Attribution Error

We have found that there is a recurring dynamic which often exacerbates conflict between individuals.   If this dynamic is understood by the parties, it can help them understand better what is fueling the conflict and make appropriate adjustments.  Commonly referred to as the “attribution error” by social psychologists, a simple way to explain this is that we judge ourselves by our intentions and judge others by the impact of their actions on us.  If we are hurt or offended by something another person has said or done, we often assume that he or she meant to hurt us.  However, if another person is hurt by something we say or do, even though we were not intending to hurt them, we absolve ourselves of any blame because our intentions were pure.  And we don’t understand why the other person doesn’t believe that our intentions were honorable.  Because we know that our intentions are beyond reproach, we have the tendency to feel that we have the moral high ground.

For example, imagine neighbors in a dispute about whether the gate to their joint access road should be kept open or closed.  One neighbor wanted it open because he had kids in the car and it was frustrating to jump out, open it, drive through, and close it again with cranky children.  The other wanted to keep the deer from her garden and viewed it as a minor but necessary inconvenience to deal with the gate.  Both believed the other person had unreasonable needs and expectations.   The gate dispute was the beginning of a conflict that ultimately escalated into an increasingly acrimonious and escalating series of misunderstandings, during which each party ended up demonizing the other, and ultimately resulted in a lawsuit about the property line.  Once people start to make the error of attribution, it often provides the lens by which they see all the actions of the person and the conflict can escalate.

As conflict professionals, we can help by first drawing attention to this dynamic and getting agreement to talk about our observations.  After describing the dynamic to the parties as applied specifically in their situation, we can see whether this fits the parties’ experience.  The awareness of their dynamic can increase their understanding of their dilemma and may allow them to make a shift.  While pointing this dynamic out to the parties doesn’t solve the conflict, it can often reduce the acrimony that they feel when imputing false intentions to each other and allow them to see the other’s actions and their own in a different light.  It’s then easier to be able to work more directly and more collaboratively on solving the problem because this new understanding can be used to build trust.  Once the parties recognize how this dynamic can be interfering with their ability to work together, both the mediator and parties can be more attentive to how this and other polarizing dynamics can taint the collaborative atmosphere.