Tricks the Mind Plays in Conflict: How Cognitive Bias Can Lead to Violence

Introduction

November 8th, 2016 was a difficult day for at least half of the American people, while an incredibly triumphant day for the other half. In the days that followed, thousands of Americans would take to the streets to protest the election of whom they construed as a racist, misogynistic new president. Inevitably, this divide brought massive tension and resulted in a number of conflicts, both ideological and physical. Any conflict analyst familiar with cognitive bias could conceive of any number of biases activated on both sides, at the individual and group levels. I happened to be consulted in a small yet truly representative micro-conflict spawning from this tension, and it was clear that an analysis of the conflict using cognitive bias might help resolve the situation.

On November 10th, I received a text message from an adult male client—I’ll call him Jamie—indicating that he and his family were being insulted publicly via social media, and that he was thus making plans to meet the attacker—another adult male of a similar age (around 30 years old)—who had agreed to meet in order to engage in a street fight. This grade-school-reminiscent tone of meeting the bully on the schoolyard after class was quite surprising from an adult, and especially from Jamie, for whom this type of emotionally-driven, aggressive behavior was out of character. I knew he was emotionally triggered by the election, and was likely misattributing his emotional state to this acute attack. So, I immediately called him to hear his story, discover what cognitive biases were in effect, and hopefully guide him to a more realistic view of the situation in order to calm him down and negate the possibility for violence.

Jamie proceeded to tell me that after posting some of his fears and concerns about the new President-elect on his Facebook feed, an individual, whom he did not know very well but had met before through friends, began attacking him on the feed. They went back and forth a few times, and the communication intensified and became hostile. According to Jamie, the other man—a Trump supporter—began to make insulting remarks about Jamie’s family; these remarks reflected a storyline of them being Iranian immigrants, not understanding American values, not raising Jamie correctly for this country, etc. Attacking Jamie was one thing, but as soon as the man brought Jamie’s family into the arena, Jamie became furious. After all, this was done “in the public,” in front of Jamie’s friends on Facebook. Jamie’s position then was to retaliate and “defend his family’s honor” by publicly setting up a meeting with this individual and letting him “say those things face-to-face.” This was obviously a bad idea, for any number of reasons, but Jamie was infuriated.

I could tell some major biases had resulted from the communication, and those biases were creating an emotionally charged story for Jamie. Namely, I recognized two cognitive biases conspiring to reinforce this potentially violent meeting: overconfidence and victimhood (Bar-Tal & Halperin, 2011), each of which I chose to address in order to dissolve some of the bias and get Jaimie to see the situation more clearly and less defensively.

Overconfidence

Self-deception by way of enhancing self-confidence can be labeled as “over-confidence,” which Johnson & Fowler (2011) remark, “serves to increase ambition, morale, resolve, persistence, or the credibility of bluffing, generating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which exaggerated confidence actually increases the probability of success” (p. 1). It appeared that overconfidence was playing a role in at least two ways for Jamie: 1) in his physical fighting abilities, and 2) in the potential for walking away unscathed from the fight not only physically but also legally and financially.

Jamie has been taking kickboxing lessons for about a year, and it seems he was ready to “test out” his skills, as he put it. Having been a martial instructor and professional fighter trainer for many years, I illuminated some realities to Jamie that this overconfidence bias, as I have often seen with other students, served to neglect. First, I addressed the physical aspect, which I found to be the most surreal, since we were talking about an actual street fight. I asked Jamie if he knew anything of the man’s past, fighting abilities, etc. Of course, Jamie knew nothing about the man. I reminded him that a) the man could be a highly skilled fighter, b) Jamie had never been in a full-contact kickboxing match, let alone a no-holds-barred street fight, and c) the man could be a lunatic who brings a weapon to the encounter. This seemed to jolt Jamie out of the fantasy for a moment, so I continued, next addressing the legal aspect.

