Mutually assured destruction

retaliation 01I read an op-ed in Monday's New York Times that has stayed with me. It's not religious in the sense that we normally discuss on these pixels, but I can't help but think it's a great example of how religious writing could be deepened. "He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn't" was written by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He looks at the psychology behind people justifying their behavior, essentially. Here he looks at the notion that our behavior is a response to other people's behavior but their behavior is not in response to ours:

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people's actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner's statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner's statements.

My fiance and I were in premarital counseling with my pastor on Monday when he alluded to the tendency of spouses to obsess on how they were wronged while ignoring the unkind things they have said or done to their spouses. He said this pattern can cycle out of control and wreak havoc in marriages and other relationships. Gilbert takes a more macro look at the phenomenon:

Examples aren't hard to come by. Shiites seek revenge on Sunnis for the revenge they sought on Shiites; Irish Catholics retaliate against the Protestants who retaliated against them; and since 1948, it's hard to think of any partisan in the Middle East who has done anything but play defense. In each of these instances, people on one side claim that they are merely responding to provocation and dismiss the other side's identical claim as disingenuous spin.

Oh how true this is. We wonder why others can't put the best construction on our behavior but respond by putting the worst construction on our neighbors' actions.

The rest of the op-ed is interesting as well. Gilbert looks at how applying a similar amount of force in response to an attack is difficult for individuals to gauge. Tests showed that volunteers trying to respond to another volunteer's touch with equal force responded with 40 percent more force than they had received. This escalates as the exercise continues.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

None of this is to deny the roles that hatred, intolerance, avarice and deceit play in human conflict. It is simply to say that basic principles of human psychology are important ingredients in this miserable stew.

I think of how certain newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, have a religion beat that includes faith and values. Articles such as this one are excellent for a beat structured that way. A piece like this, particularly if it emphasizes personal relationships as well as global conflict, would be of a lot of interest to readers. All people, I imagine, justify their behavior and demonize others' when conflict arises. Or maybe it's just me and my friends and family! But a bit of understanding of what we Lutherans consider an eighth commandment violation and what psychologists have different names for makes for a fascinating read.

Photo via Muir on Flickr.

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