Psychological Domain of Conflict: Emotional and Cognitive Levels

Tatevik Karapetyan

Psychological domain of the conflict is one of the most important aspects of the conflicts as it conducts the way of conflict development from constructive into destructive. A conflict is considered to be either constructive or destructive by taking account its outcome for the sides involved in the conflict and for the social system in general.  But before touching upon the theme of the psychological processes during the conflict we should understand what the conflict is in general and what kind of main elements there are in its structure.

In the 1960s, the Norwegian peace-researcher Johan Galtung formulated the ABC Conflict Triangle in which he describes the key aspects of conflict[1]. According to this view of conflict analysis conflicts have three major components: contradiction[2], the behaviour of those involved and their attitudes. This model can refer to any kinds of conflicts and can be a comprehensive tool for finding out and analyzing basic elements of even very complex conflict situations. Conflict is a dynamic process in which structure, attitudes and behaviours are constantly changing and influencing one another.

Contradiction or structure generally refers to the political, economic, societal mechanisms, processes and institutions and history that influence the distribution and satisfaction of basic needs and interests of people. Particularly here the contradiction refers to the underlying conflict situation, which includes the actual or perceived ‘incompatibility of goals’ between the conflict parties[3]. Galtung’s definition focuses on C-orientation. He defines the C aspect as the root conflict, and A and B as meta-conflicts, after C[4].

An attitude can be defined as a mental or neural state of readiness, organized through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence on the individual’s response to all objects and situations to which it is related[5]. A simpler definition of attitude is a mindset or a tendency to act in a particular way due to both an individual’s experience and temperament. Typically, when we refer to a person’s attitudes, we are trying to explain his or her behavior. Attitudes are a complex combination of things we tend to call personality, beliefs, values, and motivations.

In the frames of a conflict analysis attitudes refer to the assumptions, cognitions and emotions that one party may have about the other. And the main problem is that they often refuse to take the other parties’ views into account. In this case, it is important to encourage the different “sides” to take on an attitude of empathy which can be done by building on common interests.

Attitudinal processes also take place with their well-known tendency to develop in a parallel fashion. There are important symmetries in the perception; they are to some extent mirror images of each other through imitation and projection[6].

When the attitude is manifested in some action we can already talk about behavior. Behaviour is the third component. It can involve cooperation or coercion, gestures signifying conciliation or hostility. Violent conflict behaviour is characterized by threats, coercion and destructive attacks[7].

These three factors influence each other, hence the arrows leading from one to another. For example, a context that ignores the demands of one group is likely to lead to an attitude of frustration, which in turn may result in protests. This behaviour might then lead to a context of further denial of rights, contributing to greater frustration, perhaps even anger, which could erupt into violence. Work that is done to change the context (by making sure that demands are acknowledged), to reduce the level of frustration (by helping people to focus on long-term nature of their struggle) or to provide outlets for behaviours that are not violent will all contribute to reducing the levels of tension[8].


 In the case of any given conflict, different parties have different experiences and contrasting perceptions. For these reasons, they are likely to attribute the conflict to different causes. One side may, for example, claim that the root problem is injustice, while another side may feel that it is insecurity. Each group focused on the issues that concern it most, and particularly the areas where it is suffering most. All of these causes and issues are real and important, and all should be addressed before the conflict can be resolved and the situation improved. Meanwhile, a great deal of energy may go into attacking those who see different causes or concentrate on different issues. On challenge is to try help everyone involved to see that all the different issues are part of the problem, although certainly some will be more urgent or important than the others[10].

The perception of conflict as an integrity of social-psychological processes allows us to discover one of the most important aspect of conflict which is of key importance both in conflict analysis and regulation contexts. In the process of perception formation one of the most important roles plays information which gets a person. When the person receives contradictory information about the same phenomenon it can cause frustration and can lead to a stressful situation. The consequences of frustration can generate aggression. As person can not stay in such a situation for a long time, the latter tries to work out steps of vital activity which prevent adverse psychological consequences.

The psychological domain of conflict is represented by two levels:

1)   Emotional level (positive emotions are joy, delight and negative emotions are fear, horror)

2)  Cognitive level which is represented by three components in its turn

  • Selective perception
  • Selective remembering or recollecting
  •  Personal and group identity.

