My fault you say? I don’t think so…

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Once in a while, I believe we all need to be reminded of how selective we are when it comes to our perceptions (including me). A funny (not so funny at the time) thing happened the other day while I was driving along a 2-way street in San Francisco. A young lady was in her parked car on the opposite side of the street while I was traveling towards her (on the opposite side of the street) at about 30 mph. As I was about 30-feet to where she was, she turned her car abruptly into my (oncoming) lane in an attempt to make a U-turn. It was clear that she saw my car coming but she felt she couldn’t wait 2 seconds for me to pass before turning her car around. Of course, this caused me to slam on my brakes and wait for her to back-up once to complete her U-turn.

With noticeable frustration, I held up both of my hands to say “What are you doing?” To this, she responded with “the finger” and yelled something at me that I wasn’t able to hear because my windows were closed.  Whatever it was, she was clearly communicating to me that it wasn’t her fault and that I was somehow the wrong-doer in this situation.

This little incident reminded me of a study on selective perception conducted by Hastorf and Cantril back in 1954, a few years after a temper- and anger-filled game between Dartmouth and Princeton in which several players were injured. That particular game seemed to have brought out the worst from both sides and each accused the other of being unfairly and unnecessarily rough on the field. Curious about the caustic editorials from both sides, social psychologists Hastorf (from Dartmouth) and Cantril (from Princeton) decided to survey students from both schools (163 from Dartmouth and 161 from Princeton).  Among the questions asked was “From what you saw in the game… which team do you feel started the rough play?”  Not surprisingly, while 86% of Princeton students claimed Dartmouth started the rough play, only 36% of Dartmouth students claimed the same.  The dramatic difference made the researchers question whether the two groups of students were watching the same game.

I’m guessing nearly all of us have experienced conflict arising from selective perception of one sort or another. In fact, the fact that conflict is so common both in and out of work shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our natural state is such that we are somehow programmed to be biased.

While I don’t claim to have a solution to selective attention/perception, the next time we’re faced with conflict, one question we might ask ourselves might be “How would I have reacted if I had been in the other person’s shoes?”

SB Jeong

Note:  The referenced study above was first pulled from a respected writer and teacher Scott Plous and his book titled “The psychology of judgment and decision making.”

Hastorf, A. H.; Cantril, H. (1954). “They Saw a Game: A Case Study”. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 49 (1): 129–134

Plous, S. (1993). The psychology of judgment and decision making. New York: McGraw-Hill.


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