How emotions affect perception and attention in conflict

Emotions affect what we perceive, and they also help our brain determine what is most useful to pay attention to. 

Emotions draw our attention to certain things and away from others. Emotions can keep our attention focused or distract us from information that’s available to us. Emotions also affect how we interpret what we perceive and how confident we are about what we notice.

All of these things can have a significant impact on how someone engages in conflict.

Emotions affect what we see

We tend to pay attention to things that elicit a strong emotional response, over neutral stimuli.  

This works whether or not our strong emotion is a positive one or a negative one.  The stronger the emotion evoked by the stimuli, the strong the pull of our attention towards it.

In conflict, this can result in us focusing on the more dramatic events in a conflict’s history, so we lose perspective and a balanced view about the complexity of what’s happened. Our memories focus on the events that elicited strong emotions, and we do not pay attention to the other events that happened in between those.

We tend to ignore things that are inconsistent with how we are feeling. 

For example, if we are feeling very negative emotions towards someone, we will not pay attention to positive things about them.

In conflict this can be problematic, particularly in entrenched and personalised conflict. When one party has very strong negative emotions towards the other, everything they say and do will be interpreted in a negative way, even if their actions were neutral or even positive.

Emotions affect whether we pay attention to the forest or the trees. 

Positive emotions typically focus our attention on the forest (we tend to think big picture, we can sometimes rely on stereotypes, and we can be shut off to new information).  Negative emotions typically focus our attention on the trees (we tend to be detailed focus, and we are more open to new information).

In conflict, being open to new information and different perspectives is usually beneficial. It may seem counterintuitive, but in many situations feeling negative emotions (so long as their expression is managed effectively and they are not so strong as to shut down cognitive processes altogether) can be beneficial.

Emotions affect how we analyse or think about what we pay attention to.

When we are feeling a strong emotion, we will tend to interpret neutral information or stimuli according to that emotion.  

So if we are feeling negative emotions, we will often interpret neutral things as negative. Conversely if we are feeling positive emotions, we will often interpret neutral things as positive.

In conflict this can become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We are feeling negatively towards the person with whom we are in conflict, and accordingly we interpret almost anything they do or say as negative, done with negative intention or with some hidden negative ulterior motive.

Our confidence about what we perceive will change in proportion to how strongly our emotions are about it. 

If we are feeling a very strong emotion, we will strongly believe that what we perceive (and how we interpret it) is accurate.  

In conflict this is the often observed “certainty” effect. We are certain about all the things we feel strongly about, and even in the face of other perspectives or contrary information, we are very reluctant to shift our perception.

Emotions can impact on our perception of the order of events. 

We usually perceive strongly emotional events as happening before neutral events.

In conflict, this can lead to a focus on the strong-emotion-eliciting events (which are most often negative) and a denial (intentional or unintentional) that other things happened before or in between them that could help explain what has happened.

Emotions can keep us engaged and make it hard for us to move on. 

When we are feeling a strong emotion about something it can be hard to shift our attention from it and move onto something different.

In conflict, people often become very attached to beliefs and perceptions that they feel strongly about, even when they no longer serve them. It can be very challenging to encourage people who are emotionally attached to a certain way of seeing and interpreting events to move on to something different.

Would you like to know more about how emotions impact on cognitive processes that we use in conflict and conflict resolution?

Would you like to learn strategies to support people to leverage their emotions (the ones that feel good as well as the ones that feel bad) to cognitively engage with constructive conflict management?

Check out CCI Academy’s new Working with Emotions in Conflict fully flexible online course. It includes over 20 hours of video lessons, plus additional written content and activities to apply your learning.  One of the seven modules is all about how emotions impact on cognitive processes that are important in managing conflict (including perception and attention, and others like memory, motivation, cooperation and creativity). 

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