The role of group identity is determinant in cognitive processes. Personal identity is what makes every person unique, defining them through their specific biographies (e.g., name, birthplace), unique characteristics (e.g., intelligent, athletic), role identities (e.g., daughter, employee), and particular combination of private and public experiences[11]. People classify themselves and others as belonging to specific groups.  It should be mentioned that a phenomenon of group identity implies mutual responsibility: the responsibility of an individual towards a group, the responsibility of a group towards a person.  Person forms his attitude and position about the information received from external environment due to mentioned identity and its impact.

Selective perception and selective recollection are conditioned on the group identity. Selective perception means choosing the evidence that supports your preconceived notion or understanding of the issue, person or group.  May refer to any number of cognitive biases in psychology related to the way expectations affect perception[12].  According to that, only the information is accepted which promotes the formation of positive/negative opinion about that group and any kind of information which can threaten the positive/negative image to some extent is rejected.

As a phenomenon, selective remembering or recollection is vey close to selective perception but it refers to cases, figures, events which happened in the past. In the process of selective remembering, event which has a hard impact on the group, got the name “chosen trauma” in literature[13]. The latter is a social-psychological phenomenon which can become one of the elements of the group’s identity and be maintained as long as the losses of group have not been compensated (such as genocide). Here we can bring examples of both Armenian and Jewish Genocides. In the first case the problems of recognition and compensation are still unresolved in contrast to Holocaust[14] so the phenomenon of the ”trauma” continues to maintain in the structure of the group identity. This fact in the group makes the level of emotions higher and the pain stronger as they are left alone with their disaster. On the other hand it keeps the members together as a unity due to having a collective image of the enemy and main aim to “achieve the justice”.

There are many common and different things in these two cases of Genocide. One of the main differences is that the Armenians were murdered in their own land but the Jews in other countries[15]. This is also a key aspect as survivors of Armenian Genocide and Armenians in general have collective memory and trauma about both victims and “lost homeland”.

Vamik Volkan uses the term “chosen trauma”[16] to describe collective memory that people have about disaster which happened with their ancestry in past. Of course this is more than just remembering; it is psychological, mental representation of incident, which includes realistic information, imaginary expectations, strong emotions and protection from unacceptable thoughts. The term “chosen” expresses the unconscious definition of the identity by big[17] groups through intergenerational transmission of damaged identity full of memories about the trauma of their ancestry[18].

Selective perception or selective recollection is closely connected with cognitive dissonance. In conflict situation the subject often appears in the situation of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a contradiction; it’s a conflict between the reality and the notion of people about that. In this sense selective perception and selective recollecting are mechanisms which provide cognitive adequacy.

Everyone wants to maintain his inner harmony achieved by himself. All of his views and internal structures have the ability of unification in a system and are characterized by the compatibility of the elements included in that system. But it is not difficult to find deviations from this general pattern.

The subject very rarely accepts the cases of incompatibility as contradictions in the system of his knowledge. More often subject uses more or less successful attempts to somehow rationalize such contradictions. Thus, developing an example here lets imagine that an Armenian works together with a Turkish man at the same workplace but he does not connect with him at all even if he realizes that it is impolite as they are co-workers who meet every day, and he did not receive any bad treatment from him. If he will keep on avoiding that man he can rationalize his own conduct in several ways. He can argue that he has many friends in the workplace and he does not need more.  His argumentation will go forward and refer to that by having relations with a Turkish man is against his national roots which is also unacceptable. But people do not always succeed in rationalization process; the attempts of providing compliance can fail. Right here in the system of knowledge emerges a contradiction which inevitably leads to psychological discomfort.

Here we can replace the term “incompatibility” with “dissonance” and the term “compatibility” with more neutral term “consonance”[19].

Within the framework of cognitive dissonance the following hypotheses are put forward;

  • The appearance of dissonance causing psychological incompatibility motivates the subject to make attempts to reduce the level of dissonance to reach consonance if it is possible.
  • In the case of occurrence of dissonance person being aimed at reduction of that will actively avoid such situations or information which can lead to increase of dissonance.

Dissonance is the existence of contradictory relationships among separate elements in the system of knowledge which is considered as motivation factor itself.  Cognitive dissonance may be perceived as condition which leads to implementation of processes aimed at reduction of that (such as hunger causes activeness directed to satiety of that)[20].

In such a case a question arises why cognitive dissonance appears and why people do actions which contradict with their ideas, beliefs and value system. In any situation in which people are required to form own opinion and make a choice, there inevitably emerges dissonance between initiated action and  opinions familiar to the person which argue for another version of the development of events . The spectrum of situations in which dissonance is considered almost inevitable is quite large, but our problem is to study the situations in which dissonance, ever being appeared, has been maintained for some time, that is to answer the question, under which conditions dissonance ceases to be ephemeral phenomenon.

