I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict. This summer I’ve seen couples hit by unusual relationship lows (interpersonal conflict) and work groups plagued by conflicts that threaten their productivity and commitment (intragroup conflict). Civil and international conflicts (intergroup conflicts), like those between American political parties and Hamas and the Israeli government, flame.

One interesting thing is that the basic features of destructive conflict are remarkably the same, whether it’s an interpersonal, intragroup, or intergroup conflict. Knowing about these features is useful for reducing conflict escalation and promoting peace-making. Choose a serious conflict that concerns you and think about what I say below with it in mind. 

We humans are a reciprocating bunch. Give us a birthday card and you’ll get one but act aggresively towards us, and you’ll get that back too. Destructive conflicts involve conflict spiralling, an escalating series of negative reciprocal interactions, the conflict growing with each exchange. One party (person or group) does something perceived as aggressive or disrespectful by a second party who then reciprocates. The first party believes that this retaliation is excessive or unjust and counter-retaliates. The second party is angered by this counter-retaliation since they believed their retaliation was only to even the score, and so they counter-counter-retaliate, and so on, with each round getting progressively nastier. The parties get away from problem solving and spend their time reacting to the previous enemy attack and mirroring the other's negative actions. Trust is eroded.

In the worst-case scenarios, the relationship disintegrates as the conflict escalates. Communication is poor and contact may be broken off (this is called autistic hostility). Perceptual distortion, the exaggerated misinterpretation and attribution of hostile intentions to an opponent's actions, fuels the conflict. Each side has a negative enemy stereotype of the other leading to biased processing of self and other actions. Each side views their own negative actions as justified and a reaction to the situation, while the other's negative actions are viewed as evidence of evil or insanity. Each side fails to appreciate that their adversary's aggression is at least partly a response to their own behavior. Instead, they view it as evidence of the others' hostile intentions and power motivations. New issues produced by the conflict overshadow the issues that initially triggered the conflict (this is called meta-conflict). Now they are mad not only about the original “hurt” but about all the hurts that followed during the course of the conflict.

Once people perceive one another as enemies, cooperation is challenging. There’s the perception that the goals and interests of the conflicting parties are fundamentally incompatible. Competition ensues to prove who is the superior, mightier group or individual. At this point, the conflict has a competitive goal structure where it is assumed that one party will win, and one will lose. Advantage for one's own side is sought through coercion, misinformation, and obstructing the fulfillment of the other's wants. Violent conflict is likely if one party believes that its interests are more important than the interests of the other, and that it will be successful if it acts violently in pursuit of its goals. There’s no motivation to pursue peaceful resolution until prolonged conflict demonstrates that neither side will win without significant costs (stalemate).

These common dynamics of destructive conflict certainly explain how conflicts escalate and why conflict resolution is so difficult.  But they also tell us a few things about preventing conflict escalation and promoting peace-building:

  • If possible, turn the other cheek and don’t escalate the conflict. Two wrongs rarely make it right, and usually make it worse. You may think their poor actions justify yours, but your retaliation will escalate the conflict. Revenge may satisfy your pride or indulge your anger, but you will likely pay a big price for it.
  • When embroiled in a conflict, don’t give into your impulse to cut off contact or avoid talking about it (unless it’s just to cool off so you can respond rationally). Avoidance only insures that the conflict will remain unsolved and relations tense or hostile. Instead, make a move to rebuild trust with a small peaceful gesture, such as acknowledging and apologizing for your contibutions to the conflict and expressing a willingness to resolve the conflict. Once that is reciprocated, make another baby step towards peace with another small gesture and so on.
  • Put your defensiveness aside, and take responsibility for any poor behavior on your part. Set your righteous indignation aside. Consider that some of the other’s poor behavior is/was a reaction to your behavior towards them. Consider that you may be biased in your processing of your own and the other’s actions.
  • Once parties come to the “peace table,” they should agree on some norms for respectful interaction, share what each party wants and why, and seek solutions that satisfy the major issues of both parties.
  • Bring your best self to the peace table. Behave respectfully and maturely. Don’t act defensively, don’t show contempt towards the other party, and don’t attempt to shame them. Make a genuine effort to understand the other’s perspective and seek workable solutions. Usually, this will be reciprocated, and progress towards resolution can be made.

For more information go to the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence (American Psychological Association Division 48).


Art by Kane Lynch.  kanelynch.com 

The title of this blog is a "riff" on the following quote: 

"The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war." – Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit


Burn, S. M., & Oskamp, S. (1989). Ingroup biases and the US‐Soviet conflict. Journal of Social Issues, 45, 73-89.

Christie, D. J., Tint, B. S., Wagner, R. V., & Winter, D. D. (2008). Peace psychology for a peaceful world. American Psychologist, 63, 540-552. 

Deutsch, M. (1977). The resolution of conflict: Constructive and destructive processes. Yale University Press.

Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Penguin.

Kemmelmeier, M., & Winter, D. G. (2000). Putting threat into perspective: Experimental studies on perceptual distortion in international conflict. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 795-809.

McEwen, C. A., & Milburn, T. W. (1993). Explaining a paradox of mediation. Negotiation Journal, 9, 23-36.

MacNair, R. (2011). The psychology of peace: An introduction. ABC-CLIO.

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