Conflict Resolution

Conflict Resolution Definition

Social conflict emerges when the aspirations, beliefs, or values held by one individual or group are frustrated by another individual or group. It emerges between parents and their children, between friends on a weekend outing, between colleagues at work, between groups from adjacent neighborhoods, or between rivaling teams within an organization. In fact, social conflict is part and parcel of any relationship and any social interaction between individuals or groups around the globe.

Conflict resolution refers to the process geared toward reaching an agreement in a dispute, debate, or any other form of conflict between two or more parties. It can take different forms: Participants may negotiate and attempt to solve their problems to mutual satisfaction, they may withdraw from the situation and avoid interacting with each other, they may fight and try to dominate their counterpart, or they may yield and give in to their adversary’s position.

Conflict ResolutionConflict resolution is important because conflict can be very costly as well as very beneficial. Enduring hostility between parents damages their offspring’s development, conflict in the workplace is estimated to absorb valuable time and energy, and ethnic conflict between groups or communities halts economic prosperity and may lead to famine, disease, and environmental disaster. But conflict can have positive consequences also: Adversaries may become more creative, and teams in organizations have been found to be more innovative when they have conflict. In addition, conflict can clear the air, clarify territorial boundaries, and increase mutual understanding. However, these positive outcomes emerge when conflict is relatively mild and managed in a constructive, businesslike manner. All too often and all too quickly, conflict escalates to exceedingly intense levels, and negative outcomes dominate—hence the importance of understanding and applying conflict resolution.

Conflict Resolution History and Background

The study of conflict and conflict resolution is broad and crosses disciplinary boundaries. Conflict resolution is studied in economics, law, business studies, sociology, psychology, communication sciences, and political sciences. It is part of the curriculum in biology, in history, and in theology. This multidisciplinary aspect makes it somewhat difficult to identify “the history” of conflict studies in social psychology. Nevertheless, three important developments serve as key sources of inspiration.

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues published a study that later became known as the Robbers Cave experiment. At a Boys Scout of America camp held in Robbers Cave National Park (Oklahoma, United States), he allocated 22 normal, healthy boys unknown to each other into two subgroups. Over the course of several days, the two subgroups became increasingly hostile and competitive with one another. Apparently, simply dividing people into subgroups, in and of itself, induced competition and conflict. Furthermore, when the two subgroups needed each other—a delivery truck got stuck and only with the force of all the boys together was the truck pulled free—hostility reduced and more cooperative relationships between the two subgroups developed. Apparently, the presence of common goals reduced competitiveness between the two groups and facilitated conflict resolution. This insight formed the basis of ongoing research into intergroup relations and conflict resolution through the development of shared goals and social identity.

A second important source of inspiration formed the (changing) labor relations in the late 1950s and early 1960s of the past century. Employees organized themselves in unions, and unions used their increasing power to negotiate with management for better labor contracts. Among other things, the insight formed that (collective) negotiation helped resolving social conflict in creative ways so that all parties benefited more than they would have in a 50-50 compromise or in a victory-for-one solution. This discovery formed the foundation for contemporary research into integrative negotiation.

The third source of inspiration came from microeconomics and decision-making research. During the Cold War both the United States and the former Soviet Union built up an impressive arsenal of (nuclear) missiles, enough to fully destroy each other up to 60 times.

This immensely frightening and unbelievably expensive arms race triggered a host of important questions like “Should you attack before the other does?” “What happens if you unilaterally reduce the number of nuclear missiles?” “What is the most effective way of responding to the adversary’s power-play?” and “How can violated trust be repaired and cooperation be maintained?”

To answer these questions, researchers designed laboratory games that simulated core aspects of the conflict-related choice dilemmas their nations were involved in. A famous example of such a game is the Prisoner’s Dilemma Game. Within the hypothetical situation of an arms race issue, the game involves two players, A and B, who individually and independently can decide to make a noncooperate move (buy more nuclear missiles) or a cooperative move (destroy nuclear missiles and use the money to fight famine). If player A decides to buy nuclear missiles when player B decides to destroy missiles, player A gets the upper hand in the conflict and settles on a victory-for-one. If both decide to buy missiles, famine continues to exist and the conflict lingers on—this is better for both A and B than losing the conflict and therefore a relatively attractive outcome. Nevertheless, it is worse than if both decide to destroy missiles, in which case the conflict is resolved and famine effectively banned. Thus, what should one do—buy missiles, or destroy them? The answer depends in part on one’s own values and in part on the (expected) behavior of one’s counterpart. No single right answer is possible, however, and this intriguing dilemma has inspired over 1,000 studies looking at issues of trust, the cooperative history between the players, the number of decision rounds to be played, and so on.

