Peacemaking and the Law

Douglas E. Noll
August 2001

Note by the author in June 2007:

This is an early chapter from the book Peacemaking: Practicing at the Intersection of Law and Human Conflict.

An updated and shorter version of the topic of the Neuropsychology of Conflict is in Chapter 3: The Neuropsychology of Conflict in The Psychology of Resolving Global Conflicts:  From War to Peace, (M. Fitzduff & C.E. Stout, eds.) vol.1, Praeger Security International (Wesport CN 2006). The first link will take you to a pdf of the chapter. The book link will take you the Amazon listing.

Finally, I give a two hour lecture on this topic 3-4 times a year around the country. Because the field is expanding rapidly, I have a PowerPoint that changes as I learn of relevant new developments. The PowerPoint is in a pdf file here: The Neuropsychology of Conflict


Chapter Four


While great advances have been made by social psychologists in describing conflict behaviors, very little work has been done on understanding why these behaviors exist. Instead, conflict researchers have relied upon psychological explanations for conflict behavior. Hence, we still see explanations for certain types of conflict behavior couched in Freudian or behaviorist terms. These explanations are misleading in that they assume too much intentionality within a conflict situation. In other words, researchers now understand that rationality does not have priority over emotions, but, in fact, the opposite is true. Thus, humans beings act from preconscious brain processes of which there is no conscious awareness.

Advances in the neurosciences now provide better explanations for conflict behaviors than older theories of human nature. In the past twenty years, a small group of neuroscientists in the fields of neurology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and neuropsychology have begun to piece together the actual functions of the brain. Although incomplete, the current knowledge points away from many of the older theories of mind. More importantly, the research provides us with insight into conflict behavior. As a result of this research, certain myths and conventional wisdom about conflict behaviors need to be discarded. This chapter looks at some of the findings of the neurosciences and develops some new ideas about human conflict.


Automaticity refers to the principle that much of our everyday life—thinking, feeling, and doing—is automatic. People, objects, behaviors of others, settings, roles, and norms drive what we think, feel, and do without our conscious awareness. We make decisions and begin acting on them more than a half second before we are even conscious of what we are doing. Most importantly, we judge quickly, then rationalize our judgments. Bargh’s research in this area has revealed important and startling insights into how humans react socially. (Bargh, 1997)

For many years, cognition was based on a serial stage model. In serial stage processing, a social event occurs. We see and hear the event, then we consciously evaluate the people and their actions in the event. Based on our conscious evaluation, we consider an appropriate response and we respond. For example, Sarah arrives on time at her office to wait for John. When John appears a few minutes late, the serial model says that she consciously evaluates John based on his tardiness. She then judges whether John is rude or untrustworthy or simply uncaring. She reaches her conclusion and acts accordingly. This model places Sarah’s consciousness at the center of her evaluation and response.

Bargh postulates that preconscious processes largely create the immediate psychological situation. The preconscious mind, of which we are not aware, determines how we interpret perceptions of other people’s behavior, how we evaluate those behaviors based on their physical features and their actions, and how we respond to the situation. These processes operate simultaneously, in parallel, and communicate with each other. The output of one system therefore has consequences for the others. These processes operate on the same input at the same time. Consequently, they are separate processing modules.

Here is how the processes seem to work. A social event occurs, such as John arrives late. Sarah preconsciously perceives the event. In her brain, an automatic set of unconscious processes simultaneously does three things.

The first set of preconscious processes decides what all the things, people, and actions are. Sarah preconsciously recognizes John and through the quantitative operator determines that he is late. She is not aware of this processing yet, but John’s late arrival is enough to generate a preconscious interpretation of behavior. This preconscious process selects sensory information to send to the conscious mind.

The second set of processes judges whether the things, people, or actions are "good" or "bad." This is a dichotomous process with no room for ambiguity. From this process, emotions begin to be generated. Sarah’s preconscious processing, based around the amygdala, immediately does a down and dirty evaluation that the situation is "bad."

The research on automatic attitude activation shows that the preconscious evaluation effect is extremely general across social and nonsocial events. Automatic evaluation occurs regardless of how extreme or strong the earlier attitude toward the object. It also occurs when all aspects of intentional evaluative processing were removed. In fact, as conscious strategic processing conditions were eliminated, the automatic evaluation became more pronounced. Consequently, all social events are evaluated immediately as good or bad, without the participant intending to evaluate, having recently thought in terms of evaluation, or being aware of doing so. Therefore, everything one encounters is preconsciously screened and classified as good or bad, within a fraction of a second after encountering it.

The third process sets a goal of interaction and initiates action. The goals are again dichotomous: To connect with the thing, person or action or to defend against the thing, person or action. Sarah preconsciously decides to defend and says without thinking, "Where have you been? You certainly are rude!" A half second later, as Sarah’s cortex processes more information about John, she realizes that his clothes are ripped and torn. Only then can she re-evaluate her first judgment and realize that John must have been delayed by an accident of some sort. The problem, socially, is that Sarah, having committed to her first down and dirty judgment, may now lose face if she changes judgment. Instead of a simple apology to smooth over her first comment, she stays on the track of the first, preconscious, and now obviously wrong judgment. Not realizing how her preconscious processes have misled her, she chooses an offensive assault to protect her from her obvious error.

These three preconscious processes can be summarized as perception, evaluation, and motivation. Only after these processes have begun does the conscious mind become aware of the social event. The preconscious and unconscious have already perceived, evaluated, and chosen goals. The conscious mind through the causal operator, unaware of all of this, must rationalize, explain, and reconcile all of this. Not surprisingly, it is often wrong. Because we are only aware of what is conscious, we believe that our reactions start with conscious appraisement. In fact, conscious appraisement is nothing more than an after-the-fact attempt to figure out what happened.

As we automatically judge whether something is good or bad, we infer motives. From inferred motives, we infer intent as either intent to help or intent to hurt. Social psychologists have labeled this phenomenon fundamental attribution error. We can now see that fundamental attribution error is a biological response to external stimuli or internal memories. The judging process is outside of conscious control and occurs automatically all of the time.

