The Psychology of Conflict: Biases and Mindsets

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 we know of the psychology of conflict? What do you think causes interpersonal conflict at a high level?

According to the Arbinger Institute—a leading consultant in conflict resolution, mindset change, and leadership training since 1979—conflict arises when the parties’ biases prevent them from seeing a situation clearly. Specifically, being biased blinds one to the fact that they are part of the problem.

In this article, we’ll first take a look at four biases that Arbinger says prevent us from seeing the true causes of conflicts, and then discuss two conflict resolution mindsets.

The Four Biases

First, we’ll take a look at the psychology of conflict in terms of the four biases that prevent us from seeing others as people, and how they affect our emotional experience of being in the world. It’s important to note that the four biases aren’t justifications themselves—they’re the result of constant justification; the twisted perspectives we end up holding when we self-betray often. According to the Institute, to change our approach to conflict, we need to understand how each bias traps us and learn how to escape that.

According to Arbinger, holding a bias prevents you from recognizing that you may be part of the problem. You’ve chosen to see a fake problem instead of the real one, and now you can’t resolve the conflict because you’re blind to its cause. As a result of these biases, we continue mistreating others in ways we’ve justified mistreating them before. (Shortform note: Each of these biases helps you avoid doing work to solve a conflict—whether that work involves communicating, self-examining, standing up for yourself, or helping others. They justify taking an easier way out that doesn’t involve confronting the fact that you’re doing something wrong: In sum, they’re avoidance strategies.)

  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.

Your Mindset Fuels Your Conflicts

The Arbinger Institute suggests that in improving our approach to conflict, the first and most important step is always to change our mindset. Everything about the way our conflicts happen, Arbinger says, rises from our mindset, so it’s important to understand what the authors mean by this term.

Arbinger describes a mindset as running deeper than just the way you think; it’s the way you see yourself, others, and the worldand the conclusions you come to and the behaviors you choose as a result. The authors note especially that the undercurrent of our thoughts, words, and actions has a strong impact on how we come across to others.

You can’t just fake a positive mindset, either; it’s important to actually mean what you say and do. As Arbinger notes, when others can see that your words and actions don’t match the way you think and feel, it doesn’t matter how good your strategy is or how right you are. Until you address the way you’re failing in your mindset toward others, your efforts will fall flat.

(Shortform note: It’s critically important to be genuine due to the harm disingenuous behavior can do. In the long run, disingenuous behavior damages trust in relationships. Most people have a sense for when another person is being insincere, and it leads to feelings of being manipulated, lied to, and used.)

The Two Mindsets

The authors describe two primary mindsets. One perpetuates conflict and one eases it:

1) The Combative Mindset:

  • The combative mindset sees others as obstacles in the way of our needs, hopes, and goals—in other words, as objects, rather than people.
  • When we embody this mindset, we view others according to how they affect us. We focus on how they get in our way, how they make us look and feel, and how they create problems and work for us to deal with. 
  • We judge quickly, and we hold grudges. We interpret people’s words and deeds as malicious acts grounded in sinister intent, and we see ourselves as maligned, mistreated heroes struggling in a cruel world. 
  • We push others away, so we don’t get the chance to productively discuss our needs.

(Shortform note: If you often feel angry, resentful, and self-righteous, consider what those feelings are doing for you, and why you cling to them. It can feel good to be angry. When others wrong us unjustly, it’s easy to indulge in feelings of self-righteousness, of, “how dare they,” and, “I’m so much better than that!” Those emotions provide an escape, a rationale, and a justification for avoiding the hard work of empathizing, communicating, and challenging yourself to improve. If you decide that the conflict is someone else’s fault and you’re not the one who needs to apologize, the conflict can continue forever and you’ll never feel obligated to participate in resolving it.)

2) The Cooperative Mindset:

  • The cooperative mindset sees others as peoplewith needs, struggles, pains, hopes, and goals as important as our own.
  • When we embody this mindset, we see the person behind the other’s words and actions. Instead of judging what we see on the surface, we remain open to learning from and about them, gaining access to understanding and insight. 
  • We put ourselves in other people’s shoes and use what we learn to respond to what they need, taking their circumstances and feelings into account. 
  • Seeing others as peopleand treating them as suchdeepens our relationships and allows us to be genuine with each other. 
  • We invite communication, Arbinger says, by showing that we’re open to it.