Psychological Processes in Conflict Resolution

Motivation and Thought Processes

Thomas Schelling, an economist, and Morton Deutsch, a social psychologist, were the first to recognize that most conflict situations are “mixed-motive” interactions, because disputants simultaneously experience the motivation to cooperate and compete with each other. For example, someone may prefer an agreement that satisfies his or her interests over one that favors the adversary’s interests (an incentive to compete), while also preferring any agreement over no agreement (an incentive to cooperate). Cooperative versus competitive motivation is part of a broader category of social motives that also includes fairness considerations and concern preferences for the way outcomes are distributed. In addition to these, disputants have goals and aspirations—preferences for a particular level of benefit to achieve (e.g., “I hope to get $10,000 for my used car”) or the amount of losses to avoid. They also have identity concerns, seeking a particular image of self or of the group they represent and belong to, and they have epistemic needs to understand the conflict situation and their counterpart.

The motives underlying conflict resolution come hand in hand with roughly two cognitive tendencies, that is, ways of processing and searching for information. The first is ego defensiveness. Because individuals have a desire to develop and maintain a positive self-view, they quickly come to see themselves as benevolent and constructive and their counterparts as malevolent and competitive. When the positive self-view is threatened, people tend to become hostile and aggressive. Because social conflict inherently involves opposition and threat, disputants’ self-views are threatened continuously, and escalating spirals of increasingly hostile exchange are the rule rather than the exception.

The second cognitive tendency is called naive realism and rooted in the fact that conflicts are taxing because information is incomplete and uncertain. A common strategy for people to reduce informational complexities is to act as naive realists: They assume that the world is as they perceive it; that other people view the world in that very same way; and that if their counterparts don’t, it must reflect lack of information, lack of intelligence, or ulterior motives on their part.

In the past few years, social psychologists have started to integrate their work on motivation and cognitions. This integration shows that ego-defensiveness is less of an issue when disputants have cooperative motivation. Likewise, disputants with high epistemic motivation, who seek deep and accurate understanding, are less likely to fall prey to naive realism.

Moods and Emotions

Achieving desired goals in conflict elicits all kinds of emotions, like happiness, elation, pride, and satisfaction, but also perhaps negative mood states, like guilt and shame. Likewise, not achieving desired goals or being blocked in pursuing these goals elicits anger and frustration, disappointment, disgust, and perhaps regret. When parties feel anger, fear, and disgust, they tend to become increasingly hostile and competitive, both in their thinking and in their behavior. When they experience guilt, regret, and shame, however, disputants become evasive and avoid interaction. Experiencing positive emotions like happiness and satisfaction makes disputants more conciliatory and, to some extent, more creative in resolving the conflict.

Emotions not only influence the thoughts and actions of the conflict party having them. Many emotions have a social function and communicate something to one’s counterpart, thereby influencing the counterpart’s thoughts and actions as well. For example, anger communicates both dissatisfaction with the situation and the desire for change. Although anger sometimes evokes anger (“Who do you think you are!?”), it may also lead one’s counterpart to give in and to make concessions (“All right, relax, I see your point”). Or consider guilt and shame, which communicate that one has taken or received more than deserved. Indeed, disputants who see their counterpart to be guilty and ashamed stop making concessions and wait for the other to give in, to repair damage.