Humans are prone to judge "bad" more often than "good." This predisposition may lie in the adaptive ability to deal with an uncertain, dangerous world conservatively. As a result, negative attributions are frequent even if wrong. Thousands of years ago social interaction was far less complex than it is today. Human societies were small and the task of surviving was paramount. The ability to judge quickly and automatically was useful in an environment where most everything was dangerous. In modern times, the dangers are not so apparent, yet social evolution has occurred much faster than biological evolution. As a result, humans are dealing with far more complex societies while equipped with archaic biological responses. Thus, in an ambiguous situation, we are prone to judge negatively. This automatic "jumping to conclusion" results in blaming or accusation that may be unwarranted. Nevertheless, once made, the conflict cycle is initiated or escalated.

The persistence of conflict escalation can be seen in the interaction of two "judges." One person judges another negatively and reacts accordingly. The other perceives the behavior as an attack on identity and responds defensively. It takes a great deal of discipline and will not to react to identity attacks. Even then our bodies are screaming at us to defend and attack. Most people succumb to the unconscious responses, not realizing that they are playing out their biological programming. The underlying reasons for these behaviors and reactions lie in the function and structure of the human brain.

The Cognitive Operators

The human brain underlies all human experience. It is responsible for receiving information from the outside world, analyzing it, informing us what that information is, feeling an emotional content to the information, creating a behavioral response to the information, and acting on the behavioral response. In fact, every human brain has a set of abilities that are absolute. Thus, despite what might appear to be extreme differences in cultures, beliefs, and attitudes, every person has a neurological physiology that is essentially identical to every other person.

The brain also is the chief organ in the central nervous system. The central nervous system is composed of nerves, the central nervous system, and the brain, and the neurochemicals modulating the system. The autonomic nervous system is the core of the central nervous system because it maintains base line physical functions. The autonomous nervous system also responds to external information and thus connects the brain to the rest of the body.

The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system supports the approach-defend response to desirable or noxious environmental stimuli. In essence, the sympathetic system causes a sense of arousal. This system is connected to the lower brain and penetrates into the higher brain. Its principal purpose is to control short-range adaptations to events in the environment.

The parasympathetic system maintains homeostasis and conserves bodily resources and energy. Thus, it is responsible for all metabolism and growth, digestion, relaxation, and sleep.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are usually described as antagonistic or inhibitory to each other. Intense activity in one system usually indicates decreased activity in the other. Neuroscientists have learned that the sympathetic-parasympathetic interaction is highly complex. The balance between the systems can also be modified through conditioning. The human baseline state at birth represents an emotional setting brought into the world. For example, a person may be initially "up tight" or "laid back." This balance can be altered, through social processes such as ritual, so that a new baseline is established.

The primary functional characteristics of the brain-mind are cognitive operators. These are specific functions performed within the brain that we experience as mind. Cognitive operators work on inputs from the environment and memory. They operate on sensory perception, thoughts, and emotions to create meaning. The cognitive operators work together to create the experience we call "mind." Brain function results in the function of cognitive operators which results in the function of the mind.

Cognitive operators are the same in all people. Functions such as language, vision, movement, and thought tend to be localized in the same general areas regardless of who is examined. Similarly, cognitive operators are shared among all humans, indicating a common genetic origin.

Seven primary cognitive operators comprise most of the functions of the brain. Each operation represents a specific function of the brain, but when weaved together form the complexity of the human mind. The basic cognitive operators are:

The holistic operator allows humans to view reality as a whole. In other words, this is the process that gives people a larger perspective and places information into context. Experiments have established that this operator is located in the parietal lobe of the non-dominant hemisphere of the brain. For right-handed people, it is the upper right center part of the brain. (The dominant hemisphere is opposite the dominant hand). The perceptions generated by the holistic operator are of a gestalt nature such that it tells us how a group of units work or fit together as a whole.

The reductionistic operator functions in the opposite manner to the holistic operator. It allows humans to look at the whole picture and break it down into component parts. Not surprisingly, the reductionist operator is located opposite of the holistic operator in the dominant hemisphere parietal lobe. It is connected to sight, hearing, and touch, as well as the language center. The reductionistic operator performs various logical-grammatical operations and gives humans their scientific, logical, and mathematical approach to understanding the world. The most accurate understanding comes from the combined operation of the holistic and reductionistic operators. However, if the reductionistic operator dominates the holistic operator, a person will be unable to see the big picture. This is a common problem for people in conflict.

The abstractive operator is the center of logical induction process because it permits general concepts to be formed from individual facts. All general concepts or ideas underlying language derive from the abstractive operator. Inferences and circumstantial evidence are also processes created by the abstractive operator. It can take two facts and from them derive a third fact not proved directly. Ideas such as mathematics, government, justice, and culture are all aspects of the abstractive operator. This operator appears to be located in the inferior portion of the left hemisphere parietal lobe. This is the lower left center part of the brain. Tumors in this area prevent people from making comparisons such as "larger than," "smaller than," or "better than."

The binary operator, located in the same region as the abstractive operator, orders information into opposite pairs or dyads. A dyad is a group of two elements with the opposite meanings. Dyads include right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice, happy and sad, and so forth. Each opposite in the dyad receives some of its meeting from its opposite. Thus, the elements of a dyad require each other for full meaning.

The quantitative operator permits us to determine quantity from the perception of multiple elements. It is the bean counter part of the brain and is located in the inferior parietal lobe near the binary and abstractive operators. This operator allows humans to number objects, to order, and to rank, to count, and to measure. The survival value of this operator is vital. Through it, people are aware of such mundane, but critical things, such as how much food is in the pantry, how much money is in the checking account, what time it is, and how long before the next appointment. Quantification is an important part of human cognition.

The causal operator permits information to be viewed in terms of causal sequences. Neuroscientists believe this operator results from the connections between the left frontal lobe and the left orientation association area. People with tumors in these areas have severe deficits in deciding why things happen. In its most basic function, the causal operator tends to create a sense of causality on all information. Thus, this operator forces humans to question why things work the way they do or why people behave the way they do. Essentially, humans are driven to know the cause of every experience and event in life. Neuroscientists call this the causal imperative: humans have a biological necessity to seek out causality in everything. This operator is at the root of much philosophical and religious thought.

