Conflict and development are bound together: Conflict both fosters maturation and is a product of it. Two distinct forms of conflict may be identified: intrapersonal conflict and interpersonal conflict. Each plays a different role in human development. Intrapersonal conflict denotes internal strife, the resolution of which may prompt social, cognitive, or emotional maturation. Interpersonal conflict signifies overt disagreement between individuals or groups that, depending on how it is managed, may either promote social skills and improve relationships or hinder social competence and disrupt relationships. Both forms of conflict appear to have a curvilinear relationship with developmental outcomes: Some conflict is necessary for optimal growth, but too much is counterproductive.
The Nature Of Conflict
Conflict is a broad term, widely invoked in the common vernacular and in the scientific literature to suggest a state of disagreement or opposition. The term carries different connotations depending on how it is experienced and who experiences it. Intrapersonal conflict describes a state of emotional turmoil, intellectual dissent, or motivational equiponderance that occurs within an individual. To be conflicted is to be consumed by internal rivalries and contradictory demands. Interpersonal conflict describes a form of social interaction involving two or more people, characterized by opposing goals and behaviors. The state of interpersonal conflict encompasses a broad category of events, from individuals exchanging opinions to armies engaged in mutual destruction. The earliest known English language use of the word conflict dates to the 15th century; both forms of use have common roots in the Latin conflictus, meaning throw or strike together, clash, contend, or fight. This shared etiology muddies fundamental distinctions between these two distinct forms of conflict.
Intrapersonal conflict encompasses four broad domains. At the emotional level, conflict reflects competing desires or impulses. Sigmund Freud attributed these base tendencies to aggressive and sexual proclivities with origins in the id (the unregulated physical self), which give rise to irreconcilable differences with constraints that are imposed by the superego (the social mores conveyed by family and culture). At the cognitive level, conflict reflects dissonance produced by incongruent facts, opinions, or modes of thought. Jean Piaget attributed these tendencies to equilibration, the innate human tension between a preference for stability and a drive to master the environment. Assimilation encourages stability by incorporating new information into existing mental schema. Should this prove insufficient for mastering the environment, accommodation is required to alter the mental scheme or, in extreme cases, the mental structure itself, in a manner consistent with the information available. At the level of the ego, conflict reflects developmental challenges. According to Erik Erikson, each life stage is defined by a distinct crisis that must be resolved. These crises represent choice points that collectively contribute to ego development and self-representations. At the motivational level, conflict reflects the need to choose between options perceived to be relatively equal in valence. Kurt Lewin identified three distinct forms of motivational discord. Two equally attractive options are described in contemporary terms as approach-approach conflicts. Two equally unattractive options are referred to as avoid-avoid conflicts. Options that contain both attractive and unattractive elements are considered approach-avoid conflicts.
Intrapersonal conflict is by definition a private experience. It cannot be observed, and it has no clear, reliable metric. Early scientific psychologists relied on introspection to glean insight into thoughts, a practice modified and popularized by psychodynamic psychologists to probe unconscious emotional states. Subjective experience as a topic of study fell out of favor with the behavioral revolution. Reaction times, physiological cues, and projective responses were employed as proxies for inner conflict, but poor reliability and the absence of face validity undermined these efforts. Field theorists attempted to resolve the dilemma by quantifying motivational forces present in the environment. This visionary effort failed to attract a significant following because it proved cumbersome and ill-suited for the methodological and analytic tools of the day. With the cognitive (counter) revolution, new introspective methods gained legitimacy as advances in measurement and instrumentation were applied to mental processes. Scholars began to focus on the diverse experiences of different cultural and ethnic groups, and in so doing it became apparent that scientific inquiry into intrapersonal conflict cannot proceed in the absence of valid and reliable self-report data.
Interpersonal conflict may take place at the level of the dyad or the group. Dyadic conflict is a social episode marked by overt behavioral opposition. The function of a disagreement and the manner in which it unfolds varies according to characteristics of the participants and their relationship, the issue and context, the strategies employed, and their consequences. Group conflict refers to negative or incompatible attitudes and behaviors directed by members or representatives of one group toward those of another group. The nature and significance of intergroup conflict varies according to leadership styles and prevailing norms, member cohesion, resource availability, and the individual and collective talents and experiences of each group.
