Judgmental Biases in Conflict Resolution and How to Overcome Them
by Leigh Thompson and Janice Nadler
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Judgmental Biases in Conflict Resolution and How to Overcome Them", in Deutsch, Morton and Peter T. Coleman, eds. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000. 213-235.
Thompson and Nadler argue that cognitive biases often interfere with productive conflict resolution. Negotiators are often unaware of such biases, instead blaming blocked resolutions processes on party intransigence or self-interest. Acting to identify and counter cognitive biases makes for more effective conflict resolution.
Commonplace ways of thinking, which are effective and accurate in normal circumstances, can systematically produce errors and wrong judgements in a conflict situation. "In conflict, bias is apt to occur because conflict often leads to inadequate communication between the negotiating parties; arousal of emotional tensions that constrict thinking to stereotypes and to black-and-white viewpoints; primary focus on opposed interests; and anxiety, which may propel one to deny the conflict or flee into agreement before thinking through the consequences."(214)
The authors identify four common types of bias, and their related effects. The first bias is the tendency to simplify the conflict situation. This can lead parties to rely on stereotypes, and to ignore information that is inconsistent with their initial beliefs. It can also lead to false understandings of cause-and-effect relationships. For example, each side may view the others' "aggressive" acts as the cause of their own "defensive" response, ie., each side thinks the other caused the conflict.
The second bias is a tendency to exaggerate the degree of opposition between the parties. One form of this is the (often false) fixed-pie perception. If resource amounts are fixed, then one parties gain will be another's loss. Another is the tendency to overestimate the extremity of the other side's beliefs. This bias can also lead to lose-lose outcomes, as parties remain caught in their (exaggeratedly opposed) conflict.
A third common bias is a tendency to make a false dichotomy between cooperation and competition. Parties assume they must adopt either a purely competitive strategy, or a purely cooperative stance. This can lead to escalation, or to excessive concessions, and ultimately to suboptimal solutions.
A final bias is the (usually unconscious) tendency to favor one's own interests and self, even when consciously trying to be fair and objective. Egocentric bias regularly leads people to overestimate their own positive contributions and responsibility.
These biases have implications for conflict management. Since both involved and third parties tend to exaggerate the degree of opposition, mediators must take care to form an accurate understanding of the conflict, and to help the parties formulate a more accurate view of the interests involved. This also helps to moderate each party's tendency to see the other as unreasonable and extreme. A clearer perception of the interests, and of the possibility of compatible interests, would also help parties avoid lose-lose outcomes.
Egocentric bias leads people to think they have more control over a situation that they actually do. The authors note that this bias "suggests a tactic for concession during conflict resolution: tell your opponent that you will make a concession simultaneously with or just after he makes a concession. This fosters the illusion of control in you opponent."(224) The opponent will feel he will "cause" you to make a concession by making one himself. Mediators can exploit this bias to encourage mutual concessions by suggesting to each party that the other is ripe to be influenced by a concession.
Egocentric bias also leads to (unconsciously) biased judgements of fairness. In a conflict, this can make agreeing on a solution very difficult. Even when each party proposes what they believe to be a fair solution, "each party's conception of fairness is tainted by self interest, so that each solution is most favorable to the party proposing it."(225) Strong identification with a group can help mitigate egocentric bias by making people more willing to seek the good of the group. People are more likely to act for the benefit of a group if the members like each other, and if they feel respected by the group authorities.
Opposition bias can lead to reactive devaluation, where a party values an offer or settlement less based on their reaction to the other party. For instance, a party might reject a concession or offer based simply on her suspicion of the other side's motive--reasoning that if the other side is willing to give it, then it must benefit them somehow, and hence be a loss for her. Similar reasoning means that the more satisfied the opponent is with a settlement, the less satisfied the first party becomes.
Finally, the authors discuss the "schmooze effect." Negotiations go best when there is a rapport and trust between the parties. Lack of any personal rapport makes interactions tense, and parties typically attribute their felt unease to malevolence of the part of the other party. When parties are strangers, or cannot negotiate face-to-face, then they should make a particular effort to get to know one another before negotiating; to introduce themselves, exchange pictures, discuss personal interests, and so on.
Conflict resolution training should include training in methods of reducing these types of cognitive errors. Many of these biases are unconscious. Feedback can help make negotiators aware of their biases. Complete feedback on the process is most likely to reduce the effects of bias in subsequent negotiations. Negotiators should also be trained to reason by analogy from previous negotiation experience. The authors suggest five key strategies which negotiators should learn: build trust and share information, ask questions, provide information, make multiple simultaneous offers, and after the initial settlement search for further and better settlement options.