Michael S. Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College, has studied the causal operator in his research with split-brain patients, people whose left and right hemispheres have been separated by surgery or disease. (Gazzaniga, 1998)

The brain creates an illusion of self as it constructs its past. The reconstruction of events starts with perception and goes all the way to human reasoning. The mind is the last to know things. After the brain computes an event, the illusory "we" becomes aware of it. This is because the brain, particularly the left hemisphere, is built to interpret data the brain has already processed. The causal operator carries out one more activity upon completion of automatic brain processes by reconstructing the brain events to form a cohesive story. In doing so, the causal operator makes huge errors of perception, memory, and judgment. As Gazzaniga says, biography is fiction. Autobiography is hopelessly inventive. The important point to understand is that "rationality" is a fiction created by the conscious mind’s limited perception of what the rest of brain is processing.

A special system carries out this interpretive synthesis. Located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, the causal operator seeks explanations for internal and external events. It is tied to the general capacity to see how contiguous events relate to one other. The operator, a built-in specialization in its own right, operates on the activities of other adaptations built into our brain. These adaptations are cortically based and work largely outside of conscious awareness.

The causal operator was revealed during a simultaneous concept test in which split-brain patients’ were presented with two pictures. One picture was shown exclusively to the left hemisphere and the other exclusively to the right. The patient was asked to choose from an array of pictures ones that were lateralized to the left and right side to the brain. In one example, a picture of a chicken claw was flashed to the left hemisphere and a picture of a snow scene to the right hemisphere. Of the array of pictures placed in front of the subject, the obviously correct association was a chicken for the chicken claw and a shovel for the snow scene.

One of the patients responded by choosing a shovel with his left hand and the chicken with his right. When asked why he chose these items, his left hemisphere replied, "Oh, that’s simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean up the chicken shed." In this case, the left brain, observing the left hand’s response, interpreted that response in a context consistent with its sphere of knowledge-one that did not include information about the snow scene.

The left hemisphere was perfectly capable of stating that it had no basis for picking the shovel. But it didn’t say that. Instead, the left brain weaved a story to convince itself that it was in full control.

The causal operator influences other mental capacities, such as the ability to recall past events accurately. People are poor at recall because memory’s accuracy is influenced by which hemisphere is used. Only the left brain has a causal operator, so the left hemisphere has a predilection to interpret events that affect the accuracy of memory. The interpreterless right hemisphere does not.

When pictures that represent common events--getting up in the morning or making cookies--were shown to a split-brain patient who was later asked to identify whether pictures in another series had appeared in the first, both hemispheres were equally accurate in recognizing the previously viewed pictures and rejecting unseen ones. But when the subject was shown related pictures that had not been shown, only the right brain performed well. The left hemisphere incorrectly recalled more of these pictures, presumably because they did not fit into the schema it had constructed regarding the event. This finding is consistent with the idea of a left-hemisphere causal operator that constructs theories to assimilate perceived information into a comprehensible whole.

The causal operator creates the lies necessary to create a fiction of control. Human brains are built to remember the gist of things, not the details. The causal operator and the memory system meet in these false recollections. As the operator spins the tale, calling on the schema of past memory, it simply drags into the account likely details that could have been part of the experience. This operator is also the cause of much conflict because different people weave different stories about the same objective events. Since the causal operator is creating reality for them, they absolutely believe in the truth of their own stories to the exclusion of other stories.

The left hemisphere’s capacity for continual interpretation means it is always looking for order and reason, even when they do not exist. The interpreter works beautifully to help people understand the world. It fails miserably when trying to interpret large or meaningless data sets.

The significance of this research cannot be overstated. We have assumed for too long that people’s perceptions of events are accurate and rationally based. They are neither accurate nor rational. Thus, conflict arising from different perceptions and perspectives is inevitable. One key to reconciling conflict based on differing interpretations of events is recognizing the role of the causal operator in weaving stories. Each person will understand an event or experience uniquely based on the salience formed by the causal operator.

The final operator is the emotional value operator, and it is the most complex brain function. It must place emotional values on the responses of all the operators and is therefore connected to all them.

Emotions are the result of a long history of evolutionary development and are part of the regulatory devices we come equipped with to survive. The biological purpose of emotion is twofold. First, emotions produce specific reactions to situations. These reactions generally may be divided into approach or defense reactions. Approach reactions permit sexual reproduction, food gathering and sharing of shelter. Defense reactions result in freezing, fleeing, or fighting. Second, emotions prepare the organism for the specific reaction required by the circumstances. Preparation might include increased blood flow, changing heart or breathing rhythms, or increased arousal or sensitivity. For either dangerous or valuable environmental stimuli, evolution has defined a corresponding set of emotions. This is why, in spite of infinite variations, we can successfully predict emotional responses to certain stimuli. (LeDoux, 1996)

Conflict, of course, is highly emotional.


Historical Studies of Emotion

In 1878, the French neurologist Paul Broca, identified an area under the cortex that he called the limbic lobe (from the Latin word limbus, implying the idea of a circle, ring, or surrounding). This lobe formed a border around the brain stem, hence the name limbic. In later years the entire system would be called the limbic system. From an evolutionary standpoint, the limbic system emerged in primitive mammals. The system commands certain behavior necessary for the survival all mammals. Early theorists believed that emotions and feelings, like anger, fright, passion, love, hate, joy, were mammalian inventions originating in the limbic system.

In 1937, neuroanatomist James Papez demonstrated that emotion was not a function of any specific brain center, but of the circuit that involves four basic structures interconnected through several nervous bundles. Paul D. MacLean, accepting Papez’s proposal, created the term limbic system and added new structures to the circuit. (MacLean, 1989)

MacLean’s theory was simply stated. In its evolution, the human brain expanded to a great size while retaining the basic features of three formations that reflect ancestral relationships to reptiles, early mammals, and recent mammals. These three formations constituted a hierarchy of three brains in one or what MacLean called a triune brain.

