Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Professor Vishton read an account of a woman driving out of a parking lot who nearly hit an older man on a bike. This could have been a nasty confrontation, but it wasn’t. Learn the psychological principle at work.
How the Argument Stopped
Before we explain how the argument was stopped, you need to know how it started. The man was initially frightened—and reasonably so. He came within inches of being badly injured.
As is often the case, however, that initial fear quickly transformed into intense anger at the person who caused it. He began screaming and cursing at the woman in the car for being so careless.
There’s a standard script to what happens next in a near-miss accident like this one. The person who is being verbally accosted defends herself. She was, after all, not trying to hurt the man.
Indeed, perhaps the man should have been proceeding more carefully himself. This wasn’t all the driver’s fault—at least that’s what the driver will angrily argue.
This particular driver was on the verge of starting into this argument script. Then somehow, she didn’t. She chose to not respond aggressively, and she began crying and apologizing instead.
The screaming man was more than a little surprised at this. He was geared up for the shouting match they were about to have. The notion that he would be facing a crying person was not anticipated.
The man’s anger vanished—at least his angry behavior did. He switched to consoling the woman and apologized for his role in the incident. The man still asked her to drive more carefully, but pointed out that no one had been hurt and that everyone makes mistakes like this, sometimes.
Researchers refer to our tendency to imitate one another as complementarity. Our behaviors tend to match the tone and content of the person with whom we are interacting. It’s a fundamental tendency of how the human brain is wired to interpret and respond to the actions of others.
It can be incredibly hard to resist this unconscious complementarity reflex. If someone asked you to think of words related to the word “chair,” it’s easy to think of many things that are related: “table,” “sit,” “dinner,” “legs,” “cushion,” and so on.
If they asked you to think of words not related to “chair,” that task is much harder. You look around the room. Floor … well, chairs sit on floors. Cat—cats love to sleep in chairs.
When someone expresses anger at you, your brain excels at finding connections to words and actions related to anger such as “yelling.” It can be challenging to think of something to say or do that is related to “nice,” just because anger is so firmly activated in your brain.
However, if you can respond to aggression with nice behaviors, it can often diffuse a negative interaction, often very rapidly. Researchers refer to this shift away from complementarity as non-complementarity. It is hard to do, but it can be very effective.
“I have, like most people, occasionally been in unpleasant arguments—arguments that quickly grew too angry, or acerbic, to be productive any longer,” Professor Vishton said.
In these situations, we might be hurling insults or shouting at each other, but not actually listening to each other anymore. At this point, the argument stops having any value.
Break the Cycle
Here’s a trick for stopping arguments that Professor Vishton recommends. As you look at the person, think, “I love you,” over and over again. Don’t say it aloud; just think the words.
Even if you don’t actually love the person, it can be near impossible to think of more nasty things to say while you are doing this. As something positive does come to mind, say or do that positive thing. It might just end the conflict and get you both on to something more pleasant and productive.
Family counselors often use this strategy when dealing with couples who are having relationship problems. If two people argue aggressively with one another a lot over an extended period of time, the aggression response will be stimulated even before that first word of a discussion is uttered. Once the two people in a relationship are stuck in this mode of processing, it can be very hard to find a way to live happily.
If one—but even just one, ideally both—of the members of the couple periodically expresses something positive to the other person, it can help to break this vicious cycle. It can be an uncomfortable thing to do: delivering a compliment or a favor that is undeserved, seemingly unwarranted, and yet as much as possible completely genuine. Sometimes it’s worth momentary discomfort, though, to stop an argument in its tracks and to break an unfavorable cycle.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.