Two tomatoes
(Featured image: Yaffa Phillips)

Less conflict

Much of the niggling conflict that we encounter day in, day out, is of our own making: it is in our minds. What if we could tone it down a bit? Here is my New Year’s wish

are all different — no two people are the same. Even “identical” twins are not actually genetically identical. That is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective, as a diverse species can better adapt to changes in the environment. It is also beneficial for us humans at a societal level: people with different skills and abilities can complement each other in effective collaboration, for example.

But we have a tendency to accentuate differences, and divide the world on that basis: me and others, us and them. Such differences can influence and even dominate our relationships. And they can be at the root of conflicts great and small: we easily perceive and cultivate conflict with people whom we consider on the opposite side of a divide.

Yet such conflicts are, by and large, in our minds. Might that give us the power to attenuate and nuance, perhaps even to eliminate them? Let us consider three typical kinds of conflicts.

Different preferences

Much like our DNA, our collection of preferences (many of which are conditional or situational, i.e., they are not static but depend on the circumstances) forms a near-unique profile. And like our innate characteristics, they too help shape a balanced society. Diverse preferences ensure a smooth utilization of scarce resources, for example — from land usage (we don’t all prefer to live near the seaside) to fruit consumption (we don’t all prefer golden delicious apples).

Preferences sound innocent enough. Surely one’s taste in apples, cars, holiday destinations or any number of idiosyncratic proclivities should not be divisive and lead to conflict? Not quite. The way someone chooses to pronounce the colloquial name of the Solanum lycopersicum — “tom-ah-to”, like the British do, or “to-may-to”, like people do in America do — in the famous George and Ira Gershwin song, Let’s call the whole thing off does not just reflect a person’s provenance, but also exemplifies a class division.

Toilet rolls placed in ‘over’ and ‘under’ positions
Toilet rolls placed in ‘over’ and ‘under’ positions
Over or under — a matter of the utmost importance? (image: Elya via Wikimedia)

It is very easy to produce us-and-them divisions based on utterly trivial preferences. A classic approach is known as the minimal group paradigm, developed by Polish social psychologist Henri Tajfel in the 1970s. Two groups, created on the basis of insignificant criteria (like which of two paintings they prefer), are asked to propose a division of a valuable resource (typically money). Not long ago, I conducted such an exercise with a team of clients, and asked people for their preference regarding the orientation of a toilet roll in the holder — “over” or “under”. They could then claim a sum of money for the team according to either rule A: “everyone who agrees with me (about toilet roll orientation) receives £3, and everyone who disagrees gets £4”, or rule B: “everyone who agrees with me receives £3, and everyone who disagrees gets £2”.

Rule A provides the largest overall benefit: everyone would receive at least £3, and the total sum of money would be maximized. However, no less than two thirds of the team actually chose rule B, thus illustrating how the artificial division led people to favour “us” over “them”.

Many of our preferences are personal and idiosyncratic — as in this case here. Yet we are very quick to consider them superior, or even endow them with some absolute, objective rightness. And we act accordingly: creating distance, tension and conflict. When other people have preferences that don’t match ours — in what they wear, what they do for a living, or whatever — we often tend to judge them as somehow deficient. Alternatively, we might feel the urge to project our own preferences onto them, and make paternalistic choices on their behalf to that effect — like buying gifts we think they should like (but don’t), ordering the dish we think they should eat, or tidying their stuff without asking — and we are dismayed if they fail to appreciate our well-intentioned efforts to educate them.

Such conflicts — the dislike of people because of their preferences, or the unappreciated attempts to impose ours — may be modest in size and scope, but they do matter. And we can prevent them. We can choose to recognize preferences for what they are — highly individual, but ultimately inconsequential inclinations and predilections, which are inherently neither right or good (ours), nor wrong or bad (theirs). We can choose not to judge others for their preferences, and not to impose ours.