The primitive or reptilian brain was comprised of the structures of the brain stem. MacLean called this the R-complex. The R-complex was responsible for self-preservation. In this complex, mechanisms of aggression and repetitive behavior were developed. This region was believed responsible for the instinctive reactions of the so-called reflex arcs and the commands allowing some involuntary actions and the control of certain visceral functions indispensable to the preservation of life. According to MacLean, the R-complex started the first manifestations of the phenomenon of ritualism by which an animal defines its hierarchic position inside a group and establishes its own ecological niche. MacLean’s theory paralleled Konrad Lorenz’s theory of ritual as a means of aggression reduction.

The intermediate, or old mammalian, brain consisted of the structures of the limbic system. This brain corresponded to the brain of the inferior mammals.

The neo-mammalian brain consisted of the neo cortex, and some subcortical neuronal groups. This brain corresponded to the brain of the superior mammals, including the primates and, consequently, humans. This rational, neo-mammalian brain was considered a highly complex system capable of symbolic language, enabling intellectual tasks such as reading, writing, and performing mathematical calculations.

These three layers appear one after the other, during the development of the embryo and the fetus, recapitulating the evolution of animal species from lizards up to Homo sapiens. According to MacLean, they are three biological computers that, although interconnected, retain their peculiar types of intelligence, subjectivity, sense of time and space, memory, mobility and other less specific functions.

MacLean’ limbic system theory of emotion has been influential in the neurosciences and clinical medicine. However, it has not been established by empirical evidence. Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist interested in emotion, has concluded that study of the limbic system, or more particularly, that an emotional system exists in the brain, is misguided. (LeDoux, 1996) Based on empirical studies, LeDoux demonstrated the neural circuitry for the emotion of fear. (LeDoux, 1995) These circuits had little to do with the limbic system, other than the amygdala. Furthermore, the centerpiece of the limbic system, the hippocampus, was implicated in non-emotional processes like memory and spatial behavior.

LeDoux believes that emotions are products of different systems, each of which evolved to take care of survival problems. Because of evolutionary requirements, LeDoux believes that different systems of the brain will be involved in different emotions. LeDoux also believes that there are basic emotions hard-wired into brain architecture. One of the advantages of a large cortex is that different hard-wired emotions can be blended together to create softer, more complex emotions, where cognition plays a greater role.

Characteristics of Emotion

From a neurological perspective, certain basic principles about emotions seem to be clear. First, emotions arise from nonconscious processes. Although we like to think that we can control our emotions, in fact all we control are some limited external behaviors. We cannot turn anger off and on volitionally, just as we cannot turn feelings of joy off and on. We may be able to recall memories that evoke anger or joy, but the actual instigation of emotion is beyond conscious control. One of the reasons we appreciate skilled acting is because actors can give the appearance of expressing and controlling emotions in artificial settings. (Damasio, 1999)

Second, emotions are biologically determined processes, depending on innate brain devices laid down by a long evolutionary history. The principle adaptive purpose of emotions is to arouse us to some event, situation or activity. Generally, the event may be judged as good if it leads to reproductive potential, food, or shelter, and bad if dangerous or unknown. By far and away, most environmental events are judged as bad so as to protect the organism from fatal surprises. Emotions therefore play an important role in survival and can therefore be seen to one degree or another in all vertebra species. Emotions become more complex in higher orders of species. More complicated emotions seem to permit more subtle and varied responses to the environment, giving rise to more precise adaptations. Humans, as far as we know, have the most complex emotional structures and consequently have an almost infinite variety of responses to the environment.

Third, the brain structures responsible for emotion consist of a limited ensemble of devices beginning at the brain stem and extending into the higher brain. The cortical structures do not appear to generate emotion, but instead interpret emotion and possibly blend simple emotions into more complex emotions. In addition, the cortex creates feeling, which is the conscious interpretation of an emotional state.

Finally, all of the structures are engaged automatically without conscious deliberation or control. We are not aware that emotions are being generated until at least one-half second after the emotion has begun. Furthermore, the cortex cannot control emotion such as by extinguishing it or suppressing it or changing it. For example, we cannot consciously eliminate the emotion of anger. We may be able to suppress those few external signs of anger over which we have some control, but the anger will remain. Similarly, we cannot change anger into joy with conscious control. Think about it. If humans had the ability to control emotion, they would have no need for artificial stimulation such as drugs, movies, or sports. Humans engage in these activities because the activities evoke emotions not created by conscious thought. Emotionally related conflict behavior is likewise not under conscious or volitional control.

Types of Emotion

Emotions can be categorized as primary or universal emotions, secondary or social emotions and background emotions. The primary emotions include happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust. These emotions are primary because they are found across species. Secondary emotions include embarrassment, jealousy, guilt and pride. These emotions are found only in higher order primates living within social structures. Background emotions include well being, malaise, calm, and tension.

Some emotions are short-lived, while others are persistent. Primary emotions tend to be short-lived, while background emotions tend to persist. This is not a general rule, as anger, for example, may persist over a long period of time.

Two non-emotional states are commonly confused with emotion. They are frustration and relief. Frustration arises when happiness is blocked, and relief arises when some sustained negative emotion is suspended.


Anxiety is a prospective emotion in that it motivates us to deal with traumatic events in advance of their occurrence. Anxiety reduction brings about relief or creates a sense of security. Because anxiety is very uncomfortable, when the stimuli that elicit it are present, we are motivated to change the circumstances. Usually this involves leaving the environment (escape) and avoiding similar environments in the future.

Anxiety has a useful evolutionary adaptation. The capacity to become uncomfortable by the prospect of future experiences motivates us to take realistic precautions against those experiences. However, anxiety can also be disadvantageous. At its worst, it can disable our ability to deal with the uncertain future at all. Additionally, anxiety, especially in the context of conflict, can cause escalation through avoidant and contentious behaviors.

Conflict is largely caused by anxiety, and conflict behavior stems from anxiety. Anxiety is a state of uncertainty, which results in arousal. Anxiety often occurs when the source of arousal is not immediately apparent. Fear, in contrast, is usually attributable to a concrete situation or event.

