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It’s the Little Things

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

When negotiators, mediators, managers and administrators prepare to engage in a conflict, they typically focus on the big things, like:

What are the issues?
Who should be at the table?
Who is the right choice for an intermediary?
When should the talks occur?

But what conflict resolvers of all stripes rarely consider are the little things that can affect how everything else is perceived.

Over the past few decades, psychologists have discovered and explored the power of priming. Priming occurs when something in the environment (messages on a poster, a national flag, even the initial content of what a mediator says) triggers implicit memories or information that disputants have in their heads. The most effective primes are subtle, even imperceptible bits of information that trigger feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in disputants.

In a variety of experiments, priming has been shown to affect how people feel, view and respond to social situations. In one study, participants were primed by exposing them to pictures of moderately hostile, famous individuals (Alice Cooper, Bobby Knight), which led to the subjects rating and treating an ambiguous partner in a more hostile and competitive manner. In another study, either competitive or affiliative goals were primed by exposing subjects to goal-related words (win vs. partner), which resulted in the competitively primed subjects performing better on a task (at the expense of their partner’s feelings) than the affiliatively primed subjects. In a third, managers were primed subliminally by flashing cooperative or competitive words on a computer screen for 60 milliseconds while they were performing a simple task. As predicted, when cooperative implicit theories were primed, managers were more likely to share information and involve employees in participatory decision-making whereas priming of competitive theories led to hording of information and unilateral decision-making.

What does this mean for conflict management? It means the little things matter. How we set up the room, what words we use when we explain the process, what artwork or posters we hang on the wall, even how disputants are greeted by receptionists or assistants can trigger an implicit theory, which may go a long way in determining how parties respond to our conflict management processes.

Bargh, J. A. (1994). The four horsemen of automaticity: Awareness, intention, efficiency, and control in social cognition. In R. S. Wyer, Jr., & T. K. Srull (Eds.), Handbook of social cognition (2nd ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Coleman, P. T. (2004). Implicit Theories of Organizational Power and Priming Effects on Managerial Power Sharing Decisions: An Experimental Study. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(2), 297-321.

Herr, P. M. (1986). Consequences of priming: Judgement and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1106-1115.

Higgins, E. T., & King, G. A. (1981). Accessibility of social constructs: Information processing consequences of individual and contextual variability. In N. Cantor & J. Kihlstrom (Eds.) Personality, cognition, and social interaction, 69-121. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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