Sunday, May 12, 2013

How do you approach conflict?

Think about your most conflicted relationship; a coworker, a frenemy, a family member, or a political out-group. It’s likely that just thinking about this person evokes negative emotions such as frustration and anger. It’s also likely that experiencing these emotions in relation to this person or group influences the way you behave.

Psychologists have spent decades studying the fine details of conflict between individuals and groups all over the world. There are an infinite number of questions to be asked once you consider differences in how people think, feel, and behave across the human lifespan and between different cultures. The ultimate goal of all these questions though, is to develop ways of resolving conflict. However, it is very possible that some conflicts cannot be resolved because they have persisted across generations and are deeply rooted in a culture. For example, a salient conflict in the world today is that between Israel and Palestine.

Dr. Eran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya is a researcher interested in “role of emotions and emotion regulation in determining public opinion towards peace and equality.” In a recent study, he collaborated with Dr. James Gross at Stanford University to ask:

“Can emotion regulation change political attitudes in intractable conflicts?”

To address this question, they conducted two experiments to see if cognitive reappraisal would cause reductions in negative emotions and promote empathy among Israeli University students toward Palestinian political behavior. Cognitive reappraisal is a process through which you change the meaning of a situation, which changes the resulting emotions from that situation. In their first experiment, they randomized 39 university students into either a cognitive reappraisal condition or a control condition. In both conditions, the participants saw images of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the reappraisal condition, participants were asked to explain what was happening in the photo “scientifically & objectively” while in the control condition participants were asked to simply explain the photo in their own words. Then, both groups of students watched a 4-minute presentation detailing the violent Palestinian reaction to Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip which was created to induce anger among the participants. The students in the reappraisal condition reported feeling less anger towards Palestinians during the presentation which led to more support for conciliatory policy, such as sending medical aid to the Gaza Strip and avoiding injury to Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military.

From here, Dr. Halperin and his colleagues were interested in whether these effects stood the test of time. In this experiment, 62 university students were randomized into the two conditions, cognitive reappraisal and control, and were asked to explain a series of photographs either “objectively & scientifically” or in their own words. One week later, these participants returned to the lab and provided their reactions to the Palestinian bid to the UN. Again, participants in the cognitive reappraisal condition reported fewer feelings of anger toward Palestinians as well as more support for conciliatory policy. Then, 5 months later, these participants were approached by an independent researcher, seemingly unrelated to this experiment, and asked to complete a general questionnaire about their feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Again, participants who were in the cognitive reappraisal condition were less likely to report negative emotions towards Palestinians, and also more likely to report support for non-aggressive conciliatory policy.

Taken together, the researchers concluded that cognitive reappraisal is an effective method of teaching regulation of negative emotions in relation to a highly conflicted political topic. This improved regulation of negative emotions was then related to more empathic beliefs and support for the promotion of peace between these conflicting parties.

While these experimental findings are convincing and provocative, there is still much to question. For example, many people report their support for non-aggressive and conciliatory policy but how does that translate into behavior, such as voting or charitable donations? It’s possible that cognitive reappraisal in this situation allowed for better regulation of negative emotions around this issue, but will this better regulation persist as the conflict escalates? Furthermore, these findings make me wonder whether it is always better to regulate negative emotions and promote peace? As a society, we say yes, but negative emotions are necessary, adaptive, and certainly there are times when survival warrants aggressive behavior. Think of the survival skills activated by the fear of being attacked in a city park at night. In the case of individuals living in a dangerous, military war-zone, experiencing negative emotions is essential. On the other hand, these essential emotions that underlie conflict between groups all over the world are the root of many sources of prejudice, discrimination and senseless violence. Where do we draw the line?

If we consider these results on a more personal level, there is much to be gained by looking at our own intractable conflicts. From my experience, intractable conflicts between individuals often rise from resolvable issues, but through repeated negative experiences and memories, they begin to seem insurmountable. The psychology research suggests that merely practicing thinking about and explaining our conflicts “objectively & scientifically” may help us approach these conflicts with less anger. As a result, the conflict takes on less emotional burden, results in fewer purely emotion-driven thoughts and behaviors, and promotes positive feelings of empathy. In other words, we can be more equipped to kill our conflicts with kindness, and spend less energy avoiding them like a plague.

Halperin, E., Porat, R., Tamir, M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). Can emotion regulation change political attitudes in intractable conflicts? From the laboratory to the field. Psychological science, 24(1), 106-111.


  1. Cognitive reappraisal aka “count to 10 before acting upon a conflicting conversation/situation” has been practiced for ever and works as a charm for controlling negative emotions and subsequent behavior on personal level among reasonably intelligent people. And I completely agree that we should be very careful if applying this approach to impact political conflicts.

  2. I think Inna's comment brings up a number of important issues. First, regards the specificity of cognitive reappraisal. Cognitive appraisal is defined as "is a process through which you change the meaning of a situation." So while counting to ten may allow you to change the meaning of the situation, it is not necessary nor always effective. Instead counting to ten would be an entirely different emotion regulation strategy which regulates negative affect first, then allows an individual to react to the conflict, perhaps, more objectively. In contrast, cognitive reappraisal is a skill for perceiving conflict related situations from a third party perspective so that your initial endocing of the conflict experience is less emotional at the outset, and thus inhibits the negative emotions in the first place. Theoretically speaking, this gets at the heart of a long-standing psychological discussion about whether emotions and cognition co-occur simultaneously, or whether one comes before the other. In this study, the cognition precedes the emotion.

    More importantly, in my clinical work, I find that using emotion regulations strategies are intuitive to many people, reasonably intelligent or not, but are not always utilized. The fact that people believe they are being objective is usually the hardest barrier to helping patients and manage the conflicts in their life. Cognitive reappraisal is a skill that must be practiced continuously, and in my experience being objective is not black or white, but rather one can always challenge themselves to be more objective.


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