Since anxiety is based on an inchoate event, it is ambiguous. Thus, anxiety-provoking events can be interpreted in more than one way. Because of the predisposition of the amygdala to negatively judge events, anxiety is often relieved by negative attribution of cause.

Anxiety is an extremely unpleasant condition for humans. Thus, humans seek relief from it as quickly as possible. Behaviors that relieve anxiety include, physical action, such as escape by running, or in worst cases, physical violence. This urge to action explains why physical exercise is a good antidote for anxiety.

Physical action is usually not appropriate in social interaction. Consequently, people may relieve anxiety by becoming indignant, angry or hostile. Again, these reactions temporarily relieve anxiety because they institute more concrete feelings. When anger or hostility are not appropriate, for example, as between an inferior and a superior, anxiety may be relieved through nervous laughter, obsequious behavior or passive-aggressive behavior. These same behaviors are often present in peacemaking sessions.

Under Sullivan’s view of self (Sullivan, 1972), a person needs power, status and prestige as security against anxiety. For most people, this translates into a coercive, contending conflict management style. The internal dialogue may go something like this: "My power, status, and prestige must come at your expense. My need to be secure from anxiety is so great that I am than willing to step on you to protect me." Hence, a common reaction to the anxiety caused by conflict is contentious behavior.


For many people, conflict involves a threat to their self-esteem and to core elements of their self- image. The degree to which individuals feel humiliated depends on the degree of their narcissistic vulnerability-that is, on the strength, and the adequacy of the integration of, their self-identity.

Narcissistically vulnerable individuals are characterized by problems in their capacity to maintain a self-image and a clear sense of self-identity, both of which can be easily threatened or injured. These individuals need and use others to regulate and enhance their low self-esteem, to confirm their inflated (though fragile) sense of self, and to provide a receptacle for the projected "bad" parts of themselves. They depend on other people to confirm the view of self they maintain.

For the more narcissistically vulnerable, conflict may serve as a defense against a sense of fear, rejection, and humiliation. Since the successful conclusion of a conflict can compensate for, or even repair, an injured self-image, a conflict may be waged to restore threatened self-esteem and identity. Thus, the courtroom becomes an arena in which to master painful feelings of rejection, humiliation, and role loss, to reconstruct definitions of the self as good and to recover a more positive sense of self. Unfortunately, the court process does not usually permit this identity repair to occur.

People with narcissistic vulnerabilities have a spectrum of responses to the perceived threat to self-esteem and self-integrity. They develop different strategies for dealing with these threats. These strategies involve different symbolic and defensive uses of others in the conflict, resulting in varying degrees or resistance to resolution and amenability to mediation.


Anger is an emphatic message carrying several important meanings. Anger can shout, "Pay attention to me," when a person has a need to be heard. Anger can also reprimand, as in "I do not like what you are doing." (Tavris, 1989) The message here stops some offending conduct. Anger can exhort another to "Restore my pride." Anger is therefore a means to gain respect from another. Anger may also signal some form of overt conflict, such as "You’re in my way!" In this case, anger signals frustration when desires or goals are thwarted.

Anger has adaptive survival value because it sends a message of danger. This occurs when one feels threatened and is moving into an aggressive defense. Finally, anger can be a political or social statement, such as "Give me justice." Anger, especially in the context of collective action, is harnessed in the name of redressing power imbalances.

Despite these various messages, social attitudes towards anger are ambivalent. For example, we are told not to rock the boat, but we are also told the squeaky wheel gets the grease. So, some social confusion exists as to the propriety and usefulness of anger.

People become angry everywhere, but do so in the service of their culture’s rules. That is, the rules of expressing anger are based in the norms and context of culture. Generally, people learn to live by a large set of unstated rules of behavior. These rules are frequently not even thought of as rules, but are just the ways things are done. Consequently, these unstated rules are not apparent until broken. Anger is one sign that they have been broken. Thus, anger plays an important policing function by regulating everyday social relations.

As most everyone has experienced, anger can be a serious impediment to peacemaking. In particular, people can become angry during negotiations when offers or counter-offers appear grossly unfair or disrespectful. Straub and Morrighan’s wounded pride/spite model states that people with full information about a transaction who see an ultimatum offer as unfair will also become angry. (Straub & Morrighan, 1995) If they become angry, they most likely to act spitefully and reject an economically valuable offer. Wounded pride refers to a personal, inwardly focused feeling occurring when self-worth is violated. When people are not given the dignity they expect, they may question their self-image and feel hurt. This is wounded pride. In contrast, anger and spite are focused outward. Anger is directed to the person deemed responsible or blameworthy for a violation or offense. Spite is a behavior generated from anger designed to hurt the offender. Spiteful actors see their reaction as just retribution, believing that revenge has its own moral imperative. (Pillutla & Morrighan, 1996).

The Straub-Morrighan model suggests that the sequence for rejecting an offer is perceiving that the offer is unfair, feeling wounded pride and anger toward the offeror, and rejection of the offer in spite. The wounded pride/spite model views reactions to ultimatum offers as containing cognitive, emotional and behavioral elements.

Emotions play a central role in negotiations. People want to maximize their emotional satisfaction as well as their economic position. Consequently, people often reject small, unfair offers rather than experiencing the emotional distress associated with accepting them. (Straub & Morrighan, 1995). Emotions play an even larger role when a person can attribute intentionality to the offeror. The more an injustice can be attributed to another person, especially a person with control, the more likely anger will arise. People value symbolic rewards such as status. Thus, analyzing conflicts simply on the basis of economic maximization models is inaccurate and unrealistic.

Anger provides a compelling short term explanation for ending negotiations in ultimatum bargaining and other social interactions. Anger causes rejection and walk-outs even though in cooler moments people may wonder at their willingness to suffer unnecessary losses. (Straub & Morrighan, 1995).

