Do you see what I’m dealing with here? Thoughts and feelings of conflict

By Professor Charlie Irvine, Strathclyde University


At the SCCR 6th National Conference “Conquering Conflict – let’s break the mould.” I spoke about the trickiness of human perception. We can’t read minds so we learn to make informed guesses about other people’s intentions towards us.  Most of the time these guesses are pretty accurate – but ironically they are at their worst in the midst of conflict.  Just when we need to make clear, accurate judgements, stress and emotional arousal conspire to create self-fulfilling prophecies.  I see you as loud and threatening – I take avoiding action – you see me as withdrawn and difficult – you raise your voice to convince me – I see you as loud and threatening etc.

One key idea from social psychology is the ‘fundamental attribution error’. Attributions are guesses about another’s state of mind.  You smile – I attribute to you qualities of warmth and friendliness; you ignore me – I attribute coldness and self-absorption.  These attributions help us to navigate an uncertain world.  If I know that person A is going to be difficult I can take careful steps to prepare myself.  If I know that person B is going to be friendly I can relax and look forward to the encounter.

The ‘error’ is a tendency to attribute other people’s actions to stable, predictable qualities (their disposition) while neglecting other factors (the situation) that may equally explain those actions. If I took the situation into account I might guess that a colleague’s brief email response was the result of pressure of work; or that another’s coolness was the result of my own behaviour.  And yet numerous experiments have demonstrated that people are more likely, especially in the West, to attribute the actions of others to their disposition even when the evidence suggests the situation is the cause; or “the tendency to assume that an actor’s behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation” (Andrews, P., 2001. ‘The psychology of social chess and the evolution of attribution mechanisms: explaining the fundamental attribution error.’ Evolution and Human Behavior. 22:11-29, p.11).

Why does this matter? The problem is that, in the social world, everyone we observe can also observe us.  So if I behave differently towards you as a result of a mistaken or uncharitable attribution, you probably notice.  But, being vulnerable to the fundamental attribution error yourself, you may conclude that I am a bad or difficult person.  You then behave in ways that confirm my original attribution, but I don’t see that I was the cause.  This sets in motion a vicious circle in which each person’s poor behaviour confirms the other’s beliefs, triggering more poor behaviour.  Put more simply, if I expect trouble I’ll get it.

This is not to say that all bad behaviour is the result of circumstances. But in the cauldron of family disputes it is likely to do little harm to pause and ask ourselves: “might there be another explanation for that outburst?” Or, even more challenging: “might I be the explanation?”  Better still, ask the other person.  We never know what we’ll learn.  My prescription: a bit more scepticism about our own snap judgements, and a bit less about other people’s motives.

Click here  to watch Professor Charlie Irvine’s full conference video

To see other speakers from our 6th National Conference please visit our YouTube channel.


Professor Charlie Irvine, Strathclyde University

Charlie Irvine is one of Scotland’s most experienced mediators, providing family mediation since 1993. His practice now includes workplace and education disputes as well as professional complaints. Charlie is also visiting Professor at University of Strathclyde where he teaches a Masters course in Mediation and Conflict Resolution.

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