President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Air Force personnel and their families on Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
The Geopolitics of Empathy

States compete and contend for many reasons, and sometimes those reasons are abundantly clear to the protagonists. But in other cases, the root causes of the disagreement are not well understood, and the level of animosity is greater than it should be. In this latter case, states know they disagree, but they are either confused or mistaken about the underlying source(s) of the problem. In these circumstances, remedying the problem will be much more difficult, and escalatory spirals are more likely.

For this reason, one of the lessons I try hardest to impart in my courses is the importance of empathy: the ability to see problems from another person’s (or country’s) perspective. To do this does not require agreeing with their view; it is about grasping how others see a situation and understanding why they are acting as they are. The reason to do this is eminently practical: It’s harder to persuade a rival to alter its behavior if you don’t understand its origins.

I was reminded of this problem when I read several obituaries for Lee Ross, a pioneering social psychologist who taught for many years at Stanford University. Ross is best known for his work on what he called the “fundamental attribution error,” which became a core concept in the field and had broad applications. In brief, fundamental attribution error is the human tendency to emphasize “dispositional” explanations of behavior over “situational” explanations. In other words, humans tend to see the behavior of others as reflections of the latter’s personality, character, desires, or basic dispositions rather than as response to the situations others are in. Yet we tend to see our own behavior as a response to the circumstances we are facing rather than as being solely a manifestation of “who we are.”

If someone lies to us, for example, we tend to assume it is because their character is flawed and they lack integrity. They lied because, well, that’s just the kind of person they are. And sometimes, this is true. But if we tell a lie, we are prone to see it as something we had to do given the situation we were in, not as evidence of our own character flaws. If someone else loses their cool and lashes out, we conclude they must be innately hotheaded or have anger management issues instead of considering whether they are overworked, dealing with three small kids in lockdown, or sleep deprived.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy.

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