For example lets again consider the case when at some point the smoker has been confronted with the information which proves the harmfulness of smoking. Maybe he read about that in a magazine or heard from friends or doctors. Of course the new knowledge of the cognitive level contradicts with the fact that he still keeps on smoking. If the hypothesis about the aspiration for reduction of dissonance is true, the implementation of any of the following cases is possible. First of all smoker can change his behavior, stop smoking and new notions and knowledge will be in compliance with his behavior. He can change his knowledge about the harmfulness of smoking, which sounds quite strange but interprets the notion of occurring phenomena well. He can just stop accepting that smoking damages him and instead of that he can seek and find such information which will prove the positive effect of smoking thereby reducing significance of knowledge about harmfulness. If an individual is able to change system of own knowledge by one of these ways, he can reduce and even eliminate cognitive dissonance between what he does and what he knows. However there is no guarantee for that fact that person will be able to reduce or overcome dissonance. Smoker may discover that giving up smoking is impracticable for him. Also the search of positive information about smoking may suffer a setback. Thereby a person will appear in a situation that he will keep on smoking knowing its inevitable harmfulness. That situation will lead to individual’s sense of inconvenience and his efforts to reduce current dissonance will not stop because if there is no state of harmony, the aspiration for acquisition of it immediately reveals[21].

The processes which provide cognitive compliance include the following: rationalisation, projection, polarization, dehumanization and stereotyping.

  •  In individual level rationalization is unconscious process of interpretation of conduct when unacceptable behaviour either gets “logical” excuses or is justified[22].
  • Projection is directed to creation of psychological convenience by ascribing people’s own features which are shameful or need denial[23].
  • Splitting: this term is used to explain the coexistence within the ego of contradictory states, representative of self and others, as well as attitudes to self and others. Other individuals or the self is perceived as “All good or all bad”[24].
  • Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration. Protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognize that they are part of a shared human community. Such conditions often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion. Those excluded are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal[25].

It’s a defensive mechanism with the help of which subject justifies his use of violence. Dehumanization is endowment of half-human or animal characteristics to a person, which facilitates the use of violence towards him.

Dehumanization is a protective mechanism in conflict situation, and especially it is typical for ethnic conflicts which differ with the high level of antagonism. This process mainly includes also stereotyping which is connected with the creation of the “image of enemy” and retaining and strengthening of own group identity.

The process of dehumanizing an enemy group may be preceded in stages. Firstly, the enemy is demonized but still retains some human qualities. Later it may be rendered as vermin and completely dehumanized. In Rwanda, Hutu first referred to Tutsi as evil, and later began calling them cafards. Hurting or killing cockroaches does not induce the guilt feelings that hurting other human beings would.

In the same way Turks called Armenians and other Christians such as Greeks “gavur” which verbatim means “unbeliever”. It was also given like an offensive ethnic label. By referring “gavur” to Armenians Turks were trying to justify the use of violence during the Armenian Genocide.

Furthermore, getting rid of the enemy would result in absolute differentiation from the enemy and cause the first group’s collective negative aspects to disappear with the dead enemy, thereby prohibiting a boomerang effect[26].

When anxiety about identity occurs, members of a large group may consider killing a threatening neighbor rather than endure the anxiety caused by losing their psychological borders and having holes in the canvas of their ethnic tent. In such a climate, chosen traumas and chosen glories, mourning difficulties, and feelings of entitlement to revenge are reactivated[27]. So this situation by itself can cause occurring, resumption or the escalation of the conflict within the increasing the possibility of using violence. These kinds of psychological processes must be under attention as they warm about impending conflicts so they have important role in conflict prevention.

  • Stereotyping: Stereotypes (or “characterizations”) are generalizations or assumptions that people make about the characteristics of all members of a group, based on an image (often wrong) about what people in that group are like[28]. Generally stereotype is a kind of simplified notion about peoples, social groups. The importance of that is especially emphasized when person appears in a new and unusual situation and he requires at least minimal notions about that. During the conflict negative stereotypes about opponent are activated. The activated negative stereotypes can maintain also after the conflict for a long time even within a generation changes. The existing stereotypes can then refer to a new such experienced cases. Armenians use “Turk” word also for Azerbaijanis in the sense that the latters are as bad as Turks because being a Turk become a negative stereotype after all[29].