Neurological Processes

Different emotions are produced by different brain systems. While MacLean believed that all emotions originated in what he called the limbic system, neuroscientists now believe that as brain structures evolved, more complex emotions evolved with them. Thus, no single brain structure is responsible for all emotions. Instead, emotions probably are linked to particular brain structures. While very few emotions have been directly linked to specific brain structures, the research seems to suggest a general theory of emotion. According to this theory, emotions arise in a three-step process. First, we are engaged by a stimulus, which will induce emotion. This could be an external stimulus or a memory. Second, signals generated from processing the stimulus activate all of the neural sites that are prepared to respond to the particular class of inducer. These sites are preset genetically, but may be modulated by experience. Finally, the emotional induction sites trigger signals toward other brain sites and the body to engage in appropriate action. The combined result is emotion, created quickly and unconsciously.

The Fear Response System

One emotion that has been clearly linked to specific brain structures is fear, which is generated in a brain substructure called the amygdala. The amygdala is a little almond shaped structure deep inside the temporal lobe. It is like the hub of a wheel in that it receives inputs from a wide range of levels of cognitive processing. These connections make it possible for the amygdala to play its important role in the expression of fear. Through these connections, the amygdala is able to appraise emotional meaning and initiate reactions consistent with its appraisal.

The fear reaction system involves a parallel transmission to the amygdala from the sensory thalamus and the sensory cortex. The first information about something fearful reaches the amygdala by a direct path from the thalamus. This path, being shorter, is much faster than the parallel pathway from the thalamus to the cortex to the amygdala. The downside of the shortcut is that the amygdala does not benefit from cortical processing. Thus, the amygdala is provided with a crude representation of the stimulus and appraises it as either "good" or "bad." The advantage of this down and dirty pathway is speed—we can react to potentially dangerous events before we fully know what is going on. Eventually the cortex processes the information and sends it on the parallel, but longer, path to the amygdala. Based on this information, the amygdala may modify its appraisal of the event.

The process can be illustrated as follows. A hiker encounters a snake coiled behind a log. Her eyes send the visual information to the thalamus for initial processing. The thalamus sends part of the information to the amygdala and part of the information to the cortex. The path to the amygdala being shorter allows a fast, unconscious response to begin. Right now the hiker doesn’t know if the object is a stick or a snake, but it registers as potentially "bad," and the amygdala sends signals to the hypothalamus to arouse the organism for action. Meanwhile, the thalamus feeds information to the visual cortex, which assembles a more detailed representation of the snake. This outcome is sent back to amygdala about a half second after the amygdala received the first inputs from the thalamus. If the thin curved object was a stick, well, better to be safe than sorry. If it was a snake, the earlier, faster response could mean the difference between life and death. Hence, the down and dirty pathway has a powerful survival value.

The amygdala appears capable of not only triggering and steering responses to danger, but also acting on higher-level neocortical processes. First, the amygdala arouses the cortex. Cortical arousal, once established, makes concentration on anything else very difficult. Working memory becomes focused on the situation as it tries to figure out what is going on and what should be done about it. All other inputs are blocked out, resulting in impaired reasoning, decision-making and other higher cortical processes. If you have experienced a feeling of tunnel vision when emotionally engaged, your working memory is shutting out all other inputs as it tries to deal with the source of arousal.

The reason for this is strictly biological. The connections from the amygdala to the cortex are much richer than the connections from the cortex to the amygdala. This allows the amygdala to literally overwhelm the cortex, which in turn feeds the arousal back to the amygdala. A vicious cycle of emotional reactivity results. Thus, arousal tends to lock people into an emotional state. Once the fear system is turned on, it is difficult to turn off unless something else occurs that significant enough and arousing enough to shift the focus of arousal. Worse, stress, as a form of arousal, facilitates amydalic functioning. Thus, stress shifts us even deeper into a mode where we react to danger rather than think about it.

Thus, the amygdala is able to overwhelm the cortex and the rest of the brain so that a person not only forms emotional ideas, but also responds to them. A famous example of this is Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed a tower at the University of Texas and indiscriminately killed people with a rifle. Whitman had initially consulted a psychiatrist about his periodic and uncontrollable violent impulses, but was unable to obtain relief. Post mortem autopsy of his brain revealed a tumor the size of a walnut compressing his amygdala.

We can now gain some insight into conflict behavior. First, people in conflict tend to act in predictable ways. This relative uniformity of behavior suggests a common neurological basis that cuts across cultures and ethnicity. Typically, conflict can induce anger and fear. When these emotions are strong enough, they will dominate and override what we experience as consciousness. We become sensitive to our environment as we are prejudging events and situations as bad. Of course, as we react to defend, by freezing, fleeing or fighting, we set off an emotional response in the Other. Not only are the internal neural feedback loops escalating reactivity internally, the response of the people in conflict are creating an external, environmental feedback loop. This feedback is called conflict escalation and, in extreme situations, can lead to physical violence.


Many people confuse emotions with feelings, but emotions and feels are quite different processes. Simply stated, feelings are our awareness of emotions. Feelings can only exist with consciousness, while emotions do not need consciousness at all. Charles Darwin demonstrated that emotions are similar across species, many of which lack consciousness. However, humans and probably other higher order primates, are conscious of their emotions. The conscious awareness of emotion is what we call feeling.

The neural patterns constituting a feeling arise from the changes within our bodies as emotions are developed. If the amygdala triggers the fear mechanism, our heart rate increases, we breathe faster, we become flushed as blood expands into skin capillaries, and as we become aware of these changes in our body state, we experience fear. Interestingly, our awareness of emotion, our feeling, occurs, neurologically speaking, much later than the onset of the emotion itself. Since emotions are triggered preconsciously by subcortical brain systems, we have no control over them. Only after we start feeling the emotion can we attempt to consciously intervene. Oftentimes, as we have all experienced, our feelings have become too strong for a conscious override and we have to live through the emotion.

Why do we have feelings? First, feelings alert the organism to the problem emotion has begun to solve. While the brain has mobilized the body to take action, feelings allow our conscious self to assess the situation. If the thin curved shape on the trail is just a stick, we can start to relax and reverse the emotion of fear. On the other hand, if it is a snake, we can consciously direct our behavior to a place of safety.

The second purpose of feelings is to make us pay attention to emotions. The feeling of fear is not pleasant; it is like an alarm bell going off in our ear except worse. We are conditioned to avoid the feeling of fear because of its unpleasantness. Hence, the feeling of fear motivates us to avoid the environment that stimulates fear.

