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Putting Threat into Perspective: Experimental Studies on Perceptual Distortion in International Conflict
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Conflicts are often accompanied by mutually distorted perceptions such that threat exerted by the adversary is exaggerated, whereas threat by one’s own side is minimized. The authors investigated the effects of perspective-taking on perceptual distortions using perceived power motivation as an unobtrusive measure of perceived threat. In two experiments, respondents summarized speeches made by Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein during an episode of the September 1996 Gulf Crisis. Study 1 showed that for participants cued into the perspective of a U.S. military officer, greater levels of distortions were found compared to participants reviewing the speeches from the perspective of a historian. In Study 2, taking the perspective of a mediator in conflict did not reduce perceptual distortion, suggesting that distance to the conflict is an important factor for reducing perceptions of threat. The discussion focuses on the fluidity of threat perceptions and addresses ways in which perspective-taking can minimize the risk of conflict escalation.