Thursday, November 3, 2011

Day 19

I am deeply grateful that my parents gave me the skills for dialogue.  When I was a teenager wanting to whine about my teacher, I wasn't thrilled when my mom and dad would encourage me to see what she was thinking, why she might have done what she did, what her perspective was.  Now, though, I wouldn't trade that skill for anything.

When he was in elementary school, Mowgli said to me one afternoon, "You'll never be able to go on Oprah, Mom, because you always see every side of everything."  I took that as a compliment.

There's another piece to this, though, that my parents also gave me and that is a commitment to consistency, which is also a commitment to constantly be aware of and make allowances for my biases.  When I was in college and was first introduced to the concepts of cognitive dissonance and perception/cognitive bias, I was so fascinated that I spent a whole semester thinking that I might go on to grad school in social psychology just to study those ideas.

This roughly explains why:

  • When fans of one team are shown a game against a rival team, they perceive more of the officiating errors that favor the other team and fewer of the calls that favor their own team.  And it's not just that they make a different meaning of those bad calls; they literally don't see them.
  • When Palestinians are shown a peace plan that Israelis favor but they are told that Palestinians favor it, they will support it.  Israelis do the same thing.  It works with Republicans and Democrats and with different religious groups.  Show people an unfamiliar plan that has been put forth by the other side but tell them that their group approves of it and they will approve of it too.
  • When it's the other side's candidate who sticks her foot in her mouth, she's an idiot; when it's your candidate who sticks her foot in her mouth, she needs to be given a chance to explain.  When your candidate has a moral failure, it's an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and doesn't affect his right to govern; when the other side's guy has a moral failure, it's not only characteristic of that person but the whole party and he should be impeached.  
  • When you don't leave a tip, it's because you're stingy; when I don't leave a tip, it's because I'm low on cash.
  • When investigators and prosecutors zero in on a suspect, they become resistant to other explanations for the crime, even taking such suggestions personally.  (There's some really interesting work being done on this; in the meantime, a man will soon be executed in my state without ever having the large amounts of DNA found at the scene tested because prosecutors refuse to allow it to be tested, even at no cost to the state.)
  • When I begin to work with a new couple or family, I will ask each person to describe the problem to me as if they were their spouse or child.  I am trying to assess their ability and willingness to set aside their own perspective and look at things through the eyes of another.  It's absolutely stunning to me how many people can't or won't.
And the most fascinating and infuriating example:  We are very, very good at seeing and acknowledging the biases of other people, especially those we disagree with . . . and very, very bad at seeing and acknowledging our own or even seeing and acknowledging that we might have some.

So maybe this is part of why it seems to be so impossible for people to engage in real dialogue around deeply held opinions.  If we want to grow in our capacity to have productive conversations about the things that really matter to us, we can grow in our capacity to explore and evaluate our own biases and to apply our truths consistently to ourselves and to our opponents.  It's a good place to start anyway.

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