Monday, January 7, 2008

Impact Bias

Most people are pretty good at forecasting how they will feel in response to this or that outcome of conflict. They are not so good, however, at forecasting how profound their feelings will be or exactly how long they will endure.

For example, I happen to be a fan of both the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Cubs. If you had asked a while back, I would have been able to describe in detail how happy it would make me to see the Colts win the Super Bowl or the Cubs win the World Series. Of course, last year the Colts did win the Super Bowl. I remember going to bed after the game with not nearly as much excitement as I thought I would have. As it turned out, their victory did not make a very big impact on my life. And the impact it did make did not last. In fact, I don't really feel much of anything anymore with respect to last year's Super Bowl. I am much more focused now on how much joy I will have should the Colts win again this year.

The psychological phenomenon I just described is something called impact bias. Impact bias is the tendency of people to wrongly estimate the profoundness of their feelings in response to some potential outcome or how long those feelings will last. In conflict situations, the impact bias can contribute significantly to a misjudgment of how we define and prioritize our interests. We mistakenly push harder for or against certain interests on the basis of a biased appraisal of how each might impact us on the level of our feelings.

For example, suppose you are in conflict with another member of your leadership team. You might realize that one of your interests in this particular situation is to be vindicated. You have other pressing interests, mind you, but one of them is to be vindicated for the way you have thought and conducted yourself in relation to everyone else and the issue at stake. You might even imagine how good it will feel for everyone else not only to realize you were right all along, but also to express such. So you press for vindication and keep it near the top on your list of priorities.
However, once the conflict has passed, you find the others keeping their distance. They were offended by your insistence on vindication, feeling that they too could have insisted on such things, but instead they "stuck to the issues." So now the vindication you thought would bring you joy has actually led to the pain of additional stress on your relationships.

The lesson here is for us not to put full confidence in what we initially think about the benefit or cost of a potential outcome of conflict. Outcomes we think initially would be very beneficial might turn out to be much less so, if they turn out to be beneficial at all. The same holds true for outcomes we think initially would be very harmful. They might turn out to be less harmful than first imagined or even benign; better yet, they might turn out for our good.

Admittedly, this is a difficult lesson to implement. In spite of my experience with the Colts winning the Super Bowl, I am still hoping for the Cubs to win the World Series! I just know that will bring me a lot of happiness for a long, long time!

Application Questions:
1. What experience do you have personally with the impact bias in conflict? Describe what happened.
2. What specific steps can someone take to reality check against the impact bias?
3. How does the biblical teaching on self-denial or suffering factor into minimizing the impact bias? Which specific verses apply? (Don't forget Romans 8:28)
4. What specific priorities for conflict outcomes might help to minimize the impact bias?

Note: For more information on the process of biblical same-mindedness, check out "Where Do We Go From Here: The Path To Biblically Resolving Conflict" by Randal L. Gilmore. Available here.

For more on the impact bias, see "Miswanting" by Chris Guthrie and David F. Sally in The Negotiator's Fieldbook, edited by Schneider and Honeyman.


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