At a recent event in Tel-Aviv, noted Psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahaneman pointed out three frequent biases held by individuals and groups when addressing adversaries in conflict situations. One major bias is the one by which we attribute to our adversaries primarily actions governed by characteristics which are part of their nature whereas when we describe our own actions we relate to them as reactions to provocations of the other side. An example would be the often repeated claim that the Arabs have a visceral basic hatred against anything Jewish or that Antisemitism is deeply rooted in Europe and thus explains European political attitudes towards Israel. By determining that the other’s actions and behavior are based on deeply rooted characteristics, we immediately conclude that these are unlikely to change, as opposed to our own ability to change attitudes since our’s are presumably only short term reactions to the behavior of the other side. Needless to say that this is great since it permits us to completely ignore our own contribution to the conflict – after all the assumption is that whatever we do, the other side will always be like they are. Which is wonderful since we won’t have to change our actions or behavior…
Another bias, not any less lethal for conflict resolution, is that of transparency. For some reason, we, as individuals or groups, assume that our adversary understands very clearly that our intentions are honest and we really do want to settle the conflict. It never occurs to us that our own actions really do not make that impression on the other side. This is how we really very much want peace, real peace, I mean really while putting up settlement after settlement. The other side, presumably must understand that we really do want peace, regardless of our actions.
And the third peace killer so to speak is the bias of suspicion. It is quite clear that in a conflict situation, leaders who are suspicious and unwilling to compromise will be considered by their public to be much smarter, tougher and security minded than what the same public perceives to be the naive weaklings who are willing to trust the other side and settle a conflict by compromising. Not that there is no room for suspicion but there is little basis to give suspicion more credence than the willingness to compromise.
These are three inherent human biases leaders should be aware of and have to compensate for if they really want to deal with the conflict in a constructive way. Conflict resolution requires it. Do our leaders do that ? Not really, not by any stretch of the imagination. To the contrary, they consistently and materially reinforce all of these biases, all the time. It’s as if they are doing their utmost to prevent a resolution of the conflict. The only question is if they are doing it innocently or on purpose. If it is in innocence, they should know better. If they do it on purpose we should kick them out of office. Now.