Monday, July 24, 2006

When good deals go bad

Daniel Gilbert, an occasional contributor to the New York Times, has a provocative piece in today's paper about how participants in disputes feel intensely how they were wronged but fail to see how their actions harm others. (I discussed an earlier piece of his in a post from another blog.)

He uses the example of the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East to demonstrate how the world's most intractable conflicts have a "they started it" rationalization that is as old as childhood. Such a mindset allows the participants to justify retaliating while remaining unaware of the harm their actions have caused.

An excerpt:

Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

Gilbert cites several psychological studies that demonstrate this principle. The result, as you can guess, is deadlock.

I found his observations fascinating in how they explained what I've witnessed when contracts, alliances, etc., fall apart.

Typically, small misunderstandings or injustices accrue, on one or both sides. They are typically not adequately resolved or defused, and eventually one side lashes out or takes a precipitous action. This starts the retaliation, re-retaliation cycle, with each side certain that the other is in the wrong. Often, in spite of the objective benefits of resolving the conflict and the costs of divorce, the result is... divorce.

So how do we prevent these good deals from going bad? The challenge is to learn to overcome your innate wiring, to put yourself in the other's shoes and, to paraphrase the Dalai Lama, be compassionate, but not allow yourself to be victimized.

According to Gilbert, this is far easier to say than to do. And thousands of years of history will back him up.

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