Will he actually cut off her hand? While this outcome might seem far-fetched, fans of The Office familiar with the character of Dwight have been conditioned enough by his antics to actually wonder. And while he might seem crazy enough to do it, it’s the chain of events created through Dwight and Nellie’s confrontation that makes it so believable that things have come this far. How did we get here?
The episode titled “Roy’s Wedding” from the ninth season begins with Nellie trying to gather charity donations from the employees. Dwight, showing his disgust at the idea of the strong being generous to the weak, balks completely. After being pushed in front of the group to support some type of cause, he mischievously suggests that he would like to donate to the Taliban, poisoning whatever sense of good spirit Nellie was attempting to build.
Nellie though is not one to back down. She decides the best way to teach Dwight a lesson is to call his bluff of supporting the ways of the Taliban. She does this by stealing something from Dwight, and then immediately admits that her criminality must be punished. Next, she reminds him that the correct punishment according to law would be to cut off her hand. She confidently encourages him to do so, even providing him the weapon needed to efficiently serve this method of justice.
It is with these very scenes that the writers of The Office, through Dwight and Nellie’s twisted dance, bring to life an excellent portrayal of two important concepts from the world of conflict resolution: the consistency principle and the game of Chicken.
The Consistency Principle
One of the most powerful norms in social behavior is the universal human desire to appear consistent in things we do and say, especially in front of others. There are two main reasons for this strong tendency. First, appearing inconsistent can bring negative social consequences, both short and long term. For example, according to Social Psychologist Mark E. Leary, “People who do not appear consistent are often viewed as weak, unreliable, hypocritical, deluded, or even mentally unstable.” The second reason involves the well documented phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, which states acting in a manner inconsistent with our stated beliefs or attitudes can cause significant psychological discomfort.
In the case of Dwight, who often demonstrates great pride in being viewed as a strong person capable of leading others, it was all too easy for him to fall into a consistency trap, having now to accept Nellie’s challenge to ‘put his money where his mouth is’ through violent and brutal action.
The Game of Chicken
If the consistency trap is the result of talking the talk, the game of Chicken represents walking the walk. According to Social Psychologists Pruitt & Carnevale, “the game of Chicken can be observed whenever two or more parties lock into a contest of wills in which neither side is willing to concede first and both sides stand to lose a great deal through joint intransigence.” There are two main reasons why this is especially challenging. First, it usually involves parties holding each other hostage to a mutually negative outcome, with the hopes of placing greater pressure on the other. For example, Pruitt & Carnevale write:
The message conveyed through this commitment is that now only other has control over what will happen. Party has irrevocably committed himself or herself to a threatening and costly course of action. As a result, the locus of control over the outcome of the exchange has been shifted from the shoulders of party to other, who is now the only one capable of preventing mutual disaster.
The second challenge involves our struggle to form correct impressions of the intentions of others during a negotiation or conflict. For example, consider the following scenarios. We could believe that both sides are bluffing, or that one party is bluffing and the other serious, or that both parties are serious, or that one wants us to believe they are bluffing, and on and on. In the case of Dwight and Nellie, it is Nellie who decides to call Dwight out on his bluff, escalating the game of Chicken and putting herself in harm’s way by providing Dwight with a sharp cleaver and her exposed wrist.
So this brings us back to the original question: Does he actually cut off her hand?
Luckily, the answer is no, as their co-worker Darryl arrives with a timely distraction, the episode ends, and Nellie appears unharmed going forward.
But as we take this time to binge watch Netflix and keep ourselves busy waiting for this storm to pass, it’s well worth considering how easily we might fall victim to the consistency trap, how easily we might get dragged into games of Chicken, and most importantly, how we can do our best to get ahead of them before the next round of what we miss so much begins.