Jamie had obvious confidence in his ability to escape—or at least he hadn’t considered—the immense legal and financial ramifications possible after a physical altercation. I asked him: had he ever been to country jail or to prison? Of course, not. Had he ever been sued for assault or battery? He had not. What if, on the on hand, Jamie won the fight and perhaps badly injured the man? Was he prepared to be arrested and mount a legal defense, if necessary? Was he prepared to be sued in civil court, should that occur? And if on the other hand, Jamie was the one who lost, was he prepared to spend days if not weeks in a medical facility, and pay for medical bills, for which he may or may not be reimbursed after a lengthy lawsuit, should that route be pursued? Jamie had not seemed to consider all of this. This line questioning aimed to illuminate the fact that this was not a zero-sum game, where one party wins and one loses, I explained. Physically altercations that are not self-defense related are typically lose-lose scenarios legally, financially, medically, and even psychologically. There is never a reason for physical violence unless it is in self-defense. Again, this seemed to jolt Jamie back to reality even further. At this point, fortunately, he seemed to grasp the notion that physical fighting was actually absurd. The risks and costs were just too high, and so that was finally off the table; but he still felt extremely slighted and embarrassed and wanted to take some action, so we addressed the next bias to determine the best possible route to getting what he wanted.

Victimhood & Misattribution

Now that the possibility for violence was off the table, I wanted to help Jamie get back to a place of inner peace rather than inner conflict as a result of this exchange. As previously stated, he felt his family’s honor was publicly diminished. I translated this to mean that Jamie perceived negative reputational effects for his family, for whom he felt a duty to protect. Jamie had the sense that he, and more importantly his family members, were victims of this attack. Since a sense of victimhood can justify to the victim an aggressive response is often tied up with a need for recognition (Jacoby, 2015; Bar-Tal et al., 2009), I began another line of questioning.

In order to address the outer, pragmatic circumstances, I first asked about the actual reputational effects. Was this exchange actually going to result in some future problems for his family, reputationally, legally, financially, etc.? He said absolutely not. Which, it seemed, got him to realize they were not actually victims in any real-world way, but rather only perceived as such by him.

Next, in order to help Jamie feel recognized and alleviate some his own sense of victimhood in the matter, I asked Jamie how he was feeling. Angry, he told me. So I asked him to sit with the anger for a moment and let me know if he felt anything else, perhaps driving the anger. After a few moments, he revealed that he felt a combination of sad (for having been attacked) and afraid (for his family’s reputation), both of which were making him angry. I asked him then simply to sit with those deeper feelings of sadness and anger. After a few moments, Jamie recognized that he was also feeling deeply afraid of what this new President-elect would do to families of Arab descent, how the presidency would affect them legally and reputationally. These were legitimate, profound fears about his family’s future. We came to realize that Jamie’s deep feelings of fear stemming from the election were being attributed to this social media assailant, as a symbolic representative of the President-elect’s group. So, I asked him to sit with those feelings, and practiced empathizing with Jamie about how he was feeling.

Jamie seemed to be calmer. The altercation on social media left him feeling unrecognized and tapped into deep fears of being looked at as inferior by the President-elect’s group, as though his feelings or beliefs were not being considered, which made him feel attacked and victimized. By getting in touch with those feelings and expressing them to me, he finally felt heard, seen, and recognized. Jamie suddenly saw the entire exchange as quite absurd, and only activating the deeper fears he was feeling as a result of the election. He decided to resolve the social media conflict by simply deleting the man’s comments from his Facebook feed and then blocking the man from his account in order to avoid any further confrontations. Jamie walked away feeling much better, with no further need to defend or attack this man.

Conclusion

In my opinion, there is almost never a morally or legally justifiable reason for physical violence unless it is in defense of life, liberty, or significant property. Two factors that I have seen repeatedly lead to aggression are a sense of victimhood and an overconfidence in the ability to retaliate against those who would victimize. However, these are just two of the many cognitive biases and communication styles that result in conflict. By recognizing these biases and understanding ways of bringing the biased parties back into a more realistic view of the situation, we might help avoid more conflicts, especially those resulting in violence.

REFERENCES

Bar-Tal, D., Chernyak-Hai, L., Schori, N., & Gundar, A. (2009). A sense of self-perceived collective victimhood in intractable conflicts. International Review of the Red Cross, 91(874), 229-258.

Bar-Tal, D., & Halperin, E. (2011). Socio-psychological barriers to conflict resolution. Intergroup conflicts and their resolution: Social psychological perspective, 217-240.

Halperin, E., & Bar-Tal, D. (2011). Socio-psychological barriers to peace making: An empirical examination within the Israeli Jewish society. Journal of Peace Research, 48(5), 637-651.

Jacoby, T. A. (2015). A theory of victimhood: politics, conflict and the construction of victim-based identity. Millennium-Journal of International Studies, 43(2), 511-530.

Johnson, D. D., & Fowler, J. H. (2011). The evolution of overconfidence. Nature,477(7364), 317-320.

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