Stereotyping is a frequently encountered process in our life which sometimes helps us but sometimes it can cause misunderstanding and miscommunication. Stereotypes have both negative and positive sides: they help us to fill the information gap and make our expectations from the others’ behavior and at the same time to plan our reactions. On the other hand stereotyping can be dangerous as we simplify the reality which can be a deviated perception.

The regulation of conflict is necessary to start with the change of awareness and perception of conflict within participants of conflict and with their mutual notions about possible ways of conflict regulation.  No matter how the perception of reality and conflict reasons contradict with the reality by conflicting sides, they should be taken into consideration.

In conflict situation sides take this or that actions, choose power or peaceful ways of solution of problem not biased on existence of “objective” contradictions between them but on their perception and evaluation of situation. But sides pay little attention to the fact of the difference of perceptions trying to prove the accuracy of their own point of view, the compliance of it with objective characteristics of situation.

The presence of contradiction does not always lead to conflict itself. For conflict development sides should realize that their interests and goals are incompatible and also they should have orientation towards the conflicting ways of resolution of conflicts. Moreover, objectively, the goals and interests of sides may not contradict, but if they are perceived as mutually exclusive it can lead to possibility of origination of conflict. Thus conflict can also be determined as conflict of perceived interests taking into consideration the fact that in each case side accepts each other’s interests as mutually exclusive regardless of how they actually like.

Similarly the participants of conflicts may have deep objective differences of interests but don’t accept that they exist and act guided by own views about reality avoiding obvious confrontation. Practically it may also happen that the real conflict of interests is denied, but actually non-existing conflict is perceived as real conflict. In its extreme expression the incompliance of reality and its perception may generate not only conflicts but also lots of difficulties in their settlement.

As it was already mentioned above, in conflict situation stereotypic perceptions about each other and reality are typical to conflicting sides. So in conflict situation the perception can be described by specific phenomena of social stereotypes. Stereotypical perception includes:

  • Emotional aspect (the sense of hostility, distrust, fear, suspiciousness towards opposing side)
  • Cognitive aspect (aspiration for simplification of information, extreme choice of perception, that is only the information is perceived which is in compliance with current stereotypes, all other information is denied).

In conflict situation the spectrum of information sources is getting narrower. First of all this is explained by the fact that participants of conflict situations don’t trust each other and accordingly treat open sources of information with suspicion. Eventually the stereotyping restricts the search of possible outcomes of conflict too. They act within the framework of paradigm which views the conflict as a zero-sum game. Stereotypes are usually built by principle of dichotomy such as “victory or death”, “relative-stranger’’. As a result of strengthening of stereotypes “image of the enemy” is formed.

In conflict situations another feature of perception is that each action of opposing side is characterized by “evil intention”. As a result, all the positive initiatives of opponents are viewed as actions aimed at achievement of some goal and own actions are considered as peaceful and kind intentions.

As a result of dehumanization of opposing side there emerges such situation in which each expression of compassion towards an opposing side is excluded in conflict.

Conflict sides perceive and evaluate the same events in such different ways that their perceptions and evaluations get mirroring nature. This phenomenon got the name “mirroring images” but they are not definitely described in literature. Here it is important to show how serious are differences of perceptions between participants of conflict. As a result of “mirroring images” there appears such tendency for sides that they think their interests and goals don’t coincide with each other greatly but it is not so true. The development of mirroring images is obviously undesirable in any kind of conflict, except for conflicts with high symmetry[30].

Moreover, participants are inclined to deepen existing differences and deny the existence of similarities. Being in conflict relations sides deny the fact that negative images of one side affect on the images of another side emphasizing their hostile nature. If before the conflict there were friendly relations between the sides, the aggravation of conflict transforms former positive images into negative ones.

Parallel with the increase of tension participant of conflict get the feeling that opposing side has great freedom of choice of actions. That’s why they perceive own actions as an answer having a forced nature in the case when actions of opposing side are accepted as instigator: the logic of two participants by the following principle: we acted in such a way, because we had to, we didn’t have alternatives, but the opposing side had opportunity of choice, but he aggravated relations.

The more intense become relations between sides, the more possibly the actions of opposing side can be perceived as a threat. The presentation of non-aggressive intentions can be expressed by sincere acceptance of mistakenness of previous actions. However it occurs rarely because it raises doubt about the preservation of face.

It becomes clear that it’s very important to change the perception of conflicting sides to avoid further development of conflict and to choose peaceful means for regulation of contradictions.  But at the same time it should be also accepted that the change of perceptions and especially stereotypic perception is a complicated process and requires long time and efforts[31].

Psychological domain of the conflict is a structure consisting of many emotional and cognitive components, processes and sub processes which play important role in the conflict analysis therefore also in conflict resolution. We cannot go deep into the causes and roots of the conflicts without taking into account the latters.

[1] Galtung Johan. 1996: Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization, London

[2] In literature you can also see other terms concerning to the same top of the conflict triangle: such as context, structure, situation, causes and etc. But the main idea is the same: the latter refers to the objective reality to which the conflict relates.

[3] Ramsbotham Oliver, Contemprorary conflict resolution, (University of Bradford), Tom Woodhouse (University of Bradford) and Hugh Miall (University of Alberta), 2011, 10

[4] Handbook of peace and conflict studies / edited by Charles Webel and Johan Galtung, London and New York, 2007, 22

[5] Allport, G. W. (1935). Attitudes. In Murchison C. (Ed.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 798–844). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press

[6] Galtung Johan, Theories of conflict, Columbia University, 1958, 105

[7] Ramsbotham Oliver, Contemprorary conflict resolution, (University of Bradford), Tom Woodhouse (University of Bradford) and Hugh Miall (University of Alberta), 2011, 11

[8] Fisher Simon, Abdi Ibrahim Dekaha, Ludin Jawed, Smith Richard, Williams Steve, Williams Sue,  Working with conflict: Skills and strategies for action, London, 2000, 25

[9] Galtung Johan. 1996: Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilization, London

[10] Fisher Simon, Abdi Ibrahim Dekaha, Ludin Jawed, Smith Richard, Williams Steve, Williams Sue,  Working with conflict: Skills and strategies for action, London, 2000, 27

[13] Volkan V.,  Large-group identity and chosen trauma, Psychoanalysis Downunder, Issue #6, December 2005

[14] Jewish Genocide is called ”Holocaust” and Armenian Genocide is called ”Eghern”.

[15] The citation is from the interview with the historian, professor and sociologist Vahagn Tatryan/

[16] Volkan V. “Although some have taken exception to the term “chosen” trauma since a group does not consciously choose to be victimized or suffer humiliation, I believe that, like an individual, a large group can be said to make unconscious “choices.”  Thus the term “chosen trauma” accurately reflects a large group’s unconscious “choice” to add a past generation’s mental representation of a shared event to its own identity.  While large groups may have experienced any number of traumas in their history, only certain ones remain alive over many years – indeed, often over a period of centuries.  The chosen trauma makes thousands and millions of people designated – “chosen” – to be linked together through their shared mental representation of that trauma.  A chosen trauma reflects the traumatized past generation’s incapacity for or difficulty with mourning losses connected to the shared traumatic event as well as its failure to reverse the injury to the group’s self-esteem (“narcissistic injury”) and humiliation inflicted by another large group, usually a geographical neighbor”.

[17] Volkan V.  uses the term “large group or big group” to indicate thousands or millions of individuals sharing certain sentiments associated with certain shared emotions. An ethnic group therefore is a large group.

[18] Volkan V., Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism Paperback – November 27, 1998, 48

[19] Фестингер Л., Теория когнитивного диссонанса, СБб.: Ювента, 1999, 15-52

[20] Ibid

[21] Фестингер Л., Теория когнитивного диссонанса, СБб.: Ювента, 1999, 15-52

[22] Mitchell  Ch. R., The structure of international conflict, New York, 91

[23] Ibid, 92

[24] Blackman S. Jerome, 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself, New York, 2004

[25] Susan Opotow, “Aggression and Violence,” in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 417

[26] Volkan V., Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride To Ethnic Terrorism Paperback – November 27, 1998, 113

[27] Ibid, 115

[28] Breslin, J. William. 1991. “Breaking Away from Subtle Biases” in Negotiation Theory and Practice, eds. J. William Breslin and Jeffrey Rubin (Cambridge, Mass., U.S.: Program on Negotiation Books, 1991), 247-250

[29] Armenians had conflicting relations with the Turkey since early times. But the main role here played Armenian massacres in Turkey since 1890s organized by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and especially the Armenian Genocide in 1915. In the case with Azerbaijan there were Armenian massacres since 1988s in Baku and in Sumgait. Furthermore, Nagorno Karabakh conflict played significant role in the perceiving Azerbaijanis as the enemy.

[30] Mitchell  Ch. R., The structure of international conflict, New York, 113

[31] Лебедева  М. М., Политическое урегулирование конфликтов, Москва, 1999, 46-56

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