When Conflict Becomes an Identity

“Wars may not start because they provide meaning, but they may well be hard to end because they provide meaning.” 1

When it comes to conflict between groups, psychological factors such as threat, intergroup emotions, and morality are often implicated. This perspective paints conflict as a means to an end, as two groups struggle to overcome obstacles to their goals. However, there are times conflict seems to drag on even when losses trump hoped-for gains. An alternative perspective may shed some light on this phenomenon: what if conflict itself served a human need? Recently, researchers have postulated that intergroup conflict can provide a sense of meaning to those involved, thus motivating the perpetuation of conflicts once intended to be resolved.

Empirical evidence demonstrates that a heightened awareness of intergroup conflict strengthens the sense of meaning people derive from the conflict. This shift increases endorsement of beliefs and behaviors that tend to perpetuate conflict. A constellation of factors give rise to this sense of meaning; among them are perceived unity, personal growth, and the sense of being part of something important. While this mechanism has short-term benefits, the negative consequences for effective conflict resolution are evident. If conflict is perpetuated by internal factors such as a sense of meaning that persist in the absence of external threats, it may be insufficient to create supportive conditions for resolving conflict. These findings add complexity to the set of factors that must be considered in the face of intergroup conflict; groups may be motivated both to end and to sustain ongoing conflicts.

An interesting implication of this research is that careful shaping of group meaning-making about intergroup conflict could provide a strong leverage point for reducing the motivation towards conflict. This could include drawing on sources other than the conflict to scaffold group identity and provide meaning and purpose, as well as redirecting the sense of meaning towards constructive goals like resolving the conflict. An awareness of the meaning groups attach to conflicts they are involved in may be an important source of information for informing interventions in intergroup conflict.

Rovenpor, D. R., Obrien, T. C., Roblain, A., Guissmé, L. D., Chekroun, P., & Leidner, B. (2019). Intergroup conflict self-perpetuates via meaning: Exposure to intergroup conflict increases meaning and fuels a desire for further conflict. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,116(1), 119-140. doi:10.1037/pspp0000169

Originally published at https://icccr.tc.columbia.edu/when-conflict-becomes-an-identity/