Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tempers boiling!

Disputes are easy to enter. One can very easily lose sight of Wikipedia as a place one writes an encyclopedia, and instead view Wikipedia as the place one fights back against aquel pendejo. There are two psychological phenomena apparently responsible for this problem.

Tit for tat: Game theory has established that the strategy most likely to help a social organism pass on its genes is one of tit-for tat. Start out cooperating with other people, but if they fail to cooperate then immediately switch to their behavior. In Wikipedia, when an editor refuses to hear our comments, we respond by refusing to hear their comments. After a few exchanges, there is no longer any realistic chance for dialog, since the initial exchanges have created a pair of editors who don't want to cooperate with each other.

A major problem with tit-for-tat is that the anger and hostility created by one non-cooperative encounter is likely to be carried on to the next encounter. If an editor has proved to be a real pain, then we are primed to consider that the next editor we meet will also prove to be a big pain. We are ready to drop into non-cooperative behavior at the first provocation.

Self-serving assessments: We are fairly accurate at determining the biases and errors of others, but much less accurate at identifying our own biases (Epley and Dunning 2000). Each editor in a dispute will be very conscious of the misbehaviors and errors of the others, but not conscious of her own. This has an evolutionary advantage in that we can convincingly present ourselves to other people as virtuous, and gain their acceptance as desirable partners in reciprocal relationships--we are convincing because we believe the story ourselves. At the same time, it is also to our advantage to assess correctly the suitability of others as partners, so we are not so biased when it comes to looking at other people.

The problem here is that few editors have the insight to understand that they are partially at fault: most will perceive that the fault lies overwhelmingly on the other side. And even if both have this insight, confessing that one is at fault is a good example of the prisoners' dilemma. If both editors can admit that they are at fault, then the conflict can quickly end and cooperation begin. If only one editor admits that she is at fault, then the other will emerge victorious in the conflict, so the one who admits fault is in a bad situation. To avoid this bad situation, both editors will deny that they are at fault.

  • Epley, and Dunning. 2000. Feeling "holier than thou": Are self-serving assessments produced by errors in self- or social prediction? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79(6): 861-875.

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