Interpersonal conflict is a quantifiable, often public event. It consists of a sequence of easily recognized and well-defined components including the initial opposition and the tactics, resolution, and outcome. The ease with which components of conflict may be identified has not engendered a common approach for quantifying experiences, however, and empirical studies of dyadic and group conflict suffer from inconsistent operational definitions. Conflict measures differ in terms of whether they assess oppositions defined by unilateral (one-sided disputation) or mutual (reciprocal contention) behavior and in terms of whether the frequency of an event is distinguished from its affective intensity. Distinct patterns of interpersonal conflict emerge when considering reciprocated as opposed to unreciprocated disagreements and when angry disputes are examined apart from the mundane. The earliest work on the topic involved labor-intensive observations of young children, but this soon gave way to laboratory studies of dyads and groups in experimenter-contrived conditions designed to elicit disagreements. Concerns about the ethical treatment of participants and a lack of generalizability prompted a renewed focus on ecological validity; unobtrusive observations in natural settings have been integrated with running assessments of psychophysiological states and moment-by-moment accounts of participant cognitions and affect. The significance of self-reports increased with the realization that participant views of conflict differ not only from one another but also from those of observers, suggesting that what was once considered measurement error may in fact represent systematic differences in how conflict is perceived and experienced. The nature of the relationship and the role one occupies tend to dictate individual conflict behaviors and shape each participant’s interpretation of events.
The Role Of Conflict In Human Development
Conflict is inherent in growth. It follows that human development cannot proceed without conflict. Scholars agree that interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict shape developmental trajectories, but there is little consensus as to the exact mode of transmission. Developmental effects appear to be limited to specific domains of influence circumscribed by individual timetables and characteristics of the disagreement. There is evidence that wisdom, emotional maturity, and social skills are tied to a series of age-related tasks and the conflicts specific to each.
Intrapersonal conflict is instrumental to the attainment of several important developmental milestones. First, conflict may prompt alterations in mental constructs and cognitive structures. Intellectual maturation and improved perspective-taking skills provide an impetus for change: A child confronted with a difficult moral dilemma may be forced to disregard notions previously held dear in order to objectively consider different viewpoints and reach a fair solution. Conflict may also give rise to changes in perceptions and priorities. Cognitive dissonance typifies this mechanism: A child forced to select a single partner for an outing may find that the esteem for one friend has been enhanced at the expense of others. Finally, conflict may alter affect and impulse control. Emotional regulation is central to this ability: A child who delays gratification to maximize rewards will learn to succeed by cultivating strategies that reduce emotional arousal and divert attention from proximate stimuli.
Theory concerning the ontogenetic significance of intrapersonal conflict has outpaced research on the topic. Much remains to be done, especially in the area of emotional development. As the empirical literature grows, so does confidence in the assertion that the influence of intrapersonal conflict is determined by the problem confronting the individual and the cognitive or affective domain invoked. Recent scholarship suggests that effects are further qualified by developmental timetables. The likelihood that some age periods are more susceptible to alterations than other age periods leads to the provocative suggestion that intrapersonal conflict is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for development, but rather a factor that may, at certain times, facilitate advances in the specific emotional or cognitive arena in which it arises.
Social competence and social development are inextricably entwined with interpersonal conflict. Disagreements, especially those in close relationships, are one of the primary means whereby individuals define themselves and delimit their interactions with others. Three influence pathways merit mention. First, conflict may prompt changes in self-understanding and self-evaluation. Significant disagreements force participants to reevaluate goals and tactics, offering opportunities to hone social perspective-taking and interpersonal negotiation skills. Second, conflict helps to determine patterns of social interaction that may impact developmental outcomes. Angry, coercive exchanges tend be self-perpetuating and, once started, they interfere with the dividends that normally accrue from close relationships; in contrast, constructive conflict management fosters a climate of warmth and problem solving that facilitates connectedness and affective sharing. Third, conflict may define and alter expectations about individuals and relationships. In some cases, roles and responsibilities are negotiated directly over the course of a dispute, but it is more often the case that participants evaluate their own behavior and that of their partner for clues as to whether current expectations are consistent with the capabilities of the relationship and the demands of the situation. Regardless of the influence pathway, successful conflict management is widely considered to be an important marker of developmental maturation.
There is considerable support for the premise that the developmental significance of conflict depends on the relationship in which it arises. Three relationship properties are germane: power, closeness, and permanence. Power describes the degree to which dominance shapes the relationship. Disagreements in horizontal relationships provide fertile ground for improved social skills because when power is shared, negotiation is necessary for a mutually satisfactory resolution; in vertical relationships, resolutions are more often the product of power differentials than negotiated settlements. Closeness describes the extent to which participants’ lives are interdependent. Disagreements in close relationships have the potential to profoundly alter developmental trajectories because the interconnections that serve to maintain closeness also promote mutual influence; disagreements in other relationships rarely, if ever, shape the course of individual development. Permanence describes the stability of the relationship. Among close relationships, disagreements in voluntary affiliations are more likely to bring about individual change than those arising in obligatory affiliations; in contrast to conflicts with family members, who worry little about the dangers of relationship dissolution, disputes with friends and romantic partners are particularly salient because participants are normally expected to behave in a manner that promotes mutually satisfactory outcomes. Variations in relationship properties notwithstanding, developmental shifts in conflict management may be identified such that coercion is gradually replaced across childhood and adolescence with withdrawal and negotiation; subsequent life span trends in conflict behaviors remain to be explicated.
