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Interviewing third parties: New research shows how a conflict gets embellished and distorted with each retelling

A shooting happens in a neighborhood. Many things happen right after that initial event, including an adult version of the child’s game of telephone―the happening gets told and retold, and the retelling gets retold.

At some point in this oral storytelling cycle, a journalist arrives and starts interviewing witnesses.

While the journalist tries hard to get as close to the eyewitnesses of the shooting as he or she can, direct access is not always possible. And, as new research suggests, and as good journalists know, once the actual facts have been whispered around the neighborhood, they are likely to emerge quite different from the original version.

Researchers call this phenomenon “third party contagion.” A study by Tiane L. Lee, Michele J. Gelfand and Yoshihisa Kashima documented “the role played by third party observers as drivers of conflict escalation through their biased communication.” Put more simply: People who have nothing directly to do with a conflict―in my hypothetical, the shooting―often muddy everyone’s understanding of the event by describing what happened in loaded terms. They offer evaluations not based on facts. Utter judgments that suit their purposes. Apply moral dimensions that aren’t there in the first place. And, of course, assign cause.

In the Lee et al. study using about 200 undergraduates, the first person in a four-person chain learned about a made-up conflict between two groups. (The original version of the conflict assigned equal fault to the disputing parties.) The first person then retold the narrative by typing up what he or she remembered about the event, and that version was passed along to the next participant in the chain. In the end, participants completed a survey about the conflict and its involved parties.

The results? “Partisan spectators to others’ disputes not only become involved in, but escalate, the dispute to a multitude of others,” states the resulting article, “The serial reproduction of conflict: Third parties escalate conflict through communication biases,” in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (vol. 54, Sept. 2014).

Even people without direct experience in a conflict tend to fuel the conflict by framing it in a morally biased way, giving causes for the conflict, providing judgments of the disputing parties, and seeking revenge. They finesse the tale to fit their purposes. Everyone seeks to add his or her two cents’ worth to the tale.

The researchers sum up their findings this way: “Using the serial reproduction method, we demonstrate the role of third parties’ communication biases in conflict escalation, revealing that successive generations of partisan observers share and reproduce conflict narratives that become increasingly biased in their moral framing, attributions for the conflict, evaluations of the disputing parties, and quest for revenge. Despite equal fault between the disputing parties at the beginning, these communication biases increased, rather than subsided, with each iteration throughout communication chains, cumulating in distortions and group biases far above and beyond initial ingroup favoritism.” (See Chapter 5, “Understanding Culture, Understanding Sources,” of Overcoming Bias for more on how ingroup favoritism influences interviewing.)

Why do people do this? The research suggests that people pass along distorted information because they want to create a common narrative, “a collective identity.”

Journalists, beware. Such striving for a “shared reality” involves more imagination and opinion than fact.



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