When given two contradictory statements, people can respond in four different ways. They can deny the contradiction, discount the information that is contradictory, compare the information and decide which is right and which is wrong, or retain the basic elements of truth in both perspectives and tolerate the contradiction.
The acceptance of contradiction is known as dialectical thinking.
Studies have shown that fundamental differences exist between people from Western and Chinese cultures in dealing with contradiction. Chinese share a tendency to approach contradiction with tolerance; by finding a “middle way” by which truth can be found in each of two competing propositions. In contrast, European-Americans favor differentiation strategies that polarize contradictory perspectives in an effort to decide which side is correct and which is incorrect. Both ways of thinking can be traced back to the basic intellectual frameworks rooted in Eastern Confucianism versus Western Aristotelian logic.
Although both forms of reasoning have their merits, these cultural differences have been shown to have profound effects on conflict management. One study showed that American participants’ resolutions of conflicts were non-compromising, blaming one side for the causes of the problems, demanding changes from one side to attain a solution, and offering no compromise in dealing with interpersonal conflicts. In contrast, Chinese respondents were much more dialectical, usually attributing blame to both sides and preferring a compromise approach to resolve the contradictions. Ultimately, dialectical reasoning may be preferable for negotiating adaptively in complex social interactions, and identifying the conditions that foster this in the negotiation context is key.
Peng, K., & Nisbett, R. E. (1999). Culture, dialectics, and reasoning about contradiction. American Psychologist, 54, 741-754.
Lily Ng is a Master’s student in Social-Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.