When we escalate arguments by lashing out, it’s more often rooted in our impulsive gut reactions rather than strategy, according to new research.
The research suggests we could avoid many conflicts with more deliberate thought and consideration of future consequences.
“People are often motivated by retribution, even if they themselves don’t realize that,” says senior author Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “This is not something that’s always in our consciousness, but it tends to be a very strong motivator for behavior.”
Going with Our Guts
The new study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, relied on a series of seven experiments conducted in public places in Chicago. In every experiment, the researchers used financial incentives to simulate the stakes of real-life conflicts, offering participants opportunities to give or take money from someone else.
Analyzing the behavior of more than 1,000 participants across the seven experiments, the scholars found that encouraging deliberation led to fewer examples of conflict escalation—taking more money in response to a perceived slight. Indeed, they discovered that even asking very simple questions would alter the participants’ behavior, reducing the likelihood of a negative response.
“These retributive responses only emerge when you aren’t thinking that hard about the issue,” says senior author Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science in the Booth School of Business. “You’re instead acting on your immediate emotional response.”
Police Work Connection
Researchers based the experiments on the doctoral dissertation of first author James VanderMeer. For the past four years, VanderMeer has worked as a patrol officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. He was drawn to that job, in part, because he saw an intersection between psychology and the strategies discussed in police reform.
“These seemed like problems that were meant for behavioral scientists to tackle,” VanderMeer says. “How do officers see themselves and their roles? How do agencies benchmark their progress? How do we optimize on those questions? It was exciting for me to think about.”
He credited his academic background for shaping the way he views police work: “Being in these intimate moments in people’s lives are opportunities to effect some positive change.”
Assumptions in Arguments
In surveying the participants, the scholars found that people could not predict conflict escalation with any sort of consistent accuracy. One reason may be that many participants expected others to behave strategically, calculating the costs and benefits of social interactions rather than acting on impulse.
“People believe that when others escalate, they are trying to deter future harm to themselves,” says Keysar, whose research has discovered systemic reasons for miscommunication and misunderstandings. “That’s why they predicted escalation exactly when they didn’t happen.”
For Epley, the study highlights the disparity between expectations and reality. One abandoned experiment, he adds, involved asking participants to insult each other; nearly all of them refused.
“From my perspective,” Epley says, “the most interesting thing that came out of our work was actually how hard it is to get people to escalate—and how easy it is to flip the switch and keep them from escalating.”
Funding for the study came from the National Science Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
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