How can social-psychological theory and research inform the analysis and resolution of international conflict? This book chapter from the Handbook of Conflict Analysis and Resolution outlines psychological processes that promote the escalation and perpetuation of conflict. A conflict relationship generates images and norms that entrench conflict and create barriers to change. Conflict resolution work must therefore identify possibilities and conditions for change and overcome resistance to change.
Appreciation of psychological processes can help in understanding why and how conflict escalates. These processes inlcude the following:
- Formation of collective moods: public opinion is perceived by leaders as being more likely to support aggressive than conciliatory action; moods are informed by and current events are interpreted in the light of historical traumas
- Mobilisation of group loyalties: nationalist feeling, which separates an ingroup from an outgroup, is a powerful tool in mobilising public support, and militancy and intransigence towards the ‘other’ become measures of group loyalty
- Decision-making processes: creative decision-making is difficult under intense pressure and not supported by institutional systems
- Negotiation and bargaining processes: these tend to equate the adversary’s loss with one’s own gain rather than to seek ways in which the adversary can also win
- Structural and psychological commitments: conflict becomes a source of profit, purpose, or power, creating vested interests in its continuation
- Mirror image formation: each party develops parallel images, with reversed values, of the self (virtuous, peaceful, prepared to compromise, arming purely defensively) and the other (evil, hostile, responsive only to force, arming aggressively). These create a spiralling effect.
- Resistance to contradictory information: selectivity, consistency, attribution and the self-fulfilling prophecy inhibit the perception and expectation of change, particularly when conflict-related images of self and other are part of the national consensus, and it is considered dangerous to believe that the enemy has changed or will change
Viewing conflict through a social-psychological lens brings into focus four suggested aspects of conflict that have implications for conflict resolution. These propositions are particularly relevant to conflicts in which the collective identities of the parties are engaged and in which the continued existence of the groups is seen to be at stake.
- Conflict as a process driven by collective needs and fears: conflict can only be resolved when those needs and fears have been addressed
- Conflict as a an intersocietal process requiring attention to economic, psychological, cultural and social-structural dimensions: the political agreements signed by governments under pressure from external powers are therefore limited; and opposing parties can usefully pay attention to the diverse processes at work in each other’s societies, some of which may provide levers for change
- Conflict as a multifaceted process of mutual influence: this understanding can suggest which influencing strategies are most appropriate for conflict resolution, such as the exchange of positive incentives and reassurance based on responsiveness to the other’s needs and fears
- Conflict as an interactive process with an escalatory self-perpetuating dynamic: conflict resolution efforts must be designed to counteract this dynamic.