Printer Friendly

Failing to see eye to eye: the role of the self in conflict misperception.

People often fail to see eye to eye. The filibustering of partisan politics prevents vital bills from passing in the legislature. Rifts between warring nations grow as international communication diminishes. And the negotiation of contracts among labor unions and upper management often ends with only a suboptimal outcome and disappointment on both sides. What if such conflict was overestimated, or even in vain?

Conflict can ensue when the interests of one party are incompatible with the interests of another (De Dreu, 2010). However, real-world conflict is often not this simple. Rival groups can misperceive the degree to which their rival's interests oppose their own. For instance, liberals and conservatives exaggerate the degree to which their ideological beliefs and values differ from one another (Chambers, Baron, & Inman, 2006). Negotiators consistently overestimate the degree to which their rival's interests conflict with their own (Thompson & Hastie, 1990). And members of partisan groups (e.g., pro-choice and pro-life proponents) perceive more incompatibility than truly exists (Robinson, Keltner, Ward, & Ross, 1995). This exaggeration of the degree to which a rival party's interests are incompatible with one's own is defined as conflict misperception (Jervis, 1976).


Many different accounts have been proposed to explain conflict misperception (see De Dreu, 2010 for review). The current article acts as a primer by synthesizing a select group of three accounts, each focusing on the self's role in conflict misperception. The three accounts are naive realism, egocentrism, and cognitive-informational processing.

It has been shown that when two groups are in opposition, they tend to distance themselves by viewing each other in an extreme and negative light (Jervis, 1976). They create a false polarization by perceiving a greater difference of opinion between themselves and others than truly exists (Keltner & Robinson, 1996, 1997). There are many consequences of exaggerating conflict. For instance, misperceiving conflict can have deleterious effects on intergroup harmony and conflict resolution. Exaggerating incompatibility can foster negative intergroup attitudes (Chambers & Melnyk, 2006), aggressive behavior (Kennedy & Pronin, 2008) and poor negotiation outcomes (Keltner & Robinson, 1993). Therefore, it is no surprise that the study of conflict misperception has real-world implications for partisan politics (Chambers & Melynk, 2006), international relations (Jervis, 1976), and negotiations between rival parties (Bazerman & Neale, 1982; Thompson & Hastie, 1990).


Naive Realism

One prominent account of conflict misperception is due to the subjectivity of perception (Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004). People tend to believe that their own perceptions of reality are veridical portrayals (Kelly, 1955). When other people perceive reality differently than oneself, it is because bias is operating in others, not in the self (Pronin, 2006). This bias to believe that the self is more accurate than others contributes to conflict misperception. For instance, people believe that if an objective third party were to offer their perception on a situation, that party would see the world similarly as oneself. This belief that the self accurately perceives reality is defined as naive realism (Keltner & Robinson, 1996; Robinson, Keltner, Ward & Ross, 1995).

Naive realism can escalate perceptions of incompatibility and contribute to conflict misperception. Rival parties not only assume that others hold different positions than themselves on contentious issues (Jervis, 1976; Keltner & Robinson, 1996, 1997), but they also exaggerate differences (Robinson, Keltner, Ward & Ross, 1995). As one can imagine, this leads rivals to perceive one another as being stubborn, biased, and ceaselessly promoting their own ideological platform. Such attributions can have a negative impact on intergroup relations (Bar-Tal & Geva, 1986; Morris, Larrick, & Su, 1999).

If both groups erroneously perceive a greater difference between their own beliefs and that of others, they are less likely to communicate and pursue conflict resolution (Drolet & Morris, 2000; Thompson, 2001). It is problematic that a decrease in communication may result following exaggerated belief differences. Obtaining accurate knowledge of a rival party's beliefs can dispel the perceived exaggeration by establishing rapport and thereby decreasing perceived conflict (Bottom, Gibson, Daniels, & Murnighan, 2000; Drolet & Morris, 1995; Liebert, Smith, Hill, & Kieffer, 1968).

According to the naive realism account, conflict resolution is also difficult to obtain because both parties believe that bias is affecting others, but not themselves. Members from both parties believe that they are fairer, less biased, and more objective in regards to resolving conflict than their rivals (Alicke, 1985; Keltner & Robinson, 1996; Pronin, 2006). If a mutually beneficial compromise has not been met, it is assumed that the incompatibility and failure to negotiate is due to the rival party. Naive realism suggests that poor negotiations are the fault of the rival and this may perpetuate a lack of investment and hope for future resolution.

