Peace in the Middle East May Be Impossible

16th Annual Convention William James Fellow Award Address

Lee D. Ross
Lee D. Ross presents his William James Fellow Award Address at the APS Annual Convention. “[Social scientists] haven’t gone as far as we should go in proving that our research is useful,” Ross said.

Ever notice that when you’re driving you hate pedestrians, the way they saunter through the crosswalk almost daring you to hit them, but when you’re walking you hate drivers? According to Lee D. Ross, in his William James Fellow Award Address at the Annual Convention, there’s a reason for your equal-opportunity animosity. Ross argued that no matter how insignificant the contention, people have a natural difficulty looking at an opponent’s viewpoint objectively. And the harder they try, the more biased they become.

“People are quite correct to assume that other people see the world through a prism of their ideology and self-interest; the failure is the realization that the same thing applies to them,” said Ross, Stanford University. Ross has witnessed such behavior in the Middle East and his laboratory, where he scientifically proves that dispute resolution is undermined by a tendency known as naïve realism.

The idea is that our unique experiences and emotional responses create a personal universe not necessarily shared by everyone. It’s like one of Ross’ favorite comedic lines, courtesy of George Carlin: “Have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster is a maniac?” To Ross, this is a demonstration of “the oldest and most self-evident idea in social psychology”: bias of information. “We respond not to some objective reality,” Ross said, “but to a subjective reality influenced by cognitive and motivational processes – our prior beliefs and expectations on one hand, and our hopes, fears, and needs on the other.” But when these biases pertain to peace processes instead of driving, the realities are more frightening than funny.

Ross is a big believer in linking the work from his laboratory to the real world. “[Social scientists] haven’t gone as far as we should go in proving that our research is useful,” he said. So Ross took his understanding of belief perseverance to the toughest negotiating table in the world, the Middle East, where the most fearsome enemy is not millennia of dispute but a potent psychological tendency. What makes naïve realism so dangerous is that it causes people to believe they see the world as it “actually is.” It presupposes two things: One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion. And two, any opinion I hold must undoubtedly be reasonable. The result is a logical labyrinth that creates a major barrier for conflict resolution.

“You can’t logically believe that what you believe now is not the accurate state of the world, because if you thought some other state was more accurate, that would be what you believe,” Ross said. Such beliefs have created the illusion of the importance of dialogue groups, which are based around the theory that if only we could get our opponents to listen to us, then we could tell them how things really are, and they’d agree. This also leads to the belief that if people don’t agree with me, even after I’ve told them the truth, it’s because they’re biased.

“The danger of this bias is that it creates people who go through life believing they see the world as it really is, and so they continually experience the disappointing phenomena that everyone else, at least sometimes, sees it wrong,” Ross said.

Of all the barriers created by naïve realism, the most impenetrable is reactive devaluation, which states that parties in conflict will devalue the compromise they’re being offered: If someone is offered concession X, he invariably wants concession Y. Yet any fan of reality television shows Survivor or The Apprentice understands the fallacy of such logic, so shouldn’t the negotiators of one of the world’s most impassioned rivalries?

Apparently not. During one experiment, Ross took Israeli created peace proposals, labeled them as Arab proposals, and showed them to Israelis.

“The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,” Ross said. “If your own proposal isn’t going to be attractive to you when it comes from the other side, what chance is there that the other side’s proposal is going to be attractive when it comes from the other side?”

So even though the Israelis understand that Palestinians see the world a certain way because they’re Palestinian, they believe being Israeli is central to understanding the issue, and that being a Palestinian blinds you to reality. (The case also holds true vice versa.)

There is however an oasis of hope to the desert contention. It comes in the form of agreement expectation. “If both sides think they must reach the goal, they do, and they see their opponents’ proposals less maliciously,” Ross said. “They actually see the offers differently, and more attractively.” It is why Republicans and Democrats, despite their fractious ideals, always agree on a budget – there must be a budget. Similarly, the intensely different sects of the Catholic Church always agree on the election of a Pope, because habemus papam – there must be a Pope.

Ross is working on one more idea – a sort of well-intentioned deception. Most people believe a deal is being offered because the other side knows something they don’t. So Ross commissioned two parties to listen to an argument and make a proposal intended to reach agreement. The first party listened and handed the proposal they came to the negotiation with. The second said they came with one proposal, but would like to offer a different one after hearing the discussion. The trick is the actual proposal was the same in both conditions, but under the second condition, parties were much more likely to reach an agreement.

It might seem faintly conniving, but you see the potential benefits, right?

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