Monday, July 24, 2006

The Science of Retaliation

When we speak of consciousness of abstracting, we refer in part to the ability of humans to perceive that what they perceive does not "equal" what another might perceive in the same situation. As conscious abstractors, we recognize that our memories, beliefs and assumptions color what we extract from the world around us. We further recognize that this amounts to a problem, because we will necessarily see the unfolding of events differently than someone else participating in the same unfolding.

This NY Time article describes the science of retaliation, reported in a study on how we perceive causes and reactions. Apparently, we view our actions as justifiable reactions to external causes. But we view the actions of others as unprovoked actions without causes. Presumably both sides see things in this way, which means BOTH sides in a typical argument believe they have the corner on justification.

The article refers to numerous age-old revenge scenarios, like the religious battles in Northern Ireland, the clashes between Sunni and Shiite that go back to biblical times and so on. Certainly this study sheds some light on those behaviors.

But it also has much to tell us about our daily lives. When the guy beside you in traffic cuts you off, you probably believe that he did so because "he's a jerk" and not because, perhaps, he might believe that you have cut him off first.... When your partner flares at you over dinner, you might very likely marvel at how easily they fly off the handle "for no good reason", instead of wondering what you might have done to provoke the outburst.

If you KNOW that you judge your own reactions more generously than those of others, you have at least the possibility of considering what else you need to consider before responding to their actions.

In the Middle East, some have suggested that the "terrorists hate us because we have something good--democracy." Others note that those people we label terrorists might actually feel that we have made some very aggressive moves towards their livelihoods and their liberties, and might have some justification for standing up against what they see as an invasion.

If you blithely ignore the possibility that the other guy might have a rationale for his actions, you can minimize your responsibility for what comes next. This applies to battles over the breakfast table as readily as to battles over oil or territory.

Monday, July 17, 2006


"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them"
-- Albert Einstein, physicist (1879-1955)