Social Psychology Of Conflict Research Paper

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The term ‘conflict’ has two broad meanings: overt conflict, which refers to clashing actions by two or more parties, as in a fist fight or war, and subjective conflict, which refers to perceived divergence of interest or annoyance attributed to another party. Subjective conflict is often a source of overt conflict, as when annoyance about a neighbor’s loud music leads to a shouting match. But subjective conflict can produce other outcomes as well, including use of the following four basic strategies: contending, problem solving, yielding, and inaction. Only one of these, contending, leads to overt conflict.

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Conflict occurs at all levels of society, from the interpersonal to the international, and hence is of interest to most branches of the social and behavioral sciences. Conflict has attracted the attention of re-searchers because of its large costs and benefits. Costs are incurred when conflict escalates to the point of harming relationships, destroying property, or injuring people. Benefits accrue because conflict presides over most significant social change; contributes to solidarity within conflicting groups; and in its milder forms, often leads to the reconciliation of legitimate interests, thus strengthening relationships and safe-guarding the peace.

1. Sources Of Conflict

The modern social psychology of conflict began with a demonstration field experiment by Sherif (1966). Sherif ran several summer camps in which he produced overt conflict between two cabins of preadolescent boys and then resolved this conflict. Conflict was produced by means of the two sources of subjective conflict mentioned above: divergence of interest (for example, competitive games) and annoyance attributed to the other group (for example, the counselors vandalized one cabins’ campgrounds and blamed it on the other cabin).

What conditions produce divergence of interest and annoyance from others? One answer is scarce re-sources. A second is role differentiation that produces disparate values, as between buyer and seller, parent and child, sales and production. A third is any condition that causes aspirations to rise rapidly (such as a sudden improvement in outcomes) or to become inconsistent with those of another party (such as ambiguity about which party is more powerful). A fourth is any source of distrust, because distrust tends to block cooperation and produce defensive behavior, which often annoys or frightens the other party.

When groups rather than individuals are involved, additional mechanisms encourage conflict. Groups are less trusted than individuals. Also, a perception that one’s group is deprived relative to a reasonable standard (fraternalistic deprivation) has been shown to be a major source of political conflict. Arguing that Sherif’s ‘realistic conflict theory’ is too narrow, Tajfel (1978) proposes that intergroup conflict often arises because group members compete with other groups in an effort to feel good about their social identity and hence about themselves. Another unique aspect of groups is the role of leadership. Leaders and would-be leaders often dramatize frustration at the hands of other groups, exacerbating conflicts while strengthening their position with their constituents.

2. Strategic Choice In Conflict

Rubin et al. (1994) have put forward a dual concern model of the psychological states that affect choice among the four basic strategies mentioned earlier. Shown in Fig. 1, this model postulates two kinds of concern: concern about own outcomes (‘self-concern’) and concern about the other party’s outcomes (‘other-concern’), each ranging from weak to strong. People with strong self-concern have high, inflexible aspirations and are resistant to concession making. People with strong other-concern place importance on the other party’s interests. Self-concern and other-concern are independent dimensions rather than opposite ends of a continuum. Beginning in the upper left-hand quadrant of Fig. 1, low self-concern coupled with high other-concern is assumed to produce a strong altruistic orientation, which encourages yielding. High self-concern combined with high other-concern is assumed to produce a strong cooperative orientation, which encourages problem solving. High self-concern combined with low other-concern is assumed to produce a strong individualistic orientation, which leads to the use of contentious tactics. Low self-concern coupled with low other-concern is assumed to produce inaction, an absence of efforts to achieve anything.

Social Psychology Of Conflict Research Paper

The dual concern model, though not a comprehensive theory of strategic choice, fits a lot of data from psychometric and experimental research. The psychometric tradition, which employs factor analysis and multidimensional scaling, views strategic preferences as individual differences in ‘conflict style.’ The experimental tradition, which involves studies of negotiation behavior, examines conditions that affect the likelihood of choosing each strategy. These studies have identified several sources of self-concern, including having high aspirations or fallback positions, being an accountable representative, and negatively framing the issues so that concessions are interpreted as loss rather than failure to gain. Sources of other-concern include having a close relationship with or dependence on the other party, and being in a positive mood. Other research suggests that contentious tactics are more likely to be adopted the greater the annoyance or perceived divergence of interest, the more dehumanized the target, and the more deindividuated the actor or target.

