11 min read
02 May

So if knowledge is to be of help in eliminating wars, it must be knowledge of ourselves.

Anatol Rappoport  


We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, with our most important decisions in our conflicts, business, trust, relationships, financial and economic matters all being grounded in careful and wise thought. We have our emotions under firm control, and they play a very small part in who we are and the important decisions in our lives. Our conflicts, in particular, are all based on a reasoned consideration of the facts, and our decisions and responses are generally examples of wise and reasoned thought processes. Or so we tell ourselves. 

Simply put, our brains do not always make a clear distinction between emotion and rational thought, and our neural circuitry for emotion and cognition is, practically speaking, intertwined.     The multi-disciplinary field of study (social and psychological biosciences, cognitive neuroscience and several others) that can generally be loosely grouped together as neuroscience is producing fascinating insights in how we think, and how we process our thoughts in conflicts. As we will see, our rational thought processes play far less a role in our conflicts, and in a different way, than what we may be used to accepting, and what we may be comfortable with. This has far-reaching implications for the academic and practical field of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and how we approach our conflicts. 


To fully grasp these new insights and their implications, we need to understand a few of the basic terms and concepts used in these fields. We need to understand, at the outset, that people and groups are different in how they receive, evaluate and process information, how they react to that assessment, the level of control and understanding they may have over those processes and decisions, their suspicions, fears and values, that these differences are influenced very much by biological, social and cultural dynamics, and that in itself these differences can be observed as value neutral, without being good or bad in itself. 

These dispositions and abilities are, as we are finding out in great detail and depth thanks to new technology such as fMRI, EEG and EDA, importantly influenced by two main areas in the brain (as it relates to conflict), that being the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the part of our brain that deals with our senses, memories and emotions, while the prefrontal cortex is concerned with our rational, conscious processes. These two areas of the brain are intricately connected and they necessarily influence each other to different degrees. Depending on the dynamics of a situation one of these two areas will normally play a dominant role in our conflicts. The amygdala will, for example, play a far more active role when we are attacked by a lion in the wild and the prefrontal cortex will (hopefully) play a larger role when we are confronted by conflict in the boardroom. We are increasingly better at understanding the conflict triggers, causes and solutions arising from the influence of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, hormones and genetics, emotions and fears in our various conflicts and related decisions. This knowledge is forming an important part in cutting edge conflict resolution understanding, techniques and best practices. 


This developing knowledge is easily and beneficially applied in a wide field of important modern disciplines such as conflict, politics and even economics. We understand that the so-called blank-slate hypothesis (where our minds are initially blank slates to be filled in by ourselves) has been totally discarded, we understand increasingly the pressures and benefits of group belonging and how difficult this is to counter, we understand better how futile and even counter-productive it can be to argue using only objective facts in a value driven or identity based conflict, and modern conflict studies have realised that we need to work with people as they are, not as we want them to be. 

We have come to realize that evolutionary traits that may have served our distant ancestors well in their battle for survival (such as aggression, suspicious natures, in-group protectiveness) now are ill-suited to modern living and the need to live together in peace in a multi-cultural society. Work done by Jonathan Haidt and others have shown how we tend to make important decisions largely influenced by our emotions first, and then seek more rational reasons to shore up and justify such decisions, all the while being comfortable that our decision is indeed a rational one. Or, to put in the terms of the concepts briefly looked at above, we make a decision using the amygdala part of our brain and then use the prefrontal cortex to justify that earlier decision. This is a part of the well-known “fast versus slow thinking” used by Daniel Kahneman. 

These studies are helping us to easier understand, predict and work with the popular distinction between conservative and liberal people, the triggering and spread of individual emotions to groups, how generational and cyclical conflict is affected by our individual and group emotions, and it brings us to a better understanding of, to use Tim Hick’s beautiful term, how our embodied conflicts work and play out.   


Studying the important role that our individual and group biological characteristics, genes, hormones, evolutionary mechanisms and other factors play in our conflicts can be a humbling exercise. It tends to at least diminish our strict understanding of human beings always being in command of their emotions, capable of being able, and morally obliged to, make the correct decision in such conflicts. 

