In the wake of the terrible news of the Orlando shootings, numerous posts are being shared on social media. Many beautifully remember and respectfully mourn the victims. Some focus on the shooter and his background. But few reveal a much larger issue. You may have seen this video by former CIA undercover officer Amaryllis Fox. She points out a simple truth that her work has taught her: Everybody believes they are the good guy.
Her statement is supported by research. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls this “the myth of pure evil.” We all seem to believe that evildoers have purely evil motives, come from the outside, and attack our group.
However, Baumeister’s research found that aside from evil motives like greed (which leads to things like robberies) and sadism (where people take pleasure in hurting others), it is much more common for violence to have 2 other motives: A threat to self-esteem and idealism.
Usually people commit violence as a retaliation for a perceived injustice or in self-defense. They may be grossly overreacting or misinterpreting events, but in their mind there is a perfectly defensible reason for their actions. And if they act out of idealism, in their mind, the end justifies the means.
There are several psychological factors that play into this. Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt calls them “The Inner Lawyer”, “The Rose-Colored Mirror” and “Naïve Realism.”
We all have an “Inner Lawyer” who fights for our interests and not the truth. Studies show again and again that rather than being completely objective, we actually take a position and then set out on a mission to find reasons to support our preferred belief or action. And because we usually find them, we end up convincing ourselves that we are looking at things objectively.
We then look at ourselves in a “rose-colored mirror.” In order to make us feel good about ourselves, we are programmed to compare ourselves to others and their actions and somehow spin those comparisons in our favor, either by inflating our own claims or disparaging those of others.
Finally, we engage in “naïve realism”: We each think that we see the world as it really is. And we therefore believe that others should agree with us. If they don’t, we conclude that they must be biased by their religion, ideology or self-interest. This makes it really easy to create a world full of “good” and “evil.”
It is easy to see ourselves as the “good” guy and react with contempt toward others we see as “evil”, because it makes us feel like we are morally superior. But it doesn’t help resolve any conflicts.
So what is the solution?
Amaryllis Fox suggests that listening is the answer: “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them,” she said. “If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”
Another option is to practice seeing the log in our own eye first. Jonathan Haidt proposes you can start by thinking about a recent conflict you had with someone else and finding one way in which your behavior wasn’t exemplary. Maybe you did or said something insensitive, hurtful or inconsistent with your principles (even though you meant well or can justify your action.) Make sure you don’t blame yourself, but be compassionate with yourself and simply notice and acknowledge responsibility for your part.
You might still believe that you are mostly right and the other person is mostly wrong, but this will open up a path for communication and resolution. (For more details on how to get past arguing about who is “right” and who is “wrong’ see: How to Stop Arguing and Create Healthier Relationships)
What are you willing to do to help reduce conflicts in your world?