Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict

January 2012
With Kathleen Kennedy; Ideology, Psychology, and Law, ed. Jon Hanson

Conflicts sometimes are characterized by a negative spiral, whereby they escalate due to the reciprocally aggressive and competitive behavior of the contending parties. This chapter proposes that people’s inclination to perceive others as biased—particularly others who disagree with them—can initiate this conflict spiral, as well as fuel it and prevent its resolution. It reviews evidence that parties who disagree are especially likely to see those on the other side as biased and themselves as objective. Further, it demonstrates that people’s perceptions of their adversaries as biased leads them to act conflictually towards those adversaries. That conflictual action, in turn, is perceived by its recipients as a sign of bias, thereby leading those recipients to respond conflictually, as the spiral continues. An understanding of this bias-perception conflict spiral illuminates how conflicts develop and grow between both individuals and groups.