Peace and Conflict, Part 3 – Conflict Resolution

Colorful marble on black back

In the last of this series on peace and conflict, we are looking at the question, How can an intractable conflict be resolved or at least transformed into a benign conflict? The attempt here is to use dynamical systems theory or chaos theory to look at the question of intractable conflicts. As mentioned before, an important part of chaos theory is the notion of attractors. Imagine rolling a marble down the schoolyard until it lands in an indentation. The marble will roll around a bit and then finally come to a stop at the lowest point of the indentation. The indentation is an attractor for the marble.

The authors of the article discussed here argue that there are certain processes in long-standing conflicts that act as attractors, which then prolong and deepen the conflict. Because of the almost magnetic gravitational effect of the attractor, external influences tend to have little long-lasting influence. The authors use this example:

Imagine, for instance, one’s reaction to an acquaintance who takes it upon himself or herself to explain to one in detail why one’s pro-choice (or pro-life) position on abortion is erroneous. Odds are, one will likely tune this person out, confront him or her, or move away and avoid him or her in the future.

Attempts to challenge a “belief attractor” like this are typically as unsuccessful as challenging gravity. However, there can be exceptions.

Interrupting the Feedback Loop Through “Reverse Engineering”

Attractors consist of elements such as events, beliefs, information, conversations, habits etc. that reinforce each other, even if they are only loosely related. (“What? Joe has 12 unpaid parking tickets? I KNEW he was a no-good jerk! There’s no way I’ll give him a break now!”). In reverse engineering, one carefully looks at these elements and separates them from each other, thus interrupting the reinforcing feedback loops (feedback, by the way, is also an important element of chaos theory). For example, a mediator can help the conflicting parties set aside less relevant factors (like Joe’s parking tickets that really have nothing to do with his dispute with his neighbor).

Finding Commonalities – Moving to Alternative Attractors

Here, the idea is to move the conflict and its stakeholders to a “latent attractor” that is more benign, maybe even engenders positive thoughts, actions, and relationships. An example is Virginia Satir, one of North America’s most influential family therapists, who suggested to start some therapy sessions with “warring” couples by asking them about their courtship and why they got married in the first place. There are situations where commonalities such as positive common dreams, goals or memories can provide such an alternative attractor (imagine nudging the marble out of the current indentation into an even deeper one).

Such latent attractors almost always exist. Unfortunately, change, including change for the better, is typically unpredictable (“nonlinear”), complex and unfathomable. To keep with our example, there is no GPS for the schoolyard where our marble game takes place, and it’s dark and foggy. All we know is that there are “better” attractors but we don’t know where. However, this also provides hope. Seemingly useless attempts at resolution can suddenly bear fruit. The authors explain

Thus, although peacekeeping missions, conflict resolution initiatives, reconciliation processes, and trust-building activities often appear to be largely ineffective in situations with groups locked in a protracted struggle, they may be acting to establish or bolster a sufficiently wide and deep attractor basin for moral, humane forms of intergroup interactions that provide the foundation for a stable, peaceful future. The gradual and long-term construction of a new attractor may be imperceptible.

The Butterfly Effect

Each human interaction comprises of myriads of elements. While the first suggestion was to separate these elements from one another (perhaps in a “stop and think” fashion), the third suggestion is to make small changes (the Butterfly Effect). These small changes create what is referred to in chaos theory as “bifurcations” – basically decision points at an intersection. In order to keep the conflict going, a certain pattern must be followed. Even a slight alteration in the pattern can make a difference. Of course it is hard to say which alteration will make a crucial difference. Thorough analysis, while often a daunting, painstaking task, can help in determining which small changes are more likely to make a large difference. In Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book about a topic similar to the Butterfly Effect. He describes a number of situations where painstaking attention to dealing with small elements of a problem makes a large-scale difference, for example in an area of New York that has changed from being a dangerous place to live to a relatively peaceful place:

[The police] has a team of officers who go around and break up the groups of young men who congregate on street corners, drinking, getting high, and playing dice-and so remove what was once a frequent source of violent confrontations. He says that he has stepped up random ‘safety checks’ on the streets, looking for drunk drivers or stolen cars. And he says that streamlined internal procedures mean that he can now move against drug-selling sites in a matter of days, where it used to take weeks. ‘It’s aggressive policing,’ he says. ‘It’s a no-nonsense attitude. Persistence is not just a word, it’s a way of life.’

In some ways, all of the above could be referred to as “changing the dance of conflict.” The old adage that it “takes two to Tango” applies world-threatening conflicts as much as to harmless disagreements between friends.


Vallacher, R., Coleman, P., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. American Psychologist, 65 (4), 262-278 DOI: 10.1037/a0019290

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  • Thanks Isabella, I like the notion of attractors. Some of the stuff seems a little despairing – do lots of little things and hope one of them works (though in a complex situation this may be the only thing to do I suppose).

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Isabella Mori

Isabella Mori is a psychotherapist in private practice in Vancouver. She has been working in the field of mental health, counseling, psychotherapy and movement therapy for 18 years.
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