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Psychology of conflict: theories that explain wars and violence

Psychology of conflict: theories that explain wars and violence

May 19, 2024

After the last days, we feel desolate. The attacks in Paris have been of such brutality that we are all in shock and injured. Feeling the dozens of deaths, today we are millions of victims of pain that have caused the events. Our greatest solidarity to France, Paris, victims, relatives and all those injured in the soul.

Right now, we navigate channel after channel for someone to explain us why these things happen . As a tribute to all of us who are victims, we will try to approach some theories that from the psychology explain the nature of conflicts; trying to put aside prejudices to offer the most objective information.


The realistic theory of the Sherif conflict

Muzafer Sherif (1967, 1967) analyzes the conflict from social psychology with a perspective of intergroup relations. Expose that the conflict arises from the relationship that two groups establish by obtaining resources . Depending on the type of resources, they develop different strategies.

  • Supported resources : its obtaining is independent for each group, that is, each group can achieve its objectives without influencing those of the other.
  • Incompatible resources : it is obtained at the expense of the other group; that a group obtains its resources prevents the attainment on the part of the other.

Also, depending on the type of resources that the groups want to access, different strategies of relationship between both are developed to obtain it:


  • Competition : against incompatible resources.
  • Independence : before compatible resources.
  • Cooperation : before resources that need joint effort (superordinate goal).

From this perspective, the conflict translates into "how to get the resources I need". Therefore, the strategy to follow depends on how the resources are. If they are unlimited, there is no relationship between the groups, since they can be obtained independently of what the other does without having to contact them. Now, if resources are scarce, groups enter into competition. The fact that one of them achieves its objectives implies that others can not, so by inertia they try to be the only ones that access.

A theory that takes into account the concept of competence

We could understand him as two people before a job interview. If there are several places on offer, the suitors do not have to relate to each other: they focus on their individual development. On the other hand, if only one place is offered, both people tend to consider each other . They have become competitors and it is important to know the opponent to develop the timely strategy and be selected


Now, there is also a third option: the cooperation. In this case, the type of resources is not specified, because their quantity is indifferent. The importance lies in the nature of the resource, if the joint participation of both groups is necessary to obtain it. This is how the superordinate goal is defined, a final goal that is subordinated to the individual interests of each one and that needs the contribution of both to achieve it.

The conflict for peace of Galtung

A complementary perspective to Sherif is that of Johan Galtung , from the social evolutionism. In this case, to understand the conflict it is necessary to understand its existence since the beginning of humanity. With this sense, Conflict is inherent to society, there will always be conflicts, so the focus lies on its resolution and how they will bring about changes in society. This is how conflict is not an end, but a necessary means to peace.

Following the direction that Galtung marks (cited in Calderón, 2009) in all conflicts there are several participants. Each of them has its own thoughts and emotions, behaves in a concrete way and has its own interpretation of the nature of the conflict. On these three vertices, the logic of conflict for the author is structured.

  • Attitudes : thoughts and emotions of each one of those involved.
  • Contradiction : differences in interpretations of the nature of the conflict.
  • Behavior : manifestation of those involved, how they deal with the other.

These points explain the conflict as normal. It is normal that, being different people, different emotions and thoughts -actitudes- develop, different interpretations about the events -contradiction- and different actions -behavior-.

Now, if everything is so natural, why do conflicts occur? It seems that understanding that we are all different is simple, but the problem arises when we do not let ourselves see that we are different.For Galtung, the above factors can exist in two different plans: they can be manifested, expressing themselves to the other; or latent, keeping hidden in each involved.

  • Manifest plane : the factors of conflict are expressed.
  • Latent plane : the factors of conflict are not expressed.

The key lies in the interpretation of the other's acts

Therefore, when we think, feel, and interpret reality, we shut it up and begin to relate to the other without letting him know our position; it is more likely to enter into conflict. A simple act like annulling an appointment can awaken different ways of understanding it; and if we do not let ourselves be understood, it is when the misunderstanding can appear.

It is at this point where the processes for its resolution come into play: the transcendence and the transformation. With transcendence reference is made to a change in the perception of conflict as an individual event, to see it as a process that encompasses different participants; the conflict not only affects us. Once with this perspective, the transformation is developed, a change in the resolution strategy, including the perspectives of others. That is to say, understand that the conflict is everyone's business and integrate them in their resolution .

Processes of resolution of conflicts according to Galtung

Galtung proposes these processes that lead to the resolution of conflicts:

  • Transcendence : global perspective of the conflict.
  • Transformation : integration in the solution of the rest of those involved.

Once we see that conflict not only affects us and we act with others in mind, we can develop strategies for peace. After the processes of transcendence and transformation, the road to peace goes through three characteristics that overcome the barriers of the previous factors:

  • Empathy to understand the attitudes of others.
  • Non-violence to manage behaviors.
  • Creativity to solve contradictions.