When increasingly harsh contentious tactics are used in a conflict, escalation is said to occur. Escalation usually results from a conflict spiral in which each party is reacting to the other party’s most recent actions. However, some escalation consists of one party’s reactions to persistent annoyance from another party (Pruitt 1998). Escalation is often accompanied by other changes: issues proliferate, negative attitudes and partisan perceptions develop, distrust sets in, goals change from doing well for oneself to hurting the other party, and broader communities polarize into hostile camps (Rubin et al. 1994). If groups are involved, ingroup solidarity usually increases and militant leaders often become more prominent. These changes tend to outlive the conflict in which they are generated, hurting the broader relationship between the parties and making the next conflict episode more likely to escalate (Coleman 1957).

3. Conditions That Encourage Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution refers to any reduction in the severity of conflict or mitigation of its underlying causes. It may entail de-escalation of an overt struggle or reconciliation (in whole or in part) of divergent interests.

Social psychologists have long been interested in the role of social contact and communication in the resolution of conflict. Research has shown that these procedures help to alleviate mild conflict but may be worse than useless in severe conflict, allowing arguments and fights to develop (Deutsch 1973). Sherif (1966) found that a better way to reverse escalation in his camps was to get the boys to cooperate on superordinate (i.e., shared) goals. The value of this technique has been confirmed in other settings.

Zartman (1997), an international relations scholar who takes a psychological approach, has argued that severe conflict is most likely to be resolved when both sides become motivated to escape the conflict, a condition he calls ripeness. He finds that superordinate goals (‘mutually enticing opportunities’) seldom underlie ripeness in international conflict and civil war. Rather, ripeness is usually produced by a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the parties find that they are enduring unacceptable costs in a struggle they cannot win, sometimes augmented by the perception of an impending catastrophe if the conflict continues.

It can be argued that severe conflicts of the kind discussed by Zartman will only move toward resolution if ripeness is supplemented by optimism about the success of conciliatory actions. Optimism derives from two sources: working trust, a belief that the other side is also motivated to resolve the conflict, and perceived common ground, a perception that a mutually acceptable agreement is actually possible.

Optimism can develop in a number of ways. Sometimes one of the parties takes unilateral conciliatory initiatives that encourage the other party to become more trusting. Such initiatives are especially effective when they are noticeable and unexpected, are fully explained, and cannot be construed as a trick or sign of weakness (Rubin et al. 1994). In severe conflicts, optimism more commonly arises out of intervention by intermediaries. Sometimes the psycho-logical and social distance between adversaries is so great that a chain of two or more intermediaries is necessary to bridge the gap.

4. Negotiation

Conflict resolution can begin in a number of ways, but to be successful, it usually must culminate in negotiation. In other words, the parties must eventually try to work out their differences.

Research on negotiation has been the centerpiece of the social psychological approach to conflict for many years. Most of it is done in the laboratory with experimental games, but case studies and questionnaires are also sometimes used. At one time, research on negotiation was mostly performed in departments of psychology, but today, the main locus of this research is in management schools, where investigators who are basically social psychologists conduct dozens of studies each year. Early experimental re-search dealt with negotiation about a single issue (e.g., a price or a wage rate), where one party’s gain is the other’s loss. But current research usually looks at more complex settings that have integrative potential, in the sense that all parties can do well if they engage in problem solving. An important generalization, which applies to both kinds of settings, is that higher demands and slower concessions make it harder to reach agreement but, if agreement is reached, produce more favorable outcomes. Summaries of the psycho-logical research on negotiation can be found in Bazerman et al. (2000) and Pruitt and Carnevale (1993).

5. Third Party Intervention

When conflict threatens to escalate and negotiation is ineffective, third parties often intervene. Five intervention procedures will be reviewed here: mediation, arbitration, relationship therapy, peacekeeping, and the design of conflict management systems.

In mediation, a third party assists the disputants with their negotiation. (Mediation includes the activities of intermediaries, a topic discussed earlier.) Among the most important mediator tactics are building rapport with the disputants, facilitating communication, questioning unrealistic aspirations, re-framing the issues, encouraging disputant creativity, and thinking up new solutions if the disputants fail to do so. Several studies support a broad generalization, that vigorous mediator intervention tends to be effective when the parties are hostile toward each other or lack the motivation to escape their conflict but is counterproductive when the opposite is true (Rubin et al. 1994). Mediators are especially likely to succeed when the parties are highly motivated to resolve the conflict, resource shortages are not severe, and the issues do not involve general principles. Mediator neutrality usually contributes to the success of mediation but is not as essential, as formerly believed. Indeed, success is sometimes achieved because the mediator is closer to the side that must make the larger concessions (Kressel et al. 1989).