A few examples of such neuro-biological influences, which at the very least interfere with our perceived free will and rational approaches, may illustrate this point. 

  • These studies show that some of us actually revel in conflict, in creating and spreading fear. How do we manage, neutralize or incorporate these individuals and groups in peacebuilding?  
  • Some conflicts, especially those modern ones involving social media platforms, actually bypass our rational thought processes, using the more instinctive (and seemingly rewarding) emotive brain processes.
  • Our evolutionary need for bonding, comfort, safety and acceptance still exist, and often overrides our willingness, or even ability, to accept seemingly rational facts and evidence (with the recent American elections and the Covid information wars striking examples).
  • We can see from this research that we have evolved to co-operate, but generally only with and for the benefit of our group (however defined). The evolutionary benefits of the brain creating an “us”, a tribe that protects, that gives a sense of belonging and meaning also, in modern societies, creates a “them” that we live with, an “outsider”.   
  • Social identity theory, using well-known examples of study methods such as the Stanford Prison experiment and the robber’s cave experiment, show us that the most normal human beings can be turned into cruel and violent people in certain circumstances, which in a modern context becomes a chilling observation when we realize that this can be transferred to groups.
  • While all of us are inclined to react to differences in others, some of us are more inclined to react negatively due to different reactivity levels influenced by serotonin levels and other biological influences.
  • This research shows that we do not understand others primarily through thinking, but through feeling emotions through neurological mechanisms known as mirror neurons. And these differ from person to person.
  • There are valid neuro-biological reasons for many conservative and liberal viewpoints.
  • fMRI studies at MIT show that a group’s perspective on an opponent’s status will have a big influence on peacebuilding dialogue.
  • The hormone oxytocin (levels of which can be manipulated) play a big role in levels of fear and anxiety, trusting others, generosity, out-group rejections and compassion. The activities of the mirror neurons referred to above and oxytocin levels can influence dehumanization emotions and decisions.
  • Perceptions of unfairness, in processes, structures, collective memories and outcomes, can actually be experienced as a form of pain, with the same parts of our brains involved in registering physical pain being used.
  • We choose our leaders on largely emotional reasons. Physical factors such as size, tone of voice, energy levels, non-verbal cues and perceived competency still play an over-riding role in our decisions.
  • Our own bio-tendencies heavily dispose us towards accepting what the “truth” is. This heavily influences, and even predicts, the traditional divisions of conservative and liberal tendencies, decisions and political conflicts, each side defending their lived “truths”.
  • Beliefs, once adopted, are very difficult to change, despite rational challenges to such beliefs. Here, as we have so many examples of, the realities of group belonging, a sense of purpose and safety often outweigh seemingly rational arguments and evidence. 
  • We construct, and selectively choose, facts and belief structures that fit in best with our perceptions of ourselves, that are in our best interest and then rationalize such processes.
  • Arguing only with facts against positions held in identity and value based conflicts are actually counterproductive, as it simply leads to an entrenching of previously held positions and further polarization.
  • We hate uncertainty, and most people will choose a simple answer with immediate benefits and perceived certainty as opposed to a more nuanced view. Politicians know this. This need for certainty also tricks us into searching for (and settling for) easier, simpler solutions than what may be necessary, and this can tie us into cyclical conflict, a process Dr. Mark Szabo calls the Coherence Trap.
  • Studies show how our neuro-biological makeup can justify prejudice and unfairness if we benefit by it.
  • We still fear, and react to, perceptions of in-group betrayal and dissension. This differs between cultures, and often override clear evidence. We are directly or indirectly influenced by our in-group to say and do “the right thing”, and we police ourselves to do so. In time our minds accept, and defend this position, as “the truth”.
  • Our neurological makeup, together with lived experiences, predispose us to low or high self-esteem, perceptions of locus of control and self-efficacy, which in turn, on the low end of those factors, make us vulnerable to leadership abuses. Cultural differences may make such abuses seem acceptable, leading to cyclical conflicts over generations.
  • Studies worldwide show that we still mostly have transactional leaders, where we desperately need transformational leaders, and that this is caused by our tendencies to react emotionally and to be extremely vulnerable to manipulation.
  • Our bio-tendencies play a role in the cultural acceptability (or not) of preferences for an individual or community based focus in society, which is very much misunderstood (if taken into consideration at all), which leads to further intractable community conflict.


