Getting into an argument

I’ve been thinking about conflict.  How it starts.  Why.  What happens.  Does it resolve.

I want to understand this so I can write better plays, as a drama is conflict.  In a drama you put characters with opposing viewpoints together and see how it plays out.  Usually one character transforms when confronted with something or someone that they initially oppose.  Usually this confrontation ends up changing the character in some small or large way.

Psychologists say that there is a basic human (mammalian?) response when faced with a threat: to freeze, flee or fight. All of these responses are natural and part of life.  They are also transformational reactions.  They are extreme reactions.

Ordinarily if you are faced with an opposing view you won’t react in this extreme way but will probably put across your point of view.  You’ll argue trying to get the opposition around to your way of thinking.  Sometimes you’ll be successful and sometimes not.  Sometimes you’ll forget about it.  Sometimes you’ll remember.  You might change your behaviour – perhaps if you like the person and want them to like you then you won’t mention the topic again.  If you dislike the person then their opposing point of view will be even more reason to avoid them in future. If you dislike them but can’t avoid them – they are in your circle of friends – then perhaps you’ll start to convince other friends that they shouldn’t be trusted.  You may, if you are convincing enough, succeed in ostracising them from your group.  This last behaviour is an escalation in the conflict – probably way beyond the subject of the initial disagreement.  This escalation is what plays are made of and ultimately the escalation concludes.

I’ve been wondering how people get to the point where they wholesale disagree with another point of view and the penny dropped for me the other day.

I’ve been reading psychologist Daniel Kahnemann’s, Thinking, fast and slow.  It describes two types of thinking the intuitive or ‘fast’ and the methodical or ‘slow’.  Slow thinking takes more effort and humans tend to use the fast, intuitive, route.

The key idea that helped me with my argument conundrum is in the chapter on the fourfold pattern.

People attach significance to their gains and losses.  Generally speaking people do not like to lose something they already have.  This has been shown in experiments that analyse the brain’s reactions to losses and gains.  If a person is about to lose something significant then the areas of the brain that are triggered relate to unhappiness and depression.  They will tend to play it safe to avoid large losses.

We are also disproportionate in our excitement about the prospect of a large gain when it is an outside chance e.g. one in a million chance of winning the lottery but much less excited if it’s a dead certainty.

The model that’s presented in the book is interesting and relates to our assessment of risk and shows the types of behaviours that may arise in extreme situations.

In a situation where there is a significant chance of a specific outcome e.g. win some money the following happens:

  • Gain: Someone will play it safe if they have a 95% chance to win large sum of money
  • Loss: Someone will take a risk if they have a 95% chance to lose their large sum of money

In a situation where there is an outside chance of a specific outcome e.g. win the lottery the following happens:

  • Gain: Someone will take a risk if they have a 5% chance to win a large sum of money
  • Loss: Someone will play it safe if they have a 5% change to lose their large sum of money

How this plays out could be like this:

Ann has a dispute with Bill, her neighbour, over the upkeep of his property.  She is worried that his poor maintenance has a detrimental effect on the valuation of her home.  She is looking to sell.  She has talked to Bill about her concerns but he’s done nothing to help.  She sells her property for £50,000 less than the asking price.  She now wants to take Bill to court to get the difference.

Ann’s lawyers have said that she has a 5% chance to win the money as it depends on the jury and their view of what Bill is worth.  Bill is advised that he has a 5% chance to lose the money.

Bill would like to settle out of court and has offered £10,000 to Ann in compensation.

Ann would rather take the risk of going to court – against her lawyer’s advice – as she imagines that she has a higher chance (higher than the 5% stated) of winning.

Ann goes to court and loses.  Ann gets nothing.  Bill keeps his assets intact.

Ann will probably feel even more aggrieved at this ‘miscarriage of justice’ than she did before she decided to go to court.   She probably imagined a satisfactory scenario where she’d got the right amount of money for her house and the extra effort and legal costs were worth it.  Ann will probably never forget the incident and this event will shape how she views future events. Bill however is pleased and can get on with his life.  He no longer has Ann as his neighbour and over time will probably forget the whole incident.

The conflict was in Ann and Bill’s assessment of the outcome of the legal action.  Ann had nothing to lose so took the large risk to go to court and present the evidence in front of the Jury.  Bill had £50,000 to lose and wanted to play it safe.  Ann wouldn’t let him but in the end he won.

What I take from this is to apply to drama is that each character makes an intuitive assessment of the risks associated with the conflict they’re in.  If they are at the extreme ends of the scale then they’ll take a large risk but have a small chance of it succeeding.

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