The Costs Of Conflict
Conflict is not inherently detrimental. The costs of conflict depend on the frequency with which it arises and the manner in which it is resolved. Excessive, poorly managed conflicts exact a steep toll. Some costs take the form of developmental delay; disagreement may interfere with establishment of important relationships and the acquisition of essential social skills. Destructive costs are more readily apparent; conflict spawns emotional turmoil, mental illness, relationship dissolution, and violence. No one is immune from the costs of conflict, but some suffer disproportionately, especially those who lack constructive strategies for coping with dissent.
The notion that intrapersonal conflict may inhibit development is not new. Some theorists believe that development is contingent upon a dialectic involving opposing psychological functions. Too much conflict, it is argued, could hinder normal development or even prompt a temporary state of regression. These principles have proven difficult to quantify at the global level, but they have received support in specific developmental arenas. The first instance arises early in life, when an insecure attachment relationship may give rise to avoidant or resistant internal working models characterized by anxious or oppositional worldviews. Inner struggles to reconcile the self with the environment are manifest in behaviors that interfere with the establishment and maintenance of supportive parent-child and peer relationships. Another instance arises during middle childhood and early adolescence. Improved cognitive and perspective-taking abilities enable youth with low self-esteem to obsessively ruminate about their behavior and their relationships, creating a vicious cycle of worry and apprehension that may interrupt critical developmental tasks in the educational, psychological, social, and occupational spheres. In both cases, inner conflict interferes with coping strategies, increasingly limiting healthy developmental pathways.
The costs of intrapersonal conflict extend far beyond missed opportunities and stunted growth. One specific form of inner conflict, anxiety, is a pernicious factor in a diverse collection of human maladies. Anxiety and anger have been linked directly to cardiovascular disease and hypertension and indirectly to debilitating changes in the immune and endocrine system. Chronic inner turmoil increases blood pressure, heart rate, and sympathetic arousal, amplifying risks from contagion and infection, and elevating rates of morbidity and mortality from cancer, human immunodeficiency virus, and viral illness. In addition to being a disorder in its own right, anxiety also features prominently in internalizing difficulties. Three forms merit mention. First, substance abuse may have origins in efforts to reduce anxiety. Second, heightened anxiety typically precedes and accompanies depressive episodes. Third, inner conflict is endemic among those who attempt and commit suicide. It should also be noted that the consequences of inner conflict are not limited to those who harbor the ill feelings. Conflicted individuals make poor company and poor decisions. Intrapersonal conflict often accompanies abuse, infidelity, and divorce among lesser mortals; starvation, dislocation, and war have been attributed to inner strife among the leadership elite.
Developmental disadvantages may be traced to the disruptive influence that interpersonal conflict has on socialization processes. Chronic discord interferes with opportunities for social skills training in close relationships. Children who adopt coercive conflict management strategies early in life miss out on the crucial experience of negotiating resolutions and, as a consequence, fail to keep up with their peers in the development of empathy and role-taking skills. Social skills suffer, which may compromise sibling relationships and interfere with the establishment of friendships. The absence of constructive peer experiences may promote an information-processing bias that leads children to attribute hostile intentions to benign actions. This further diminishes positive contacts with peers and reduces the likelihood that children will gain the experience necessary for advanced levels of social perspective taking.
The costs associated with an inability to manage interpersonal conflict are significant. Delinquency and criminality appear to have origins in destructive conflict management skills acquired in coercive families. Young children inadvertently rewarded for noncompliant behavior learn to control their social environment such that the slightest opposition provokes an aversive outburst. Unable to constructively address disagreement, these children experience school failure and peer rejection, which leaves them isolated and restricts their interpersonal world to all but the antisocial. Divorce and child adjustment difficulties may be traced to interparental conflict. Disagreement, in and of itself, does not promote marital instability; conflict is common in all marriages. Instead, divorce is best predicted by the regulation of conflict; satisfied couples maintain a ratio of at least five positive interactions for every negative one. When the balance tilts toward discord, a demand-withdrawal pattern emerges: Complaints by one partner elicit contempt, which prompts the other partner to react defensively and retreat by stonewalling. A family climate of hostility and unregulated conflict has significant adverse consequences for children. Negative affect between parents spills over onto children who experience similar emotions but are powerless to address their source. Prolonged exposure to angry, unresolved marital disagreements has been linked to delinquency, school adjustment problems, and depression. Furthermore, children model the resolution practices they witness: Youth from distressed households display markedly deficient conflict management skills.
