Stanford Prof. Lee Ross Shares Conflict Resolution Tips


Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross spoke of the difficulties “na’ve realism” brings to conflict resolution at a Monday evening talk sponsored by the Program on Negotiation.

After a brief introduction by his former Stanford colleague, Bob Mnookin, now the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, Ross took the floor and began by showing the audience a series of cartoons to illustrate the absurdity in thinking that everyone has the same beliefs and values as you do. His first cartoon, for example, featured two lions walking down the street in business suits and chatting. Its caption read, “How can anyone look at a rotting zebra corpse and not believe that there’s a God?”

Ross highlighted three dangerous convictions that affect how people view others and which can be especially dangerous in a negotiation setting. First, we believe that we objectively see people as they really are, whereas other people’s views are subjectively distorted by things such as self-interest and dogma. Second, we believe that fair-minded people will share our views. Finally, when others don’t share our views we believe it is because they haven’t been told the truth, are lazy or stupid, or are biased.

These convictions can make us eager to start negotiating with others, but rapidly lead to frustration when others don’t quickly come around to our views. Ross shared a series of experiments done on groups such as black and white students at Stanford and varsity and intramural athletes at Cornell that illustrated how people tend to believe they themselves are objective, but the other group is biased.

This na’ve realism has many implications. To begin, it leaves us with the illusion of objectivity. In several surveys taken in a variety of places, such as a local airport, psychologists asked people to compare their own biases with those of “Average Americans.” While people would acknowledge that they had biases, they viewed the average American as being more biased than they were. Similarly, when Stanford students were asked to take a survey and then asked to read another person’s survey and rate its objectivity, they overwhelmingly found the responses closer to their own to be more objective.

Second, na’ve realism leads to judgmental overconfidence. You think you’re more reasonable and reliable than others, so when you’re called upon to make a judgment based on your opinion and another person’s, you will under rely on their views and over rely on your own.

Third, you suffer from undue optimism about your ability to persuade, just as President Bush did when he invited a group of noted policy makers to the White House to brief them about his goals and reasons behind the War in Iraq. He believed that if they sat down and listened to him, he would be able to convince them to support his own views.

Finally, you have strong perceptions of bias on the part of the media and in mediators. When the same video of media coverage of the Sabra and Chatila Refugee Camp massacre was shown to pro-Arab and pro-Israeli viewers, both sides felt the film was biased against their own group. Ross observed that people tend to complain about the missing context that would make others understand their side.

Another difficulty parties face in tense negotiations is the “reactive devaluation” of offers from the other side, especially, though not exclusively, if a mistrusted enemy offers them. For example, Israelis and Palestinians were asked to read post-Oslo proposals and rate them. Some of the proposals were labeled as Palestinian even though they were actually Israeli, and vice versa. People liked the proposal better that was labeled as their own side’s proposal, even if it actually came from the other group.

How then do parties overcome reactive devaluation?

Recognizing that it will happen is a first step. Bringing in third parties can also help build trust, create context, and define the task at hand. Fostering positive attributions about concessions may help too. For example, researchers found that people negotiating with a confederate, who gave the same final offer at the end of the negotiation regardless of what the other side said, felt the concession was bigger when the person said, “I’m making this proposal in response to what you’ve told me.”

Creating a sense of optimism about success also helps overcome devauluation of the other side. Pairs in a Palestinian-Israeli negotiation who had been told that all the previous parties had succeeded had a much higher success rate and felt more positively about their negotiating partners.

Ross shared eight lessons he had learned from his real world experience working with conflicts in places like the Middle East and Northern Ireland. (1) It is important to recognize intragroup conflict. (2) You must also rely on relationships and trust – especially in dealing with spoilers and the demands of international politics. (3) People must share a view of a mutually agreeable future. Often people speak of finding a visionary like Mandela, but what they really mean by that is finding someone that they would be willing to make concessions to. (4) Sometimes it is futile to try to convince folks of something they cannot afford to understand; it’s threatening to them. (5) You must recognize the other side’s losses are real and heartfelt. (6) Power balance is important; sometimes unilateral concessions are insulting because they show how much power one side has over the other. (7) The convert from militant to peacemaker can be a valuable ally, and as one former Irish bomber observed, “Sometimes [the change in attitude is] as little as 51% to 49%” (8) People have to deal with the tension between the desire for peace and demands for justice. Ross concluded, “There needs to be the recognition that achieving peace or agreement is accepting some imperfection of justice in exchange for harmony, just like in your family and community.”

Finally, Ross wrapped up his talk with a brief discussion of the value of violating expectations and stereotypes. By doing or saying something the other side would never expect, you unfreeze their own views. He gave the example of a Palestinian acknowledging that the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy, and should not ever be compared with the Nakba, during which Palestinians were forced to move from portions of present day Israel. By making that concession, it allowed the mostly Jewish audience to in turn acknowledge that the Palestinians do view the Nakba as a tragic event.