Finally, feelings extend the reach of emotions by facilitating the planning of novel and customized forms of adaptive response. Lower order animals, lacking a conscious awareness of emotion, can only react with a limited number of pre-programmed behaviors. Generally, these are freezing, fleeing or fighting. Once conscious awareness of emotion develops, the organism can literally choose the response most appropriate to the situation. In highly variable environments, this ability has a much greater adaptive value for survival. As a result, humans have been able to live in many environments where other animals simply could not survive.

Neurotransmitters and Neuromodulators

Brain structures are not the only origin of emotions. In addition, animals exhibiting emotions, including humans, have a neurochemical system that by itself is powerful and when coupled with the brain, becomes extraordinary. Neurochemistry is thus a crucial component of emotional generation, continuation, suppression and extinction. For our purposes, neurochemicals can be divided into neurotransmitters and neuromodulators. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals released at the transmitting end of a neuron, called the axon. The neurotransmitter diffuses through the minute space between neurons, called the synapse, and is picked up at receptor sites on the receiving ends of adjacent neurons, call dendrites. One axon may therefore transmit to many nearby dendrites. The dendrite responds to the receipt of a neurotransmitter by sending an electrical charge through the neuron, which is ultimately expressed in its axon releasing a neurotransmitter. Thus, neuronal activity is both electrical and chemical. (Luria, 1973)

Certain brain stem neurochemicals modify synaptic efficacy. These substances are called neuromodulators, as distinct from neurotransmitters. In other words, neuromodulators affect how fast or slow a dendrite might respond to a neurotransmitter, or whether it will respond at all. Thus, some neurochemicals engage in the raw transmission of information and other neurochemicals modulate where and when effective transmission will occur. (Allman, 1998)

This system appeared early in the evolution to provide the essential neurochemical basis for intentionality. The neuromodulators are responsible for maintaining the global state of the forebrain, which is expressed in behaviors such as waking, the four stages of sleeping, and reactivity which is subjectively experienced in terms of awareness, motivation, mood, affect, disposition, and the state-dependence of reactions to stimuli. A large part of current psychiatric research and clinical practice is devoted to discovering the actions of these chemicals and learning ways to enhance or diminished their actions in mentally disturbed people.

The neuromodulators are grouped by their chemical structures into two main classes: the neuroamines and the neuropeptides. The lists are long and still growing. Some better-known neuromodulators and their associated behavioral contexts are listed as follows:

Acetylcholine Memory
Dopamine Hedonism
Endorphins Pain relief
Histamine Arousal
Melatonin Alarm clock
Norepinephrine Imprinting
Oxytocin Orgasm
Serotonin Relaxation
Vasopressin Aggression

Each interacts in complex patterns with other modulators and transmitters in different contexts. Thus, the above list is rudimentary in that for every neurohormone that creates a behavior, there is at least one that probably inhibits that behavior. Thus, the neurochemistry of behavior is very complicated and still not well understood. Nevertheless, serotonin is better understood and plays an important role in behavior relevant to conflict. The next section considers some of the studies revealing its effects.

The Serotonergic Effect

The bottom structure of the brain is composed of a network of serotonergic neurons in the brain stem. This network was present in the earliest vertebrates and has retained a constant anatomical position throughout evolution. The serotonergic neurons are so named because they secrete from their axon terminals the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin was discovered in 1948 by the biochemist Maurice Rapport and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic. Serotonin caused blood vessels to constrict. Hence the name was derived from a combination of the Latin words for blood, serum, and stretching, tonus. Later studies found that serotonin could have the opposite effect in blood vessels, indicating that serotonin has a complex modulating role. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is abundant in meat and fowl, but is not manufactured in the human body. Tryptophan is obtained by the digestion of proteins and is transported by the blood to the brain where it is converted to serotonin.

If one thinks of the structure of the brain as a house, the serotonergic neurons are located in the basement. Like the basement regulators of water and electricity, this set of neurons is fundamental to the functioning of the house, acting somewhat like the house’s thermostat to maintain a comfortable equilibrium in response to outside variations. The cell bodies of the serotonergic neurons occupy virtually the same location in the basement of every vertebrate and are even in the same spot in the central nervous system of amphioxus, a primitive chordate. Thus, the serotonergic system was essentially in place 500,000,000 years ago. It has been amazingly conserved throughout evolution, yet participates in the most complex aspects of thinking and emotion. The axons of the serotonergic neurons project to every part of the central nervous system, where they influence the activity of virtually every neuron. This widespread influence implies that the serotonergic neurons play a fundamental role in the integration of behavior. Our sense of well being and our capacity to organize and to relate to others depend profoundly on the functional integrity of the serotonergic system. (Allman, 1998)

An animal’s arousal state is closely related to the activity of the serotonergic neurons. Serotonergic neurons fire less frequently as arousal decreases from active waking state, to quiet waking, to slow wave sleep. Serotonergic neurons stop firing all together in rapid-eye-movement sleep, when most muscles in the body become inactive. When the animal increases its motor activity, the firing of the serotonergic neurons often increases just before the activity begins and continues as long as the motor activity is maintained. Thus, the increase in serotonergic neuron activity is apparently driven by the neural commands to move the muscles. Serotonin plays an important role in the maintenance of cortical tone.

Drugs that decrease the amount of serotonin increase exploratory, eating, and sexual behavior as well as fear-induced aggression. Similarly, when the gene that encodes one class of serotonin receptor is inactivated in mice, the mutated mice are grossly obese and prone to dying from seizures. This evidence suggests that serotonin constrains neuronal response and thus stabilizes brain activity. Obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders are related to deficiencies in the serotonergic system and are treated by drugs that increase the strength the serotonergic modulation of neuroactivity.