The Paradoxical Influence Of Conflict
Conflict is often unpleasant and aversive. Given the option, most people choose to avoid it. Research on conflict, especially interpersonal conflict, invariably focuses on adverse outcomes; benefits are rarely considered. The costs of conflict are well documented and widely appreciated. For this reason, it is commonly assumed that the consequences of conflict are uniformly negative and that disagreements provide little or no advantage. This assumption has been challenged conceptually on grounds that linear models overlook the beneficent role that conflict may play in maturation. A curvilinear model of influence captures this alternative perspective: Too little conflict limits the potential for growth and too much conflict overwhelms coping mechanisms, but moderate conflict may provide experience necessary for optimal development.
This curvilinear model of conflict influence remains largely untested, although there are instances in which it provides a good fit to the data. Intrapersonal conflict is a necessary prerequisite for the establishment of a healthy ego identity. Too little internal struggle over identity produces foreclosure or diffusion, too much results in an extended moratorium. Moderate levels of interpersonal conflict may also be proscriptive of family well-being. Families that suppress conflict demonstrate unhealthy levels of enmeshment that inhibits individuation; families that are demonstratively engaged in running combat tend to be isolated and alienated. Relationship quality may moderate this dynamic such that the potential benefits of conflict are realized only in the context of a history of supportive interactions: Disagreements that arise in warm, caring relationships with friends and parents have been found to promote identity development, role-taking skills, positive self-esteem, social problem solving, and school grades. Thus, conflict may be beneficial, detrimental, or benign; the consequences depend on how often it occurs, with whom it is experienced, and the way in which it is managed.
Strategies for reducing conflict and mitigating its adverse consequences have targeted individuals, relationships, and groups. Intervention approaches aimed at the individual have met with limited success. Some are designed to reduce overall levels of conflict, whereas others aim to improve conflict management skills. Interventions devoted to anger and anxiety management have demonstrated promising short-term reductions in internal strife; studies currently under way should clarify the long-term efficacy of these approaches during different developmental periods. Efforts dedicated to the reduction of interpersonal conflict fall into two camps. Some programs target characteristics of individuals that may predispose them to frequent or angry disagreement. These training programs have proven more successful at limiting impulsivity than aggression, but neither has enjoyed reliable success at minimizing conflict or improving conflict management skills. Other programs target the development of social competence and problem-solving skills as a means to reduce conflict and better manage those that do arise. Social problem-solving procedures assist children in the management of interpersonal difficulties. Social skills training programs implemented in schools across North America provide some immediate reductions in problem behavior, but commensurate improvements in conflict management remain to be documented.
Considerable attention has been given to the problem of dyadic and group conflict. Yet despite the diversity of therapeutic approaches for dealing with family discord, few models have received rigorous empirical scrutiny. One of the earliest programs specifically designed to reduce conflict between parents and children has proven to be one of the most effective: Problem-solving communication training, an integration of family systems and cognitive-behavioral approaches, encourages constructive parent-child communication in a manner that reduces the escalation of a conflict. Dyadic approaches are more commonly applied to marital conflict. Many of these techniques focus on the twin goals of supplanting negative attributions with positive ones and adopting constructive discourse strategies that enhance communication and limit negativity. Short-term successes are well documented, but persistently high rates of divorce are a testament to the fact that long-term solutions remain elusive. Peer conflict has also received considerable attention. There is evidence that the peer mediation programs adopted by many North American schools to address rising levels of violence are successful in teaching children constructive strategies for conflict resolution and in training peacemakers to intervene in disputes. These efforts tend to offer modest reductions in serious peer conflict and reports of improved conflict management practices. Finally, although much ink has been spilled over the goal of averting conflict between groups, a cursory glance at the daily news suggests that success remains elusive. Initial work on the topic proved encouraging. Experimental studies revealed that animosity could be manipulated through competitive and cooperative activities. In-group and out-group biases, a source of considerable discord, are susceptible to exposure and information exchanges. Unfortunately, progress in understanding the origins of intergroup conflict have not translated into progress in averting and minimizing strife.
Research on conflict typically focuses on its potential for adverse consequences. Yet the nature of this research is such that it is impossible to determine whether maladaptation is the cause or the consequence of disagreement. Intervention efforts aimed at mitigating adverse outcomes are hampered by a lack of research that makes a full and nuanced account of the dynamic interplay between conflict and adjustment. Critically needed are accounts that specify how conflict may be beneficial to human development and when conflict should be viewed as a symptom or byproduct that signals difficulties in other arenas.
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