Naive realism diverges from other accounts of conflict misperception in regard to the degree and range of perceived disagreement. For instance, naive realism proposes that biases influence rival social groups equally across a host of ideological domains. For example, naive realism predicts that rival groups misperceive conflict equally for issues that are important and less important to one's own social group. Other accounts, such as egocentrism, do not presuppose equal conflict misperception across domains and offer different explanations for their occurrence (Chambers & De Dreu, 2010).


There are many issues that rivals may potentially differ on. Some of these issues are more important to one side than the other. Research has shown that rivals egocentrically think most about the issues most important to their own side, but not necessarily to issues that are important to their rivals (Kruger, Windschitl, Burrus, Fessel, & Chambers, 2008). Therefore, when rival parties are in conflict, they tend to think about the issues underlying conflict quite differently. Rival parties are known to be in opposition and assume that rivals have opposing interests, especially in regard to the issues that are most important to their own party (Chambers & De Dreu, 2011). Rivals misperceive conflict as a function of how important an issue is to their own side rather than how important it may be to their rival.

An egocentrism account of conflict misperception predicts that rivals exaggerate disagreement on issues that are important to their own side and underestimate disagreement on issues that are less important to their own side. In this regard, both parties' misperceptions of conflict are being driven by their focus on the important issues to their own side and not the actual positions of rivals. To clarify this point, consider members of rival groups who either favor (Pro-choice) or oppose (Pro-life) the legalization of abortion. Within this conflict, there are issues important to Pro-choice proponents (e.g., women's reproductive rights) and issues important to Pro-life proponents (e.g., value of human life). When members of both groups rate the importance they place on Pro-choice and Pro-life issues, there is a true difference of opinion. However, Pro-choice and Pro-life proponents differ in where they perceive conflict (Chambers & Melnyk, 2006). Pro-choice proponents exaggerate differences on issues most important to their side (e.g., women's reproductive rights) and Pro-life proponents exaggerate differences on issues most important to their side (e.g., value of human life). Both groups egocentrically focus on the issues most important to their own side and therefore perceive more conflict than actually exists between the groups (Chambers & Melnyk, 2006).

Egocentrism has been shown in the simulated negotiation games. Participants engaged in a mock negotiation of a new labor contract with another participant (Chambers & DeDreu, 2011). Each person, acting as either a negotiator for a labor union or company management, was given a payoff structure for obtaining a valued outcome. Participants could win the negotiation by garnering large, favorable outcomes for certain issues (e.g., overtime pay rate, number of sick days) that were valued for their particular side. The payoff structures differed for participants such that each negotiator valued one issue to a greater, lesser, or equivalent extent than the negotiator of the other party. After participants had finished the negotiation, they were asked to infer the payoff schedule for the person they negotiated against. Participants egocentrically focused on the values that were most valued by their own side and thus inferred greater opposition on their own valued issues, but not on their less valued issues.

An egocentrism account is of particular interest for conflict resolution. According to an egocentrism account, conflict misperception occurs before either party enters a negotiation. Members from both groups are well aware of the issues they value most strongly and each party infers that the other social group opposes one's own values (instead of simply promoting their own). A shift toward other-focused, rather than self-focused, attention may be a simple and effective way to decrease conflict misperception.

Cognitive Informational Account

A cognitive-information processing account for conflict misperception is the broadest of the three accounts described. This account suggests that conflict misperception may occur because parties in a conflict lack accurate knowledge or information about their rival's interests. It encompasses misperception due to a lack of knowledge and selective attention to certain information. Although this section is certainly not a catch-all for other accounts not listed above, this category does address relatively simple and automatic cognitive inferences that contribute to conflict misperception.

