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Mission A Guide to Perplexed

Perceptual- Cognitive Barriers in the Palestinian Israeli Conflict

by Ifat Maoz  15.07.2012


Social psychologists who researched people’s perception of reality in relation to an ongoing conflict found that a lot of perceptions, interpretations, and beliefs are produced in relation to the other side. They explain that the need for self-justification, criticizing the enemy, and explaining his behavior, does not only produce Cognitive Dissonance, but also results in unwanted biases when interpreting events. These perceptual biases, which carry much tension in relation to the conflict, and decrease the mental ability to cope with relevant information, fill a significant role in preserving and escalating the conflict. 


In this article we will cover the types of perceptual biases which are produced in an ongoing conflict, and the role they fill in preserving and escalating the conflict. We hope a better understanding of the limitations every one of us has in his/ her interpretation of events in relation to the conflict will help in the development of critical thinking to our understanding of the reality of the conflict and the possibility of ending it.


Negative perceptions of the enemy and his behavior 


Much research shows that during the time of conflict each side represents the enemy negatively; this in itself is not an objective association. The enemy is considered to have bad intentions, being immoral, and have other negative traits. Participants of an experiment who are in an ongoing conflict, consistently motivate positive or negative actions which have been done by a country in the conflict with them, in comparison to the same actions done by a neutral country.


This way every side will see itself as fair, aiming for peace, and ethical, whereas the enemy is not fair, aggressive, and unethical. These stereotypes are strengthened on the individual and social- cultural levels. For example the education system, and through communications which distribute and save these images.


Furthermore, what is interesting is that both sides are not only wrong regarding the wrong perceptions about one another, but also one side’s perception of the other is a mirror image of the other side’s perceptions. For example, citizens of country A will see themselves as victims and citizens of country B are seen as aggressors. In the same way, citizens of country B see themselves as victims and the citizens of country A are seen as aggressors.


Intergroup biased preferences 


These biases are characterized by that in which each side will judge identical behaviors differently, depending on which side he/ she belongs to. Success and ethical behavior from my side would be related to as personality traits, whereas negative actions will be regarded as situation imposed. Regardless of this, the negative behavior of the enemy is considered his personality traits, while ethical behaviors are considered accidental or unrepresentative.


Responsive bias reduction


The responsive bias reduction causes people from each side to change their consideration towards a possible solution to the conflict according to the identity of the proposer. In research held on the subject, it can be seen that surveys which made suggestions received more positive points when the proposer was a representative of the surveyed side. On the other hand, the same suggestion attributed to other side received a much lower grading.


Moreover, an experiment like this examined the thoughts of Israeli- Jews about real suggestions proposed by 2 parties during formal negotiations, showed very interesting data. The surveyed preferred the suggestions suggested by Israelis, even if in reality they were suggested by Palestinians, and no one preferred the suggestions made by Israelis represented by Palestinians.


This bias causes significant failures in every attempt to end the conflict, but it is not effective in every instance. It is strongest during vague and long term compromises, and not during one sided compromises. In addition, it seems that the people who hold on to extreme political views are not affected by it.


To summarize, in ongoing conflicts psychological barriers are produced which direct the interpretations sides give to events which happen in the framework of the conflict. These interpretations consist of and are strengthened by the absolute truth of one side, and the perception of the enemy as inherently evil. In addition, they relate their positive actions as inherent qualities and their negative qualities as circumstantial, as opposed to positive actions of the enemy which are considered circumstantial, and negative actions are considered inherently qualities. Finally, also in the instance of attempts for a resolution, one side will see the suggestions of the other side in a negative light automatically without any connections to the essence of the suggestion itself. These biases, which are strengthened because of the tremendous tension which is related to the conflict, stipulate the conflict and contribute to its escalation.

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1 by Lucy
Very insightful! And to think that most people are driven and affected by these biases without even knowing it..
2 by A vistor
The subject of this article is interesting but it should go through some editing since it is written in a style that's difficult to follow.