The roots of human difference and conflict

March 22, 2012 | By | Reply More

My prejudice has long been that most human conflicts can be traced to base-level differences, minor seeming micro-differences, until they clash at macro levels.   I tried to describe this by reference to an incident in the movie “Apollo 13.” Here’s another way of expressing this same idea:

We proceed from the working hypothesis that inferential and judgmental errors arise primarily from nonmotivational—perceptual and cognitive—sources. Such errors, we contend, are almost inevitable products of human information-processing strategies. In ordinary social experience, people often look for the wrong data, often see the wrong data, often retain the wrong data, often weight the data improperly, often fail to ask the correct questions of the data, and often make the wrong inferences on the basis of their understanding of the data. With so many errors on the cognitive side, it is often redundant and unparsimonious to look also for motivational errors. We argue that many phenomena generally regarded as motivational (for example, self-serving perceptions and attributions, ethnocentric beliefs, and many types of human conflict), can be understood better as products of relatively passionless information-processing errors than of deep-seated motivational forces.

R. Nisbett and L. Ross Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment, p. 12 (1980).

The solution to most social conflict, then, is not fighting wars or even yelling at each other.  It is striving to be smart–working hard to identify those low-level differences.    That is one of the main reasons why I find Jonathan Haidt’s ideas so valuable.   Rather than demonize (which we should avoid at all costs), we should work hard to determine why we disagree.  Where is it that our world-views diverge?


Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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