contributed to the start or escalation of the conflict, then finding strategies to improve in the future.

On the other hand, a constructive approach does not include either going to the other extreme and assuming all the blame or pointing fingers at the other’s failure to manage their own schema and biases. You don’t want to undo all that good you are trying to do by adding martyrdom or hypocrisy to the list, right?

I know it’s hard and scary work. It takes courage and honesty to really look at oneself without the usual rose- or grey-colored lenses that we’re comfortable with. But in the end, I feel it is the mature, loving and right thing to do to grow beyond our adolescent tendencies and take responsibility for our actions especially when our subconscious variables are in the mix.

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