Peace and Conflict, Part 1 – The Research

Over the next little while, I’d like to explore with you research on peace and conflict. In this part, I will base most of my observations on an article entitled Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems, by psychologists Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak and Bui-Wrzosinska, researchers from the US and from Poland.

Intractable conflicts develop their own cognitive, affective, and social mechanisms. They are self-perpetuating processes of thinking, feeling and dealing with relationships that end up distorting the reasons why a conflict started in the first place. Intractable conflicts literally have a demoralizing effect; just think of Rwanda, where normal citizens turned into rabid killers. Through this demoralization and other processes, the groups involved in the conflicts — from married couples to families, workplaces, political parties, countries, etc. — are destabilized and plunge into a downwards spiral of misery and hate.

The authors propose that the perspective of dynamical systems can integrate the various factors and already existing theories about intractable conflicts, which can then help to design a coherent overview, and to find ways to predict and resolve conflict.

Dynamical systems theory (sometimes alternatively referred to as chaos theory) is used to study, describe and even derive predictions for processes that are in motion, often unpredictable motion. It is frequently used in studying stock market movement and meteorology, and more and more also in psychology.

As a serious conflict progresses, the parties involved spend increasingly more time, thoughts and feelings on it. Even irrelevant issues become a part of and drawn, almost sucked into the conflict. The conflict attracts more and more of the surrounding mental, behavioral, and social landscape (this type of attraction is a typical part chaos theory). After a while, everyone is trapped inside a deep well of conflict and escape seems impossible.

The authors build their paper around a set of eleven questions. Many of them are probably too theoretical to easily digest here. A few of them, however, might be of interest to you. Today I’ll present one of them:

Intractable conflicts are undesirable and destructive to all parties, yet they are maintained for very long periods of time and resist attempts at resolution. Why?

At the least, protracted conflicts are extremely unpleasant. They rarely have happy or even satisfactory endings; often they tear apart families and communities and destroy lives. Theories of motivation are not helpful in explaining the persistence of such conflicts. For example, neither hedonism (seeking pleasure/pleasantness) nor motivational theories that revolve around enlightened self-interest or achievement are useful.

The authors propose two “attractors” that override the aversion to self-destruction inherent in protracted conflicts. In dynamical systems theory, an attractor is something on which objects, processes, people or ideas almost inevitably settle, much like a rolling marble will eventually come to settle in an indentation on the sidewalk.

The first attractor is that an entrenched conflict provides a coherent view of the problem, thus satisfying humans’ deep-seated hunger for meaning and explanation. Humans prefer simple explanations over complex ones, especially when they feel threatened. It is easier to think about a situation where “our” group is “good” and the “other” group is “bad” than to deal with the complex and often paradoxical reasons for conflict. For example, some of you may remember the great success former US President Ronald Reagan had with characterizing Russia as the “evil empire.” When attempts are made to correct these simplistic views, they usually meet a great amount of resistance. One could say, then, that the hunger for simplistic explanations acts as a sort of attractor.

The authors propose that the greatest potential for a sudden eruption of violence exists when the coherent (if oversimplified, likely incorrect and difficult to verify) view of the conflict is threatened. This is substantiated by research that suggests that people who think highly of themselves but cannot easily provide objective information on why they think that way, tend to be extremely defensive when faced with unflattering feedback and can even resort to violence (cf. Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

The second attractor, related to the first, is a stable platform for action, enabling unequivocal, quick responses to any provocation, perceived or otherwise. Just as humans are averse to complex explanations, they dislike hesitation, ambivalence and uncertainty.

Certain forms of family violence come to mind which illustrate how these attractors work. If a parent has established criteria according to which a child is “good” or “bad” (the simplistic view), it is easy to react with a beating (the platform for action). The situation typically becomes even more entrenched when the child “talks back” by questioning the parent’s reasoning.

In future posts about this topic, we will look at

What is the role of religion in the origin, maintenance, and resolution of conflict?

How can an intractable conflict be resolved or at least transformed into a benign conflict?


Vallacher, R., Coleman, P., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. American Psychologist, 65 (4), 262-278 DOI: 10.1037/a0019290

Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.
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