Unfounded expectations

Sometimes, our preferences are at odds with other people’s, though (and their with ours). If my preference is to practice the euphonium at 2am in front of an open window, this may produce a conflict with my neighbours who prefer to sleep in peace and quiet at that time.

Girl blowing on a euphonium
Girl blowing on a euphonium
Euphonium, sounds good, but not in the middle of the night, preferably (photo: Toni Fish CC BY)

Of course, most of us would realize our neighbours do not all share our desire to hear brass sounds penetrating the nocturnal peace, and would opt for practising our instrument during waking hours. In other contexts, however, conflicts are often not so obvious. In particular, we tend to assume others share (or at least are aware of) our preferences — which, naturally, are superior! — and we expect them to act accordingly.

One person’s preference, for example, may be to consider time as a precise quantity: dinner at 7 really means be sure you’re there at 7. It is easy to see how another person, whose preference is to take a time as a rough guide — give or take half an hour — may well find dinner in the oven (if not in the dog), and their other half silently seething, as they get home.

Completing a task seems such a simple concept that we may not even consider the possibility that there are different ways of approaching it. Yet one person’s preference may be to meticulously tick every box and follow a clear routine, however long it takes, while another may prefer to prioritize keeping within the amount of time available and, if necessary, improvise and leave out ticking the less essential boxes.

Imagine the task is ‘getting ready to go out’, and you can see how the conflict might unfolding in a couple with different preferences. Even though nothing was ever said explicitly, the assumption that the other person shares (or at least knows) the first one’s preferences may make the unmet expectations feel like a violation of an agreement, as the likely indignant reaction will reflect.

We can prevent this kind of conflict too: we can choose not to presume that our way of interpreting deadlines and trade-offs is the only way. We can choose to accept other preferences are possible. If ours truly is important to us, we can choose to state our own preferences and expectations, and seek a suitable compromise that we then agree on.

Two chronometers
Two chronometers
Against the clock, or taking it easy? Better agree upfront (photo: Allan Watts via Pexels)

Value perspectives

What about conflicts between values? Don’t we also have different, often irreconcilable, fundamental values, that make conflict inevitable? Not necessarily. What we see as immutable and absolute values is often mostly the result of the perspective that we take on an issue, and the language we use to frame it.

A diminutive, but most perceptive book, The Three Languages of Politics by the American economist Arnold Kling, ostensibly deals with American politics, but its insights apply much more widely. It serves as an inspiration to attenuate futile and unproductive conflict about values.

Kling describes how three different tribes — progressives, conservatives and libertarians — assert moral superiority over the other two. This manifestly impossible situation arises from the rigid perspective each tribe adopts, and how they position their arguments. Progressives stand up for the underprivileged and frame issues on an oppressor-oppressed axis. They claim moral superiority by denouncing oppression of, say, women or minorities and accusing others of turning a blind eye. Conservatives champion tradition and moral virtue, and describe issues as on a civilization-barbarism axis. They assert moral superiority by denouncing the “barbaric” attacks on, for example, law and order and accusing the others of neglecting this. Libertarians stand up for individual rights and express issues as being on a liberty-coercion axis. Their moral superiority comes from denouncing coercive rules and laws and accusing the others of failing to do so.

This perpetuates entrenchment, misunderstanding and permanent conflict, and so Kling encourages his readers “to adopt slow political thinking, which means seeing an issue from a number of angles rather than along just one axis.” This is wise advice, valuable well beyond the scope of his book. We can indeed choose not just to frame issues in our own preferred tribal language, but to approach them from other perspectives as well. That will make us less inclined to assume any moral superiority and to see malevolence in those with whom we disagree — even when it concerns our fundamental values.

In a sense, this approach works for all three kinds of conflicts: think slowly, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t make unwarranted assumptions, don’t think in terms of right and wrong or good and bad when it concerns preferences.

Will doing so eliminate all conflict? Of course not. But with a little effort on our part, it may well lead to less conflict. And that is my wish for you for 2021. Happy New Year!

Originally published at on January 1, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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