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Volume 3

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. Aggression and the Conflict Helix
3. Frustration, Deprivation, Aggression, and the Conflict Helix
5. Marxism, Class Conflict, and the Conflict Helix
6. Same and Other; Similarity and Difference
7. Cross-Pressures, Overpopulation, Anomie, and Conflict
8. Conflict as a Process and the Conflict Helix
9. Opposition, Determinism, Inevitability, and Conflict
10. Intentional Humanism

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 4

Misperception, Cognitive Dissonance,
Righteousness, And Conflict*

By R.J. Rummel

The origin of conflict can be frequently traced to false perception.
---- Burton, 1968:67

I have discussed the psychological conditions or causes of conflict of much current interest. There remain others that cannot be treated in the same detail, but nonetheless should be mentioned in conjunction with the conflict helix. These are misperception, dissonance, expectations, and righteousness.


It is a truism that we see others through a lens distorted by our wishes, needs, and experience. Such misperception surely can be a base of conflict, for our actions follow our perceptions, and if we perceive others as evil and act accordingly, we will generate responses in kind. Some, like White (1966), have carried this truism to the highest level, arguing that wars, especially the conflict in Vietnam, are a consequence of misperception. Correct the misperceptions, so the argument goes, and we will have made a gigantic step toward peace and harmony.

Of course this view does not take into account that many conflicts may arise because of entirely accurate perceptions of mutually opposing interests and values. Indeed, I would argue at the international level that until recently United States and Soviet foreign policy elite knew each other very well and judged accurately their respective antagonistic interests.

The misperception argument, unfortunately, neglects the overwhelming importance of realistic conflicts that are based on an actual clash of interests. The mugger and his victim, the revolutionary and the governor, and the food rioter and the guard are not conflicting because of misperception but because of deeply felt opposing interests. All human behavior is seated in psychological variables, to be sure. But to hang a type of social behavior like conflict on the peg of misperception is to neglect the importance of interests, needs, morality, temperament ' and so on, as well as the self, will, and superordinate goal. Perception is an outcome of the confrontation of this field with reality's powers.

If, in fact, misperception is operating, we should focus not on misperception itself but on the operation of the whole field in relation to the specific external forces confronting it. This is done through explicating the process of the conflict helix. Perception plays a role during all phases. Perceptual awareness of another transforms conflict structure into situation, and the perception of another's capabilities, interests, will (his credibility) underlie the instigation to conflict behavior--the balancing of interests.

This balancing is the cauldron within which misperceptions become corrected. It is the test of their reality. Through mutual adjustment, an equilibrium is struck between mutual perceptions of capabilities, wills, and opposing interests, and cooperative behavior ensues. But adjustments change and perceptions alter. They may cease to correspond to the reality of the balance. In this sense, these incongruent perceptions are misperceptions that contribute to the breakdown in the structure of expectations. But such misperceptions are a part of the whole process of conflict.

Besides neglecting realistic conflicts, the misperception argument wrongly views conflict as wholly undesirable. But it is through conflict that misperceptions are corrected or at least made compatible. Conflict may be harmful, may produce death, injury, and destruction. But conflict also may enable people to live together. It may bind society together.

Conflict is the reality of other human beings, each with his psychological field, his own perceptions, his individual interests. If our misperception of others leads to conflict, the result will be either corrected perceptions or the striking of a balance enabling both parties to accommodate to the viewpoints that produced the conflict.


Cognitive dissonance was discussed in Chapter 12 of The Dynamic Psychological Field; and regarding status, disequilibrium, and its effects in Chapter 18 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix. This dissonance is an imbalance between one's perceptions, beliefs, relationships, statuses, and so on, between their negative and positive aspects. It perhaps is best exemplified by the saying: "A friend of my friend is a friend; an enemy of my friend is an enemy." If one has two friends who become enemies, the problem of dissonance arises.

Dissonance provokes field forces that often change perception in order to balance psychological elements. Thus a friend becomes perceived as an enemy, complimentary information about an enemy becomes favorable, or events contrary to one's hopes are perceived as fulfilling the hopes.

Cognitive dissonance and the consequent balancing of perception is a special case of misperception, and it takes field processes into account. And surely cognitive dissonance, especially as it operates for the person with discrepant statuses (see Chapter 18 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix), can provoke conflict. But as with misperception generally, dissonance operates as part of the conflict helix in its social significance. Dissonance may create opposing interests and provoke their balancing, and it may be rectified by the process of overt conflict. Moreover, the resulting balance underlying nonconflict interaction may be upset by dissonance psychologically creating imaginary events or misperceptions of capabilities, interests, and wills.

Dissonance in its effects, like perception, expectations, and our other psychological aspects, is part of a field and its processes. We should understand dissonance in relation to the whole that is the conflict helix, rather than comprehend conflict from the operation of dissonance.


If we expect aggression, we will behave aggressively; if we expect violence, we will act violently; if we expect war, we will wage war. This is the belief of some who feel that the base psychological cause of violent conflict is the expectation of such conflict. For if we prepare for it, try to anticipate it, and see others in the light of its possibility, we will create the satisfaction of our own expectations. In sum, the cause of violence is believed to be the expectation of violence.

Expectations are the counterpart of perception. Perception is present oriented. It is what we "see" now of others. Expectation is future oriented. It is what we predict of others based on our perceptions, beliefs, experience, reason, and hopes. It is how we think others will react to our behavior. And if we expect opposition, aggression, or violence to be forthcoming, regardless of whether there is a basis in actuality, we will contribute to bringing about the anticipated condition. What is crucial is what each of us believes. For belief creates the reality toward which we behave. In this lies the truth of the argument.