In arbitration, the third party renders a judgment about the proper solution to the conflict. Several studies have examined the impact of medarb, a procedure in which binding arbitration occurs if agreement is not reached in mediation. This procedure usually motivates the disputants to try harder to solve their dispute during the mediation phase, because they fear loss of control over their outcomes if arbitration occurs (Kressel et al. 1989).

When disputants have a distressed relationship, third parties sometimes engage in relationship therapy (Pruitt 1998). Relationship therapy, which has been pioneered by marital therapists, usually involves problem solving training, in which the parties are taught skills of listening, clear communication, avoiding blame, analyzing needs, and brainstorming for solutions. The therapist may also help the disputants identify repetitive patterns of interaction that are contributing to the conflict. Kelman (1992) has developed problem solving workshops, a form of relationship therapy for intergroup and international conflict. In these workshops, selected members of both groups meet for several days to analyze the conflict.

When conflicts become violent or threaten to do so, third party intervention may take the form of peace-keeping. Examples include separating fighting children, arresting abusive spouses, and United Nations operations within ethnically divided countries. Fisher and Keashly (Fisher 1990) have proposed a normative model which recommends that third parties: (a) use peace keeping in violent conflicts, (b) provide incentives to encourage ripeness in heavily escalated but nonviolent conflicts, (c) offer relationship therapy (they call it ‘consultation’) in moderately escalated conflicts, and (d) mediate mildly escalated conflicts. This model assumes that each of these strategies produces the conditions necessary for the success of the next strategy in the list.

A final third-party role is the design of conflict management systems for large social entities such as schools, factories, and communities. Guidelines put forward by Ury et al. (1988) include identifying potentially antagonistic groups, appointing and training prospective negotiators on each side who will meet if conflict develops, appointing and training prospective mediators to help these negotiators, and agreeing to observe an immediate cooling-off period whenever conflict develops. Such systems work better if they involve early warning systems that allow negotiators and mediators to mobilize in advance of hostilities.

6. Disputant Preferences Among Conflict Resolution Procedures

A number of studies have examined disputant preferences among the procedures available for conflict resolution. A persistent finding is that arbitration is preferred to autocratic decision making. According to Lind and Tyler (1988), this shows that having a voice in the proceedings contributes to a sense of procedural justice. Preferences among negotiation, mediation, and arbitration depend on the circumstances. For example, high time pressure enhances attraction to arbitration, presumably because it can be finished up quickly. On the other hand, people in close relation-ships tend to reject arbitration, presumably because of its coercive features. Sequences of preferences are often found, a common one being to start with negotiation and move to third-party intervention if negotiation is unsuccessful (Pruitt and Carnevale 1993).

Some recent research has concerned cultural differences in preferences among conflict resolution procedures. For example, when dealing with ingroup members, people from collectivist societies prefer nonconfrontational procedures, hence, they are less attracted to direct competition and problem solving than people from individualist societies (Bazerman et al. 2000). But when dealing with outgroup members, collectivists tend to be more competitive than individualists (Pruitt and Carnevale 1993).

7. Conclusions

Conflict and conflict resolution are vigorous research fields. The interdisciplinary nature of these fields can be seen in the annual conferences of the International Association for Conflict Management and the pages of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the International Journal of Conflict Management, and the Negotiation Journal. Social psychologists in psychology deparments were more prominent in these fields at an earlier time than they are today. But the contribution of social psychology is readily apparent in the work of investigators from most other disciplines.

Three criticisms of these fields seem appropriate. The first is that they lack an overarching theory and mainly depend on ideas from other disciplines, a problem shared with many other branches of the social sciences. The other two criticisms concern the study of negotiation. One is that there is too much emphasis on the phase of actual negotiation, in which joint decisions are made, as opposed to the pre-and postnegotiation phases. Indeed, the latter two phases are often longer and more complex than the phase of actual negotiation and have more bearing on whether conflict is resolved (Druckman 1986). The other criticism is that there is too much research on negotiation altogether. Negotiation is, after all, only one star in a much larger universe.


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