Lack of Knowledge. People can misperceive conflict simply because they lack accurate information suggesting underlying compatibility (Liebert, Smith, Hill, & Keiffer, 1968). To clarify this point, consider the partisan divide in American politics. Many Republicans and Democrats believe that they disagree in regard to numerous issues such as eliminating inequalities, crime prevention, and public education. Although there are true differences between Republicans and Democrats in regard to each of these issues, the differences are exaggerated (Chambers, Baron, & Inman, 2006). If members of both parties were to learn accurately about one another's true positions, perhaps conflict misperception would be reduced. Interventions aimed at increasing communication, intergroup contact, and the establishment of rapport may facilitate conflict resolution (Bottom, Gibson, Daniels, & Murnighan, 2000; Drolet & Morris, 2000).

Selective Attention to Information. People tend to seek confirmatory evidence for their preconceived opinions, values, and beliefs (Wason, 1960). This tendency may contribute to perceptions of conflict. If members of one group form the belief that they are in opposition to another group, they may selectively seek information that confirms their belief. For example, if members of a union have the belief that management is opposed to their interests, they may selectively recall other instances where management voted against their interests or acted in opposition to them. This search for confirmatory evidence of conflict may perpetuate conflict misperception and prevent conflict resolution. Rivals may attend to cues that suggest a lack of compatibility and then stop searching for compatibility. If compatible interest later becomes available, they may miss or dismiss such opportunities.


This current primer provides researchers, negotiators, and those interested in the area of social conflict with a novel framework to view the self in conflict misperception. In this review, I suggest that naive realism, egocentrism, and cognitive-informational processing are three accounts that may uniquely contribute to conflict misperception. By highlighting each of these accounts, the current review prepares others to generate and answer their own questions about the self's role in conflict misperception.

What outlook should readers have on conflict misperception? On one hand, the conflict misperception literature has documented the frequency of human error. Numerous studies describe people's misperceptions of other groups (Dawes, Singer, & Lemons, 1972; Robinson & Keltner, 1996; Robinson, Keltner, Ward, & Ross, 1995; Sherman, Chassin, Presson, & Agostinelli, 1984). For instance, eighty-percent of trained negotiators err in assuming that two groups hold opposing interests (Thompson, 2001). Negotiators trained in conflict resolution also tend to operate under a fixed pie assumption (Bazerman & Neale, 1982; Thompson & Hastie, 1990) where gains by one side are assumed to come at the expense of losses by the other side. This assumption, when misperceived, fails to obtain the maximum potential resources available for either party.

On the other hand, the research on conflict misperception and negotiation provides a promising outlook for resolving misperception. Researchers have shown that conflict misperception can be reduced by the establishment of trust and an exchange of accurate information between parties (Bazerman & Neale, 1982). Mutually beneficial outcomes can also be reached when creative negotiation strategies are employed in an attempt to expand resources and achieve win-win scenarios for both groups (Lax & Sebenius, 1986; see Slavin, 2000 for a real world example). It may also be true that simply knowing about the many reasons that members of social groups misperceive conflict reduce misperception and facilitate conflict resolution.

Future Directions

The literature described above on the self and conflict misperception is by no means exhaustive. There are additional pieces to the puzzle that not only need to be found but also accurately placed within the conflict misperception literature.

There is a great need to apply the conflict misperception literature to real-world settings. It is not enough for researchers to learn about the self's role in conflict misperception without extending its findings to the real-world. Many real-world rivals misperceive conflict and thus researchers can take an active role in promoting conflict resolution. By transforming research findings from text to applied interventions, researchers can begin to apply the conflict misperception literature. Studies that directly apply research on conflict misperception, identify its boundary conditions, and establish robust methods for reducing conflict misperception may be fruitful avenues for future research.

Regardless of where the egocentric conflict misperception literature leads, there will always remain one bright spot. Whether conflict is in Washington D.C., in distant countries around the world, within romantic relationships, or at the workplace, it is comforting to realize that true agreement may be covered only by the guise of conflict misperception.

Author Note: I would like to thank John Chambers and Gregory Webster for their previous comments on this manuscript.


Alicke, M. D. (1985). Global self-evaluation as determined by the desirability and controllability of trait adjectives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 1621-1630.

Bar-Tal, D., & Geva, N. (1986). A cognitive basis of international conflicts. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 118-133). Chicago: Nelson Hall.

Bazerman, M. H., & Neale, M. A. (1982). Improving negotiation effectiveness under final offer arbitration: The role of selection and training. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67(5), 543-548.

