Conflict resolution: Wars without end

Dan Jones in Nature:

War1It was 2000, recalls Coleman, head of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in New York City. He had broken his foot and decided to spend his convalescence at home delving into the research literature on intractable conflict. But what he found left him deeply frustrated. “People had their simple, sovereign theories about why conflicts become intractable,” he says. “It's because of trauma, or social identity or a history of humiliation. We understood pieces of the problem, but not how they interact.” Coleman discovered an alternative approach just a few years later, when he came across the work of social psychologists Robin Vallacher and Andrzej Nowak, both now at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Their work was not directly related to conflict — they were studying things such as how the human sense of self emerges, and how feelings about others can switch from positive to negative. But Coleman was impressed with Vallacher and Nowak's use of a mathematical tool known as dynamical systems theory to analyse their results.

Made famous by James Gleick's 1987 book Chaos, this theory provides a framework for understanding a remarkably broad range of complex systems, from weather patterns to neural activity in the brain. One way to visualize the mathematics is to imagine a landscape of hills and valleys. The behaviour of the complex system corresponds to the path of a ball rolling across this landscape. The trajectory becomes very complicated as the ball is deflected by the hills. But eventually, the ball will get trapped in one of the valleys, where it will either cycle endlessly around the walls or sink to the middle and lie still. The ball's final trajectory or resting place is called an attractor. To Coleman, this kind of entrapment was the perfect metaphor for the stable, if destructive, patterns of social behaviour seen in intractable conflicts. The landscapes in this case are mainly psychological and social, comprising innumerable strata of history, identity and collective memories of harms suffered at the hands of the 'other'. Yet the resulting conflict attractors are terribly real, he says, with psychological forces conspiring to “create simplistic narratives about conflicts that are devoid of nuance and keep us locked in”.

Picture: The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been ongoing for 68 years.

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