Conflict Resolution Strategies and Interaction Patterns

How motives, emotions, and cognitive tendencies conspire to influence conflict management has received a great deal of attention. In fact, it seems safe to say that this part of the conflict process is the most widely studied and best understood area in the conflict literature. Whereas an infinite number of conflict tactics and strategies may be conceived of, conflict research and theory tends to converge on the idea that parties to a conflict can (1) ask for third party intervention (i.e., ask a judge, an arbitrator, their manager, or fate to make a decision); (2) engage in unilateral decision making by trying to impose one’s will on the other side (forcing), by accepting and incorporating the other’s will (yielding), or by withdrawing from the situation or by remaining inactive (avoiding); or (3) engage in joint decision making (i.e., seek a compromise, engage in problem solving, try negotiation, ask a mediator for help). Sometimes, different conflict management strategies are used sequentially, for example, when mediation is followed by arbitration or when a hostile and competitive (forcing) approach is followed by a friendly and soft approach (problem solving, as in a good cop/ bad cop strategy).

Dual Concern Theory

Developed by Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin, dual concern theory focuses on when and why individuals engage in unilateral decision making (forcing, yielding, inaction) or joint decision making (problem solving, negotiation). The basic idea is that parties have high or low aspirations and, independently, a high or low concern for their counterpart’s interests. Aspiration motivation is most often high. But it can be low, for example, when getting the desired share of the budget is unlikely given the way it is traditionally distributed. Concern for the other is high when realizing the other’s interests is positively valued (e.g., one likes the other), instrumental (e.g., one needs one’s counterpart in future interaction, for example at work), and feasible. Thus, concern for the other may be rooted in genuinely prosocial motives or in enlightened self-interest (i.e., by helping the other one serve one’s own best interests).

When aspiration motivation is high and the concern for other is low, parties engage in forcing, that is, attempting to impose their goals upon the other party. When aspirations are low and concern for other is high, parties engage in yielding, giving in to their opponent’s demands and desires. When both aspirations and concern for other is low, parties engage in inaction and are predicted to remain passive. When both aspirations and concern for other is high, parties collaborate and engage in negotiation and problem solving. Ample work has revealed that problem solving is associated with more integrative agreements, reduced probability of future conflict, and enhanced interpersonal liking.

Interaction Patterns

Dual concern theory is fairly static and does not deal with the way disputants respond to each other’s behavior. Thus, how does Party B react when Party A remains passive and avoids interaction? Or what does Party A do when Party B suggests they sit down and find a mutually satisfying solution? Social psychologists have uncovered two principal interaction tendencies. The most powerful tendency is to reciprocate one’s counterpart’s behavior. When one takes a cooperative stance and wants to negotiate a mutually acceptable solution, the counterpart most likely reciprocates with cooperative behavior. This tendency is even stronger when one performs competitive, hostile behavior like forcing. This is because people may be tempted to exploit the other’s cooperation and thus respond to the other’s cooperative behavior with competitiveness. However, even when one is not greedy and basically inclined to cooperate, the desire not to be exploited requires one to match the other’s competitiveness.

Sometimes disputants perform complementary reactions. Powerful individuals, or those with high status, who engage in forcing trigger yielding rather than forcing in their powerless counterparts. In negotiation, making lots of concessions may lead one’s counterpart to stop making concessions and to wait for you to come down even further (a strategy called mismatching). Finally, conflict interaction may take a demand-withdrawal pattern. This happens when one party desires change, whereas the counterpart desires to maintain the status quo (e.g., a traditional husband who refuses to do household chores facing his liberated wife who wants him to do an equal share). In such situations, Party A (the wife) demands and Party B (the husband) withdraws, so that the A demands with greater persistence and perseverance, whereupon B withdraws even further, and so on. Alternative forms of conflict resolution exist and clearly would serve them well.

A Note on Generality

Whereas much of the previous discussion applies to interpersonal as well as intergroup conflicts, and applies as much to marital as to workplace conflicts, caution is needed when attempting to generalize across cultures. Growing evidence indicates that important differences exist between individualistic cultures, found in Western societies, and collectivist cultures, found in Latin America and Southeast Asia. For example, disputants rely on forms of mediation and third-party decision making much more in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures. Also, groups as a psychological unit are more important in collectivist cultures, and this has important consequences for the ways people think about conflicts and for their strategic choices. Understanding cross-cultural differences in conflict resolution and its underlying psychological processes is one of the key challenges for future researchers, as globalization continues and cross-cultural encounters—and conflicts—will become more frequent.


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