Bottom, W. P., Gibson, K., Daniels, S., & Murnigham, J. K. (2000). Resurrecting cooperation: The effects of explanations, penance, and relationships. Working paper, Washington University, St. Louis.

Chambers, J. R., Baron, R. S., & Inman, M. L. (2006). Misperceptions in intergroup conflict. Psychological Science, 17, 38-45.

Chambers, J. R., & De Dreu, C.K.W. (2011). Why we see conflict when there is none: Egocentric conflict perceptions hamper negotiation and dispute resolution. Unpublished manuscript, University of Florida.

Chambers, J.R., & Melnyk, D. (2006). Why do I hate thee? Conflict misperceptions and intergroup trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 1295-1311.

Dawes, R. M., Singer, D., & Lemons, F. (1972). An experimental analysis of the contrast effect and its implications for intergroup communication and the indirect assessment of attitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(3), 281-295.

De Dreu, C.K.W. (2010). Social conflict: The emergence and consequences of struggle and negotiation. In S.T. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (5th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 983-1023). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Drolet, A. L. & Morris, M. W. (1995). Communication media and interpersonal trust in conflicts: The role of rapport and synchrony of nonverbal behavior. Unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA.

Drolet, A. L., & Morris, M. W. (2000). Rapport in conflict resolution: Accounting for how nonverbal exchange fosters cooperation on mutually beneficial settlements to mixed-motive conflicts. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 26-50.

Jervis, R. (1976). Perception and misperception in international politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Kelly, G. A. (1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton.

Keltner, D., & Robinson, R. J. (1993). Imagined ideological differences in conflict escalation and resolution. International Journal of Conflict Management, 4, 249-262.

Keltner, D., & Robinson, R. J. (1996). Extremism, power, and the imagined basis of social conflict. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 5(4), 101-105.

Keltner, D., & Robinson, R. J. (1997). Defending the status quo: Power and bias in social conflict. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 23, 1066-1077.

Kennedy, K. A., & Pronin, E. (2008). When disagreement gets ugly: Perceptions of bias and the escalation of conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 833-848.

Kruger, J., Windschitl, P. D., Burrus, J., Fessel, F., & Chambers, J. R. (2008). On the rational side of egocentrism in social comparisons. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 220-232.

Lax, D. A., & Sebenius, J. K. (1986). The manager as negotiator. New York: Free Press.

Liebert, R. M., Smith, W. P., Hill, J.. H., & Keiffer, M., (1968). Social utility and decision making in interpersonal contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 426-441.

Morris, M. W., Larrick, R. P., & Su, S. K. (1999). Misperceiving negotiation counterparties: When situationally determining bargaining behaviors are attributed to personality traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 52-67.

Pronin, E. (2006). Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment. Trends in Cognitive Science, 11(1), 37-43.

Pronin, E., Gilovich, T., & Ross, L. (2004). Objectivity in the eye of the beholder: Divergent perceptions of bias in self versus others. Psychological Review, 111, 781-799.

Robinson, R. J. & Keltner, D. (1996). Much ado about nothing? Revisionists and traditionalists choose an introductory English syllabus. Psychological Science, 7(1), 18-24.

Robinson R. J., Keltner, D., Ward, A., & Ross, L. (1995). Actual versus assumed differences in construal: "Naive realism" in intergroup perception and conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 404-417.

Sherman, S., Chassin, L., Presson, C., & Agostinelli, G. (1984). The role of the evaluation and similarity principles in the false consensus effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47(6), 1244-1262.

Slavin, B. (January 5, 2000). Negotiators clear first bump in Middle East talks. USA Today, p. 6A.

Thompson, L. (2001). The mind and heart of the negotiator. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Thompson, L. & Hastie, R. (1990). Social perception in negotiation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 47(1), 98-123.

Wason, P. C. (1960). On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129-140.

Brian Collisson

Marian University, Indianapolis

Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Brian Collisson, 3200 Cold Spring Road, Indianapolis, IN 46222-1997,
COPYRIGHT 2014 North American Journal of Psychology
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Collisson, Brian
Publication:North American Journal of Psychology
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
Previous Article:Children's reactions when ignored and rejected: a second look.
Next Article:Gender differences in religiosity: the role of self-monitoring.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |