Why conflict is so threatening?

by | Feb 28, 2014

If we look at Social Identity Theory as created by Henry Tajfel in 1979 it helps to see why people are so threatened by conflict as it touches on our social identity, self esteem and self image.

Tajfel outlined his theory as this.
A person’s sense of who they are is based on their group membership.  It’s an important part of pride and esteem.  To increase our self image we enhance the status of the group we belong to.  We also increase our self image by discriminating and holding prejudicial views about the group we don’t belong to.  We create a mentality of “them” and “us”, or “in group”, the one we are in and “out group”, the one they are in.
It’s a normal cognitive process to group things together to reduce decision time and effort. It is how our brain works.  After that, we exaggerate the similarities within our group and the differences of members in the outside group and reinforce the alienation.
Tajfel and Turner in 1979 said that we have a real, true and unchangeable brain process to do this.  It’s bound to happen even if we are conscious of it.
It takes 3 stages:
Social categorisation – we recognise difference (it’s how our brain alerts us)
Social identification   – we put it into a pre-learned difference ID
Social comparison   – we reinforce the difference and start a process of comparison that adds to separation

Mediators often call this the “demonisation” of our opponent.  Thomas in 1992 called conflict “a process that begins with one party perceiving the other is saying or doing something that has or is about to have a negative effect on something he or she cares about.”  The starter event occurs and we the see the other person is doing something unacceptable that does not fit our world view or expectations of the framework we live in.  We perceive this difference and we identify it in some category and then the inevitable happens every time the topic is revisited.  We reinforce the difference by comparing them to us and what we do is “good”, “right,” “fair”, “reasonable” etc so by comparison what they do must be “bad”, “wrong”, “unfair”, “unreasonable” etc and each time the separation is enhanced.  Add to that that those who love and care for us must join in and then we have a group into which more people can be dragged and depending on how big the issue is, we may well be on the way to spoken violence, physical violence, escalation and even, war. 

Alternatively, we might notice our reaction and how triggered we feel and learn to express ourselves sooner so that the other understands us much earlier and is enabled to respond more appropriately in the light of us telling them how what they have said or done has affected us which may also lead to us learning what motivated them to do or speak as they did and where all their fear and alienation is coming from.

You cannot beat talking.  Especially with a skilled facilitator.