Chain reactions: How observers escalate conflict

By — on / Dispute Resolution

The United States and the USSR. The nationalists and the unionists in Ireland. Israel and Palestine. History is rife with stories of conflict that grew progressively more heated and destructive over the course of generations.

Such conflicts can escalate and spread because the parties involved show favoritism toward members of their own group at the expense of outsiders. Yet that’s not the whole story, researchers Tiane L. Lee and Michele J. Gelfand of the University of Maryland and Yoshihisa Kashima of the University of Melbourne find in a new study. As it turns out, interested third-party observers also can play a role in perpetuating disputes.

A grown-up game of telephone
To examine the influence of third-party observers on disputes, Lee and colleagues designed a laboratory version of the old children’s party game of telephone, in which one child whispers a message to the child next to her, who then whispers it to his other neighbor, and so on. In telephone, hilarity ensues when the last child in the chain reports what she heard: typically a silly, nonsense version of the original message.

To test their tweaked version of telephone, Lee and colleagues divided their undergraduate student participants into two groups. Some of the participants in the neutral condition read a narrative account of a conflict between two sets of neighbors whom they were told to imagine lived upstairs from them, and who they were told came from two different towns. Some of the participants in the partisan condition read that the residents of one of the upstairs apartments were their friends and that the residents of the other apartment were strangers from another town.

In both conditions, the narrative described several conflicts that had arisen between the two groups of upstairs neighbors, including disputes over noise, garbage, and parking. The conflicts were described similarly in both conditions, with neither group overall appearing to be clearly more culpable than the other.

After reading the narrative, each participant was asked to retell it as he or she remembered it by typing it out. Then the researchers took the retold narrative to another person in the same condition, who read it and retold it. This process continued until the narrative had been retold four times by 49 different “chains” of students.

Distorted perceptions
In the experiment’s partisan condition, each participant introduced small distortions to the narrative in favor of his or her group of friends. Ultimately, the final retold version in each communication chain of partisan observers was a “highly biased, inaccurate representation of the original dispute” that easily could have escalated the conflict, the authors write. In contrast, the final accounts produced by the participants in the neutral condition were fair representations of the conflict that showed no clear bias toward either group.

Overall, the findings reveal that third-party observers of others’ disputes can play an active role in fomenting conflict by passing on biased perceptions of a dispute to the next generation of observers. The study highlights the responsibility we all have to try to view disputes as objectively as possible with the goal of contributing to a solution rather than becoming part of the problem.

Resource: “The Serial Reproduction of Conflict: Third Parties Escalate Conflict Through Communication Biases,” by Tiane L. Lee, Michele J. Gelfand, and Yoshihisa Kashima. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2014.

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