The Selman negotiations

The third approach we present focuses directly on conflict resolution strategies. Roger Selman (1988) proposes that the parties involved with any action they develop show their resolution strategy. That is to say, the exchange of actions taken by those involved is transformed into a process of negotiation of the conflict . In this sense, it not only leads to peace, but negotiation can also be a cause or aggravating conflict.

These actions that the involved parties develop are based on three components very similar to those proposed by Galtung: own perspective, objectives and control of the conflict. Based on these three components two positions can be given when solving a conflict.

Negotiation strategies, according to Selman

Roger Selman proposes the different negotiation strategies:

  • Autotransformer : try to change your own attitudes.
  • Heterotransformant : try to change the other's attitudes.

That is, we can be self-transforming, deciding change our way of thinking or acting to resolve the conflict . On the other hand, with the heterotransformant, we insist on making the other change and imposing our perspective. However, the conflict will remain latent if neither of the two strategies takes into account the other; obeying without questioning or imposing oneself authoritatively does not treat the problem and sooner or later it will resurface in some other way.

Therefore, to reach a satisfactory solution, it is necessary to take into account both participants. Precisely this is the factor that mediates the degree of its effectiveness; the ability to empathize and take perspective from the other to find the solution together. Based on this, Selman establishes four levels of coordination of the points of view of those involved.

  • Level 0 - Egocentric Indifference : each member has impulsive and unreflective reactions alien to the other. While the heterotransformant uses force to impose itself, the autotransformer submits impulsively out of fear or protection.
  • Level 1 - Subjective Difference : the actions are not impulsive, but they still do not involve the other. Both continue with the strategies of imposition / submission, but without being actions of force and reactions of fear.
  • Level 2 - Self-critical Reflection : there is a tendency to the nature of the strategy of each party, but you are aware of its use. In this case, the heterotransformant tries to consciously influence and persuade the other. In turn, the self-transformer is aware of his own submission and of first letting go of the wishes of others.
  • Level 3 - Mutual Decentralization : it is a shared reflection of oneself, of the other and of the conflict, which extinguishes the different positions. It is no longer a matter of trying or changing oneself, or influencing, but rather of jointly obtaining a solution for the shared objectives.

Therefore, the heterotransformant nature leads to impose and the self-transforming to submit. At the lower levels, these behaviors are impulsive and at higher levels more and more people reflect on them.Finally, the solution ends up sharing and coordinating; for leaving aside the self-hetero tendency to include the other and jointly develop the adequate strategy to resolve the conflict.

From the Psychology of Conflict to Psychology for Peace

The previous theories are just a few of the many that explain the processes of conflict. But in the same way that they explain problems, they also do it with their solutions. Moreover, the study of the conflict does not arise from the question "How is the conflict generated?" But from "How is a conflict solved?".

For this, Sherif proposes shared goals between the parties, Galtung a process of empathy to see that the conflict is not only ours and Selman the dialogue to develop a joint negotiation. In all cases, a key issue is to "share", co-create the solution because, if the conflict does not arise only from one of the parties, it will not come out of only one solution.

For that same reason it is important what to do when the conflict occurs; its management . From this perspective and the events in Paris, we do not want to urge dialogue with terrorists. But it does take into account the actions that are carried out and the prejudices that may arise. Because the existence of a conflict with a terrorist section can be true, but it does not exist with a religion or a people. Although some people have taken weapons in the name of a god, the conflict is not against that god, because no god gives weapons to his believers.

The conflict is natural to humanity, it has always existed and will always exist. With this we do not intend to trivialize the events, at all. If not to emphasize the importance of consequences, in which every conflict changes the course of humanity and that the current one does not lead us towards dehumanity. As one great professional and friend says, "There is no change without conflict1" Today we have to think about what change we want.

1María Palacín Lois, Professor Group Area of ​​the Department of Social Psychology (UB) Dtra. Master Driving Groups. President of the SEPTG.

Bibliographic references:

  • Calderón, P. (2009). Theory of conflicts by Johan Galtung. Peace and conflict magazine, 2, 60-81.
  • Selman, R. (1988). Use of interpersonal negotiation strategies and communication skills: a longitudinal clinical exploration of two disturbed adolescents. In R. Hinde, Relations interpersonnelles et developpment dessauciva.
  • Sherif, M. (1966). Group Conflict and Co-operation. Their Social Psychology, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • Sherif, M. (1967). Conflict and cooperation, in J. R. Torregrosa and E. Crespo (comps.): Basic studies of Social Psychology, Barcelona: Time, 1984.

Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6 (May 2024).


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