But again, conflict is not a singular event, to die without a trace after the explosion. It is a process within which expectations operate by contributing to conflict inception. Yet expectations do not create opposing interests, and although they have a role in perception (we often perceive that which we anticipate), they are not identical with it. Nor are assessments of another's capabilities and will identical with expectations of conflict.

Consequently, these other aspects discipline and limit expectations of conflict. No matter how pessimistic our outlook on humankind, how much we believe that war and violence characterize human society, or how confidently we expect any nation to make war on another for gain or glory, we will not expect Nepal to invade India or Yemen to declare war on the Soviet Union.

Expectations are formed and re-formed in the process of conflict. If they are out of kilter with social reality, the resulting conflict with that reality will adjust them sufficiently to create a balance with others, and to ease cooperative behavior. Nor need the expected violent conflict occur. Social powers come in many forms, and the balancing entailing overt conflict can involve attempts at exchange, persuasion, manipulation, and so on. The social learning process of conflict can move one's expectations of violence toward nonviolent alternatives and adjustment. Such are the lessons of learning theory research (Bandura, 1973) and the consequences of the conflict helix.


Social violence, revolution, wars usually have been seen as the outgrowth of a negative or aberrant aspect of our nature or relations. Selfishness, exploitation, deprivation, misperception, insecurity, frustration, ignorance, or the desire for glory have been nominated separately or together to account for social conflict. What has rarely been mentioned or discussed, however, is how our positive nature contributes to social conflict.

We are certainly egoistic. Our focus is usually on ourselves, on what will improve or enhance our status, security, independence, glory, and so on. But we are also fraternal. We think and act in terms of what is good for our family, group, class, society, or nation. We have a protective need, a drive to improve the welfare of others. The existence of this need has been clearly established in multivariate psychological research (Cattell and Warburton, 1967:157), but few have connected such a need to collective violence.

Arthur Koestler captures an aspect of this need when he pinpoints our "integrative tendency"--a self-transcending tendency--as the culprit. History's holocausts often result from the activities of those who fight in the hope of bettering their group, their nation, or humanity. In Koestler's words:

The crimes of violence committed for selfish, personal motives are historically insignificant compared to those committed ad majorum glorian Dei, out of a self-sacrificing devotion to flag, a leader, a religious faith or a political conviction. Man has always been prepared not only to kill but also to die for good, bad or completely futile causes. And what can be a more valid proof of the reality of the self-transcending urge than this readiness to die for an ideal?

No matter what period we have in view, modern, ancient, or prehistoric, the evidence always points in the same direction: the tragedy of man is not his truculence, but his proneness to delusions. "The worst of madman is a saint run mad": Pope's epigram applies to all major periods of history--from the ideological crusades of the totalitarian age down to the rites which govern the life of primates.
---- Koestler, 1967:234-235

Another aspect is seen in the notion of righteous indignation, a feeling of injustice, as a cause of violence highlighted by Banfield (1970:190-193) and Lupsha (1971). Righteousness may be personal, to be sure (such as our reaction to an unjust slight), but it often involves our feeling about how man should be treated. A central ingredient in class struggle (in my terms), for example, is a pervasive feeling of righteousness about one's class slogans--political formulas--for resolving humanity's problems, and a feeling of indignation, of moral outrage, at the treatment of other people, whether of management by strikers or dissidents by government, of workers by capitalists or of the poor by the rich. Our indignation and righteousness are linked to a concern for our fellows, an altruism basic to humanity.

How does such a fraternal need link into the conflict helix? Needs provide the potential of the conflict structure; their activation and the consequent energizing of connected interests (not wanting a person to suffer for lack of food, to be jailed arbitrarily, or to be shot because of his race or class) partly determine the conflict situation. To know that others are atheists, communists, fascists, or capitalists may be sufficient to focus indignation on them, to interpret the defeat of their interest as a victory for human progress and justice. In other words, our protective need links to interests specifying the sociopolitical acts or conditions that will improve human welfare, and casting particular blame on other groups, individuals, or other classes for depriving people of this welfare. Focused blame connected to a political slogan is a potent situation of conflict. It is in partially defining this situation that fraternal righteousness (as opposed to the egoistic variety)1 plays a role.

But righteousness is not the preserve of one party to a conflict. All parties may feel that they have justice and God on their side and that humanity's welfare sits on their shoulders. Moral conflicts are so intense and bitter because all sides sincerely feel that they are right, that what they are doing will better humanity. They believe that a defeat of their ideas is a defeat of what is Good and Just. "God protect us against crusaders" is no empty slogan.

If the balancing of powers does not determine who is Right and True, at least it settles what "justice" will prevail. A balance that is struck should enable contradictory indignations to live side by side until time, experience, and learning erode their more aggressive and inconsistent aspects; or an internal weakening of one of the faiths creates a fertile ground for new conflict. 


* Scanned from Chapter 4 in R.J. Rummel, Conflict In Perspective, 1977. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. The egoistic-fraternal distinction is also used by Runciman (1966). Fraternal deprivation is that felt for one's class (e.g., workers), and one desires to eliminate it for the class. Egoistic deprivation is felt by the self (e.g., when one is denied a raise in pay), and the person desires to improve his condition alone.

For citations see the Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective REFERENCES

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