The Upside to Losing

Society has developed a slew of platitudes to help comfort losers, but the real help tends to come from the psychological solutions and silver linings that take shape in our heads. According to a new study one benefit to losing is that you gain a better understanding of what your opponents are thinking.

Researchers examined perceptions of Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of last year’s flotilla debacle. They found that the more Israelis perceived the event as a loss for their side, the more accurate they were in predicting Palestinian viewpoints. On the other hand, the more Palestinians perceived the event as a “victory” for their side, the less accurate they were in predicting Israeli viewpoints. The researchers hypothesize that it’s all about regaining the upper hand:

We theorized that individuals who perceive losses to their group position should display increased motivation to accurately read the out-group’s mind, because this ability might be invaluable in reversing the situation. Indeed, one is reminded in this sense of Sun Tzu’s famous dictum to “know thy enemy.” Thus, turning attention to how the out-group thinks might not necessarily reflect caring, in the empathic sense, about the other group, but rather may reflect strategic concern with managing the position of one’s own group—a concern likely to be heightened when one is faced with losses.

In general, the findings offer one explanation for why public opinion on social and political issues tends to sway back and forth. When a group feels they are losing they focus more on understanding their opposition, and that in turn helps them make gains. The opposition then renews their focus on understanding their opponents, and the cycle continues.

The study seems particularly relevant in the aftermath of the debt ceiling deal.  Do progressives now have a better idea of what conservatives are thinking? Could that actually help them when the next conflict arises?

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