Serotonin is intimately linked to social status in primates. In experiments changing the level of serotonin in monkeys, monkeys with low levels of serotonin had low social status. When the concentration of serotonin was manipulated, the monkeys’ social standing was influenced. Thus serotonin levels directly affect social status. By contrast, higher status was not related to obvious physical features such as larger body size or canine teeth. During the course of the experiments, which lasted several weeks, social status changes were always preceded by changes in affiliative behavior with females. Male monkeys given drugs that increased serotonin engaged in more frequent grooming interactions with females. Increased grooming behavior was followed by female support in dominance interactions, which increased the male’s social status.

Conversely, male monkeys given drugs that decreased serotonin had less frequent grooming interactions with females, and female support in dominance interactions diminished, resulting in decreased status for the male. The dominant monkeys were more relaxed and confident; the subordinate monkeys were more likely to be irritable and to lash out at other animals. The experimenters also found that the amount of serotonin was positively related to the frequency of pro-social behavior, such as grooming, and negatively related to antisocial behavior, such as fighting. Thus, serotonin seems to stabilize the relationships between the individual and other members of its social group.

Why do not all animals have high levels of serotonin and its receptors and live in the most congenial manner possible? Asked another way, what is the biological role for the higher level of risk-taking in males in some species? In The Descent of Man, Darwin linked male aggression to competition among males for females. This has led to the widely accepted idea that aggressive males become socially dominant. Because of their dominance, males are thought to enjoy greater sexual access to females and therefore greater reproductive success. However, there is evidence to indicate that factors other than dominance may be involved in male risk-taking.

Does aggression lead to social dominance? In the study concerning serotonin levels in monkeys, male status was invariably preceded by changes in affiliative behaviors with females in the social group such as grooming interactions. Increased affiliative behaviors led to increased female support in dominance interactions with other males, which in turn led to rising status. This investigation and others indicate that high status in primate groups is much more dependent on social skills and coalition building than on aggression.

Social competence probably counts for more than aggression in achieving either high status for reproductive success in primates. Why then are the non-caretaking males aggressive and prone to risk-taking? Why would natural selection favor the evolution of behaviors that increased the risk of dying? The answer may be that risk-takers constantly probe their world, seeking out new opportunities and detecting hazards in a constantly changing environment. Through their probing they generate new information that they communicate to close kin, thus enhancing their kin’s survival of and the propagation of their shared genes. The risk-takers may also be crucial to colonizing new habitats during changing environmental conditions.

Low serotonin levels are related to stronger motivational drive and greater sensitivity to rewards and risk in the environment. Animals with high serotonin levels, while more stable, are less sensitive to hazards and opportunities in the environment, which may explain why there is a diversity of serotonin levels in natural monkey populations. The low serotonin monkeys may be the first of their group to find new food sources and may service as sentinels that detect predators. Such behaviors may endanger an individual but enhance the survival of close relatives and the propagation of genes shared with the individual.

The potential adaptive significance of genes for low serotonergic function may explain why mood disorders, which are associated with low serotonin levels, are so prevalent in human populations. Furthermore, serotonergic function helps to explain many behaviors associated with human conflict. For example, people who demonstrate a predominantly cooperative conflict may have genes adapted to higher serotonin levels. Likewise, those people exhibiting a predominantly competitive conflict style may have genes adapted to lower serotonin levels. This does not suggest that people cannot change their conflict styles or conflict behaviors, but that one possible predisposition may be based on neurochemistry.

Finally, neuropsychologists have suggested that impulsive human aggression may be modulated by the seroternergic system. Given the proper environmental circumstances, the lower the functional status of the seroternergic system, the more likely an individual is to respond to threats, frustration, or aversive events with aggression. The lower the functionality of the seroternergic system, the more severe the aggression is likely to be. Serotonin inhibits aggressive behavior. Consequently, if serotonin levels are low, individuals have a difficult time inhibiting their response to perceived verbal or physical assaults. (Coccarro & Kavoussi, 1996)


The neurosciences provide important insights into conflict behaviors. These insights are very different from conventional wisdom and explain why we react to conflict the way we do. Summarized, some of the insights are:

Most of our everyday behavior is automatic. As Bargh and others have discovered, much of our behavior and activity is scripted by learned experiences. These scripted behaviors are created to achieve certain goals. For example, the decision to walk down the street sets in play a goal of walking down the street. The scripts that allow us to walk down the street without conscious attention is automatic. Goals are often unconsciously triggered by environmental cues. Furthermore, triggers may unconsciously put into play scripts that are inappropriate or that would not be chosen consciously.

Emotions occur unconsciously. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions predate the development of what we experience as consciousness and "thinking." Consequently, emotions are an unconscious process occurring outside of conscious awareness. We become aware of emotions, which awareness we call feelings, only after the emotions have begun. Generally, we are aware of emotional reaction about ½ second after the reaction has begun.

Reasoning or intention cannot control emotions. Because emotions are unconscious, they are not under volitional control. The reason for this seems to be that the neural connections from the brain substructures responsible for reaction to the cortex are richer than the connections from the cortex to the substructures. Thus, more information can flow to the cortex and dominate its processes than can flow from the cortex to the lower structures. Consequently, emotions can and do overwhelm the higher cortical processes because of the rich, one-way neural connections between the amygdala and the cortex. This also suggests that once emotions are generated, they are very hard to stop because of the neural feedback loops. As a result, trying to deal with emotion by asking a person to think rationally is futile. Common experience tells us that we cannot be persuaded by reason when we are emotional. Neither can we persuade others dominated by emotion to be rational.

We judge events, people, and memories preconsciously as good or bad. We have no conscious control over this judging process and are not aware that we are even being this judgmental. Based on the initial judgment, we preconsciously decide to approach or defend. Because of the hazards of the primal environment, we are inclined to judge things, people, and events as bad and invoke a defense.

Conflict situations naturally tend to be judged as bad and defense reactions are instigated unconsciously. Only after we have reacted to our preconscious judgment, do we begin to rationalize and "make up stories" about what has happened and why. These after-the-fact justifications are often wrong when we face complex situations or we lack complete information. Because our rationalizations are made up to create order out of chaos, we defend them vigorously. Our causal operator will not give up an interpretation easily. This explains why people in conflict tend to invalidate interpretations that contradict their own. Seeing other perspectives or possibilities threatens the need for order and predictability.

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