(Shortform note: Responding to others with empathy provides two powerful benefits: For ourselves, being able to see that the cruelty, anger, and aggression others show us comes from a place of misdirected pain humanizes them in our eyes. It shows us that we don’t have to survive a world filled with evil monsters—just people, like us, who don’t manage to be as perfect as we’d all like to be. The other great benefit of showing empathetic compassion is that when you allow a person to be heard—really heard, without judgment or criticism—they find themselves willing to hear others, as well. All it takes to begin resolving a conflict is for one of us to listen openly. Arbinger asks us to be the one who listens first.)

Arbinger points out that the cooperative mindset is a much more useful mindset in approaching conflict of all kinds and is thus the mindset that you should shift to. Taking into account the needs of others lets you treat them better and find resolutions that are more satisfying to all parties—for example:

  • In the case of a defendant arrested for stealing bread, a judge with a combative mindset prescribes the maximum sentence. He sees the defendant as a criminal, and the applicable law as a universally appropriate punishment.
  • A judge with a cooperative mindset sees the personhood of the defendant, and is curious about the circumstances behind the theft. She might discover that the defendant’s family is starving, and that the circumstances validate the crime. Because she’s open to seeing that, she might better serve a struggling community than a judge whose mindset is combative toward criminals.

Maintaining a cooperative mindset doesn’t mean avoiding conflict entirely, Arbinger says; instead, the cooperative mindset seeks a method of resolving conflict that’s respectful of the humanity of all participants.

Mindset Adjustment and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Mindset adjustment like that advocated by the Institute above is a common vehicle used by therapists and psychiatrists to aid in the personal and social growth of their clients. In each case, the goal of the adjustment is to mitigate or eliminate the negative effects of a person’s current perspective. This method of shifting mindset is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. David D. Burns, M.D., author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy—a seminal work in the field of CBT—explains that we feel the way we think. For various reasons, Burns says, we develop habitual ways of thinking—mindsets—that determine what things mean to us. Our brain must process the inputs it receives and filter these through our mindset before we can feel any kind of way about an event, and if our thinking is negative, our feelings will be, too.

Further, strong negative feelings are often caused by ways of thinking called cognitive distortions. These distortions, according to Burns, can take many forms, but they usually lead us to believe firm statements or claims that aren’t entirely true. Here are a few examples of cognitive distortions we may make in a conflict:

Overgeneralizing: Your boss says she’s unsatisfied with your performance on your latest project, and you take this to mean she’ll never be satisfied with anything you do.

Personalizing: Your partner didn’t do the dishes, and you think, “he’s a lazy bum!”

Jumping to conclusions: You make eye contact with your coworker, and he quickly turns away. You take this to mean that he’s furious about your earlier disagreement.

Fortune telling: You have an argument with your wife, and she storms out. You think, “we’ll never be able to fix this,” and feel certain you’re headed for divorce. These distortions, Burns says, negatively affect our feelings, thinking, and behavior moving forward, but in each case, we’re feeling and acting based on an inaccurate assumption. Instead of accepting the distorted thoughts, Burns tells us to examine them; to find the inaccuracies and correct them. This shifts us toward a more positive mindset. In making the shift, we free ourselves to see the world as it really is and broaden our options.

To look at Arbinger’s ideas through a CBT lens, the Institute teaches us to shift our mindset and see others as whole people because doing so helps us avoid a host of cognitive distortions that make managing conflict more difficult. A people-focused mindset makes it feel less reasonable to respond to interpersonal conflicts with violence, criticism, and judgment—responses that fuel hostility and prevent cooperation. According to Arbinger, cognitive distortions help us justify choosing to act against our internal desire or conscience. For instance, personalizing and seeing your partner as a lazy bum helps you justify shouting at him, slacking on your own chores, or giving up on trying to resolve the conflict at all.
The Psychology of Conflict: Biases and Mindsets

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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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