Causes of Interpersonal Conflict: Why Do We Fight?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Anatomy of Peace" by The Arbinger Institute. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What do you think causes interpersonal conflict at a high level? What makes trivial conflicts escalate into full-blown arguments?

We all struggle with conflicts, both on a smaller scale—in our businesses and families—and on a grand scale—politically and intergovernmentally. Of course, the causes of interpersonal conflict are varied and wide-ranging. At a high level, however, many of them can all be boiled down to our inability to recognize and acknowledge that we are part of the problem.

In this article, we’ll discuss what causes conflict, according to a leading consultant in conflict resolution the Arbinger Institute.

The Arbinger Instituite: The Psychology of Conflict

According to the Arbinger Institute—a leading consultant in conflict resolution, mindset change, and leadership training since 1979—interpersonal conflict arises when the parties’ biases prevent them from seeing a situation clearly. In their book The Anatomy of Peace, the authors argue that most of the causes of interpersonal conflict can be attributed to four biases that prevent one from recognizing the fact that they are part of the problem.

  1. The Superiority Bias
  • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re better than they are.
  • We feel impatient, disdainful, or indifferent.
  • Example: When you make a mess and leave it for someone else to clean up, you’re using a Superiority bias. You’re telling yourself that it’s someone else’s job to clean up after you, someone less important or valuable than you think you are.
  1. The Entitlement Bias
  • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we deserve more than they do.
  • We feel entitled, deprived, or resentful.
  • Example: When you yell at service workers for messing up your order, you’re using an Entitlement bias. You’re telling yourself that paying money entitles you to perfect service, and that it justifies your mistreatment of the person who you think messed up.
  1. The Performative Bias
  • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we need to be seen in a certain way. (Wanting others to think we’re smart, kind, cool, a good spouse or employee, and so on)
  • We feel anxious/stressed, needy/fearful, or overwhelmed/overburdened.
  • Example: When you pretend you know what someone’s talking about even though you have no clue, you’re using a Performative bias. You’re telling yourself that it’s more important that they think you’re smart than it is to be honest with them.
  1. The Inferiority Bias
  • We justify seeing others as objects and mistreating them by telling ourselves we’re not good enough to do better.
  • We feel helpless/despairing, bitter/jealous, or depressed/lonely.
  • Example: When you refuse to interact with people you think are out of your league, you’re using an Inferiority bias. You’re telling yourself that you’re not good enough to be around them, and that justifies not putting in the effort it’d take to ensure they enjoy your company.

Bias Behaviors Arise From a Lack of Interpersonal Security

Studies suggest that many of the behaviors and feelings associated with the four biases explored above arise from a lack of interpersonal security. To be secure interpersonally means you feel safe, physically and mentally, when you relate to and interact with others. This sense of safety generally arises from secure relationships with others—from knowing you have someone to turn to in times of stress, and to whom you can return after leaving your comfort zone. Ideally, those relationships aren’t conditional: You’re confident that you’ll be supported when you need it, regardless of the circumstances. When these relational needs are met, they lead to feelings of belonging and self-worth, and the belief that one’s life is meaningful and controllable. We’re more likely to humanize others—to be attentive and forgiving of their needs and circumstances. We feel safe, so we extend that safety to others: In short, we’re more likely to embody the collaborative mindset.

On the other hand, when we’re not secure interpersonally, our interactions with others are often driven by fear, defensiveness, and an inability to be open or genuine. We become neurotic, close-minded, and aggressive—because we can’t turn to others for help, confrontations make us feel alone and cornered. We behave in self-serving, inward-focused ways, betraying our sense of what’s right because we don’t trust others to collaborate with us. And we justify that behavior by dehumanizing others, by choosing to believe that our world is horrible and that we have no choice but to be this way. We end up blind and biased in a twisted world, feeling disdainful and entitled, bitter and stressed, and we lash out to defend ourselves from the threats we’ve convinced ourselves we’re surrounded by. Our lack of safety drives us toward a combative mindset, and as we hurt others to protect ourselves, the effects of those behaviors ripple outwards, diminishing the ability of those around us to feel interpersonally safe. We also continually damage our own relationships, maintaining a cycle of interpersonal insecurity.

The power of the Arbinger method lies in escaping this cycle, which in turn helps us to eschew self-justification. As we’ll discuss in the following parts, keeping in mind the humanity of others and extending them your unconditional respect is key. The cooperative mindset is the core of a secure relationship, and the more of those you build the less you’ll need a bias to protect you.

Causes of Interpersonal Conflict: Why Do We Fight?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Anatomy of Peace summary:

  • How we perpetuate conflict by misunderstanding its cause and acting inappropriately as a result
  • What causes conflict, how we make it worse, and how we invite mistreatment
  • The steps we can take to escape the combative mindset and set aside our biases

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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