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Conflict psychology: the theories that explain war

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

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

Sherif's realistic theory of conflict

Muzafer Sherif (1967, 1967) analyzes the conflict from the Social psychology with an intergroup relations perspective. States that the conflict arises from the relationship established by two groups for 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.
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  • Incompatible resources: it is obtained at the expense of the other group; that one group gets its resources prevents the achievement by the other.

Likewise, depending on the type of resources that the groups want to access, different relationship strategies are developed between the two to obtain them:

  • Competition: before 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 get them regardless of what the other does without having to contact each other. Now, if resources are scarce, groups enter into competition. The fact that one of them achieves its objectives implies that the others cannot, so by inertia they try to be the only ones who agree.

A theory that takes into account the concept of competition

We could understand it as two people before one job interview. If there are several places on offer, the suitors do not have to relate to the other: they focus on their individual development. On the other hand, in the event that only one place is offered, both people tend to consider each other. They have become competitors and it is important to know the rival to develop the appropriate 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 irrelevant. 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 objective that is subject to the individual interests of each one and that needs the contribution of both to achieve it.

The Galtung Peace Conflict

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 in society, there will always be conflicts, so the focus falls on its resolution and how they will bring about changes in society. Thus, conflict is not an end, but a necessary means for peace.

Following the direction set by Galtung (cited in Calderón, 2009) in every conflict there are several participants. Each of them has their own thoughts and emotions, behaves in a specific way, and has their own interpretation of the nature of the conflict. On these three vertices, the logic of the conflict is structured for the author.

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

These points allow the conflict to be explained as normal. It is normal that, being different people, different emotions and thoughts develop –Attitudes-, different interpretations of the events –contradiction- and different actions -behaviour-.

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 show that we are different. For Galtung, the above factors can exist in two different plans: they can be manifest, expressing themselves to the other; or latent, remaining hidden in each involved.

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

The key is in the interpretation of the actions of the other

Therefore, when what we think, feel and interpret of reality we keep quiet and we begin to interact with the other without letting him know our position, the most likely is to enter into conflict. A simple fact like canceling an appointment can awaken different ways of understanding it; and if we do not let ourselves be understood that is when misunderstanding may 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 the conflict as an individual event, to seeing it as a process that encompasses different participants; the conflict does not only affect us. Once with this perspective, the transformation develops, a change in the resolution strategy, including the perspectives of others. Namely, understand that conflict is everyone's business and integrate them into its resolution.

Conflict resolution processes according to Galtung

Galtung proposes these processes that lead to conflict resolution:

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

Once we see that the conflict not only affects us and we act taking others into account, we can develop strategies towards peace. After the processes of transcendence and transformation, the path to peace passes 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 resolve contradictions.

The Selman negotiations

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

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

Negotiation strategies, according to Selman

Roger Selman proposes the different negotiation strategies:

  • Autotransformant: try to change your own attitudes.
  • Heterotransformant: try to change the attitudes of the other.

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 influence the other to change and impose our perspective on them. Now, the conflict will remain latent if neither of the two strategies takes the other into account; obeying without question or imposing authority does not address 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. This is precisely the factor that mediates the degree of its effectiveness; the ability to empathize and take the perspective of the other to jointly find the solution. 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 thoughtless reactions unrelated to the other. While the heterotransformant uses force to assert itself, the autotransformer impulsively submits 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 imposition / submission strategies, but without being forceful actions and fear reactions.
  • Level 2 - Self Critical Reflection: there is a tendency to the nature of the strategy of each part, but it is 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 her own submission and of letting others' desires pass first.
  • Level 3 - Mutual Decentration: it is about a shared reflection of oneself, the other and the conflict, which extinguishes the different positions. It is no longer trying to change oneself, or influence, but to jointly obtain a solution for shared objectives.

Therefore, the heterotransformant nature leads to imposing and the self-transforming to submit. At lower levels, these behaviors are impulsive, and at higher levels they are increasingly thought about. Finally, the solution ends up sharing and coordinating; by leaving aside the self-hetero tendency to include the other and jointly develop the appropriate strategy to resolve the conflict.

From Conflict Psychology to Peace Psychology

The above theories are only a few of the many that explain conflict processes. But in the same way that they explain problems, they also explain their solutions. Furthermore, the study of conflict does not arise from the question "How is conflict generated?" but of "How to solve a conflict?".

For this, Sherif proposes shared objectives between the parties, Galtung a process of empathy to see that the conflict is not only ours and Selman the dialogue to develop a negotiation joint. In all cases, a key issue is that of "sharing", co-creating the solution since, if the conflict does not arise only from one of the parties, neither will its solution come from only one.

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

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. Otherwise emphasize the importance of consequences, that every conflict changes the course of humanity and that the current one does not lead us towards inhumanity. As a great professional and friend says, “There is no change without conflict.1”. Today we have to think about what change we want.

1Maria Palacín Lois, Group Area Professor of the Dept. Social Psychology (UB) Dtra. Group Driving Master. President of the SEPTG.

Bibliographic references:

  • Calderón, P. (2009). Johan Galtung's conflict theory. Peace and conflict magazine, 2, 60-81.
  • Selman, R. (1988). Use of interpersonal negotiation strategies and communication skills: a longitudinal clinical examination 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.
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