Many scholars have reflected on human conflict: Steven Pinker, Sigmund Freud, Konrad Lorenz, Karl Marx, Hobbes and etc… To say the least, there is a plethora of literature about the complexities and sensitivities surrounding conflict, the unfortunate human disposition. There is much to be said about conflict, particularly because it impacts so many of us. Human history is riddled with crushed bones from blunt tools, pierced skin from sharp arrows, and bullet-ridden torsos from gunshots. Scholars have attempted to explain conflict by developing notions of drives for aggression, neurosis, and primitive states of nature being fundamentally causal in our conflicts. Unfortunately, as with most scientific and philosophical theories, their ideas did not quite encapsulate the entire picture of human conflict. And I suspect there will never be one theory which explains, in its entirety, human conflict.
Conflict is a multifaceted phenomenon, it can depend on the environment, the style of relationships between people, and even genetic and cultural predispositions. Conflict is seemingly non-linear in ways which a human mind cannot fathom, which makes conflict a complex, difficult subject to tackle. However, with the advent of social psychology and cognitive science, we have progressed considerably in understanding the social and cognitive aspects of human conflict. We now know that human conflict is not only in our biology but also our culture.
Over the years, our overall rates of violence have gone down, and we have become less cruel; for instance, we tend not to engage in public hangings or the skinning of live animals, like we once did. This minimization is due to cultural changes, of course; only because evolution takes years to have a measurable change. Moreover, although we have come a long way from egregious, horrendous acts of cruelty like public hangings (with a few exceptions), there are still areas of life wherein which conflict manifests its self. In example, professional sports, politics, entertainment, and so on. How interesting these modern forms of aggression are.
The reason that conflict, though in less radical forms, is still so prevalent in human society pertains to human nature. When one develops a computer program, they do so with the capacities of the hardware; and so, when one develops a cultural program, they do so with the capacities of the brain. The fundamental cognitive qualities of our biology that are responsible for conflict are still here, and so we still have mechanisms designed for conflict; therefore, the fundamental ingredients for conflict have not gone anywhere. This is evident when we look at debates, global politics, and the entertainment from which people derive pleasure; for instance, watching our favourite fighters win matches, watching movie villains be pummeled, or watching reality T.V. stars argue over nonsense. The phylogenetic mechanisms within the brain sculpt our desires, and so those phylogenetic mechanisms designed to deal with combative experiences, such as physical attacks on other humans or predators, or verbal arguments with fellow humans, are responsible for the enjoyment we receive when a member of our tribe beats a predator or enemy into retreat; these mechanisms continue to fuel, albeit less severe, conflicts.
For those radical social constructionists and environmental extremists who doubt any claim to human nature, consider the following: of all the possible behaviours humans could derive pleasure from, we derived pleasure from a fixed range. We have all watched T.V., we have all read a book, and we all love coffee. Okay, maybe not all, but you get the point. Since there are more possible behaviours than the ones we perform, then it must be the case that there is rigidity in the human system somewhere. The most obvious structure for such rigidity is the brain. And so, we engage in conflict because there are rigid physical structures that were designed (by evolution, most likely) for experiences filled with conflict. The biology delivers function, the culture delivers content; we need both.
We can further understand the combination of function and content by thinking about a few examples; we will look at the phenomena of in and out groups, of narratives, and of irrational use of resources so that we can develop a more sophisticated image of human nature and culture. On top of that, we will also consider how it is that the phenomena of choice are fundamental to human conflict.
Fundamental Qualities of Human Conflict
When we think about conflicts in the abstract or recall a concrete experience of conflict from memory, a notable feature lingers; that is, human conflicts can be characterized by “us” and “them” mentalities, a demarcation premised on differences. This is formally called “in-groups” and “out-groups” in social psychology. The idea is that we categorize people into groups premised on some feature, such as beliefs, appearances, or behaviours. For instance, a prisoner wears an orange jumpsuit, a Christian believes in God, and a Jogger is someone engaged in running; and furthermore, we may also categorize people premised on more than one feature, such as a boxer: someone who is punching, wearing gloves and shorts, and moving their feet a lot. Although some predications are of questionable nature, the act of predicating people into categories has a defensible function: namely, to minimize the sheer uncertainty of the social environment. I would hope no one would take seriously any objection to the stereotype that giraffes should be withheld from universities because they cannot read.
The predication of people into categories helps us navigate the social environment, there would be havoc without it. So, we can see, there is a function to organizing people into groups, and the features of those groups can be culturally defined. Without either, we would be lost. Now let us consider some examples of conflicts involving in groups and out groups to get a better understanding.
