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Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Underestimating Counterparts’ Learning Goals Impairs Conflictual Conversations

C. Hanne, C. A. Dorison, J. A. Minson, and F. Gino. 
Psychological Science (forthcoming).


Given the many contexts in which people have difficulty engaging with views that disagree with their own—from political discussions to workplace conflicts—it is critical to understand how conflictual conversations can be improved. Whereas previous work has focused on strategies to change individual-level mindsets (e.g., encouraging open-mindedness), the present study investigated the role of partners’ beliefs about their counterparts. Across seven preregistered studies (N = 2,614 adults), people consistently underestimated how willing disagreeing counterparts were to learn about opposing views (compared with how willing participants were themselves and how willing they believed agreeing others would be). Further, this belief strongly predicted greater derogation of attitude opponents and more negative expectations for conflictual conversations. Critically, in both American partisan politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a short informational intervention that increased beliefs that disagreeing counterparts were willing to learn about one’s views decreased derogation and increased willingness to engage in the future. We built on research recognizing the power of the situation to highlight a fruitful new focus for conflict research.

General Discussion

Across seven pre-registered studies, we document three findings. First, we identify a robust self-other difference, wherein conflict participants believe that counterparts are less willing to learn about their views than vice versa. Second, these beliefs predict how people evaluate counterparts, and their experiences with them. Third, manipulating beliefs about counterpart’s learning goals improves conflict outcomes. In both American partisan politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, counterparts and their arguments were evaluated more positively when participants believed that their counterpart was eager to learn about their perspective. 


Social psychology has a rich history of highlighting the role of situational forces in determining human behavior. In dyadic conflict, the social situation has one overwhelmingly salient feature: the other person. We build on the tradition of recognizing the power of the situation (Ross & Nisbett, 2011) and individual construal in shaping behavior.

Complementing prior work on the importance of individual attributes in determining conflict outcomes—e.g., receptiveness (Minson et al., 2020)—our results highlight the importance of individuals’ beliefs about others. This shift in focus provides a new lens for conflict research. Indeed, the results of Studies 4-5 suggest that clearly signaling learning goals (e.g., “I would be interested to learn what you think about…”) could lead to more productive dialogue.

Editor's note: This research has applications for individual and couples counseling.