One unfortunate example is that children raised by their biological parents experience less abuse than children raised by their foster parents. Here, the in-group and out-group is premised on biological relatedness. The children with the biological parents are a family unit, whereas the children with the foster parent sometimes deal with “a stranger in the home” scenario. In other words, because the child is not a member of the “genetically related category,” the probability of abuse from the stepparent increases. This line of reasoning is not something anyone would consciously carry-out of course, just as a majority of people never consciously reason about what his or her child looks like.
Another example is political parties. People tend to split themselves into groups which are premised on economic and social beliefs, such as conservatives and liberals. Both groups have their own goals and ideals that they attempt to implement, and those goals are almost invariably contradictory to each other in the most fundamental ways. This causes conflict. When groups compete, and there can only be one winner, cooperation plummets and “us-them” mentalities flourish. It is when groups have a common goal that team-work flourishes and “us-them” mentalities disband.
Political and economic discourse is particularly notorious for in groups and out groups; Karl Marx wrote an entire book about in and out groups, perhaps without realizing it: the haves and have nots. These divides are, of course, maintained by categorizing people, but the perception of the categories is accompanied by narratives as well; for instance, I may predicate someone into a category of national socialist due to certain behaviours and beliefs, but when I do, a narrative about what previous members of that category have done is accompanied by the predication.
An important aspect of maintaining divides between people is narrative. Humans rely on narrative so much so that we interpret ambiguous situations with narratives, even when the situation calls for no narrative. For instance, when a relationship partner has not sent a text for some time, a DefCon 5 scenario starts to be spun by the worried partner. Even furthermore, as a classically famous psychology experiment found, humans will project narratives onto shapes, such as squares and triangles, that seem to be “chasing” each other. It may seem odd at first, but narratives are essential for human survival; how long would one be able to survive in the wild if one neglected to build narratives about lions covered in blood?
Narratives are essential for our survival, though they can be pernicious as well. To return to politics and economics, consider that the concepts of capitalism and socialism most certainly fail to adequately represent a human society, which is a non-linear system full of chaos. Yet, people spin narratives about either capitalism or socialism being the one true reason for the collapse of a given society, which is absurd. The concept “capitalism” fails to represent whether a CEO of a major corporation suffered depression or mania, and so underperformed; whether roads experience more accidents because of a change in traffic laws, an so under performed; or whether the leader of the country has a controversial personality or not, which can cause social-divides. Economically speaking, capitalists hate socialists and socialists hate capitalists all because of narrative, and not because of any empirical demonstrations of non-linear systems being collapsed by the methods of either ideology.
The development of narratives for categories also reflects function and content; more specifically, there are culture-dependent narratives, such as the American dream, and those culture-dependent narratives rely on basic biological mechanisms, such as the frontal lobes and long-term memory.
Moreover, much how the narratives between capitalism and socialism revolve around resources, resources themselves also fuel conflicts. Perhaps the obvious conception of resources that fuel conflict is paper money. Relationships of various sorts come to abrupt, and sometimes, ugly stops due to financial issues. However, there are less obvious conceptions of resources which also fuel conflicts: namely, trust and social status.
When someone puts their social status on the line, or when someone places their trust in someone, it is a risk; and sometimes their “investment” goes bad. When this happens, people feel that their resources have been wasted. In addition, not only does this apply to individuals but also groups; for example, when one country loans another country money, the country handing out the loan understands that poor or immoral uses of their loan reflects poorly on their public perception. Consequently, when poor investments are made with the money they leant out, it certainly raises tension between the two countries.
The reason resources fuel so much human conflict is due to our nature; that is, humans have a neuro-adaptive mechanism which keeps track of whether we were “cheated” or not. For instance, suppose we design two problems with the same underlining logic, except one is given social content and the other normal math symbols. Reliably, people perform better with the social problem than with the math problem, regardless of the fact that the solution is the same for both. The idea here is called, “The Darwinian Social Exchange Algorithm,” which is a neurological adaptation designed to engage in social reasoning. This mechanism was not designed to solve math problems, only ensure that we are competent social reasoners. Even furthermore, when people feel that they have been cheated, they spend even more resources to punish the cheater, so rather than being rational and saving resources, they spend more.
Clearly, humans have not surmounted conflict. There is conflict over resources, narratives, and social groups, all of which are fundamental to human culture and nature. The obvious conclusion, I suppose, is that human conflict is likely inevitable. Whether it be at the office or at home, conflicts will happen. So, the best option for us to combat these inevitabilities is to prepare ahead of time for de-escalation rather than work on complete negation.
Although humans have tendencies which proliferate conflict, they also have tendencies which promote cooperation and teamwork; we are a highly social animal after all. Breaking down false narratives, false in and out groups, and promoting healthier communication about resources, indeed, seem vital to cope with our nature. Never be too optimistic about humans, nor too pessimistic; we are a work in progress.