It is in the ubiquitous reality of social media platforms that we see the most disturbing new neuroscientific evidence of how our bio-tendencies are manipulated, how ill-equipped we are to deal with these manipulations and how this process influences our modern conflicts and wars. It is generally clear from studies that our rational minds cannot effectively and consistently keep up with the pace and volume of information as it is thrown at us on social media, with manipulated and fake news, bot campaigns and sophisticated disinformation campaigns simply outstripping the average person’s ability to distinguish between truth and lies. 

Once we accept this we start using filters and heuristics that we believe aid us in dealing with this information. Our neurological traits and limitations can cause distortions or facts and evidence in this process. A consistent series of studies show how those likes, follows and in-group membership that we find on social media have exactly the same effect, and involve the same areas of the brain, as we find in drug and alcohol use, the highs we get from successful gambling and even watching sporting events. These platforms have changed how we view each other, how we relate to each other, and they have weaponized the most banal to the most important conflicts, giving everyone with access to a smartphone unprecedented reach and power. 

Social media is purposefully designed to give us our dopamine hits as reward for certain behaviour, and it is involved in three of the four dopamine reward pathways that are involved in most instances of addiction. MRI scans indicate that social networking addiction is remarkably similar to other substance addictions. Most of the social and neural processes that we looked at earlier are magnified and manipulated by social media. Algorithms and social pressures create our silos, we speak to like-minded individuals and groups, our group status and belonging is enforced and re-enforced, we get rewarded for specific behaviour and we are controlled to not act against the interests of the in-group. Social media platforms exaggerate our evolved tendencies to react to threats and possible out-group danger, and often trigger our most reactive, but least reflective parts of our minds. 

Angry, fearful posts trigger biochemical responses that are contagious, and more likely to cause reposting and comments than more calm and reasoned posts would generate.  These communication patterns, including the new ways of conducting conflict, can easily create a herd mentality, where we (wittingly or otherwise) give up partial control over our decisions and conduct. In-group dynamics now start playing an even more pronounced role in how we select, assess, process and act on the truth in our interactions and conflicts. We can participate in the act of othering, and creating and even punishing out-groups or in-group “betrayers”, with numbers of people supporting these decisions, and even rewarding it. Lines, boundaries and norms blur and are rewritten, truth and morals become relative and negotiable, or so we come to believe. 

This technology is used to not just influence our reality, but to actually create it, as we can so graphically see in the US elections, the Covid pandemic, the Ukrainian war, our state capture disputes and so on.             


The research and modern case studies show how we are influenced by our own biological realities, how hormones, genetics, evolutionary traits and our own brain structures all play huge, often unacknowledged roles in our decisions and our assessments, and how that shapes our realities, our conflicts. It is easy then to approach our conflict decision making and peacebuilding efforts in despair or from a fatalistic perspective, thinking that we have minimal control over these processes and results. 

This is the wrong approach, and modern societies will need us to quickly adapt to a better understanding of our control over these conflicts. While this new research upends much of our earlier conflict resolution strategies and techniques, it also brings us a wealth of new and effective solutions. The accurate measuring of certain key parameters now possible due to technology brings about new and welcome levels of understanding, prognosis and resolution that were not possible until recently. Understanding the limits of our rational thought processes, how we are manipulated and how that can be reduced or neutralised have become crucial conflict skills in the modern world, and should be seen as new horizons in our social interactions. This knowledge is showing us how we in the past failed to properly resolve conflicts, and how some of the conflict systems and plans that we have put in place actually contributed to ongoing conflict (our TRC process being an example). 

To illustrate how this knowledge can be applied in our everyday professional and personal conflicts, let’s look at a few practical examples. 


This research is bringing about vast changes to the way that we have traditionally viewed conflict and its resolution. If we remember that we are predisposed to certain actions and conduct, not predestined to it, then we remind ourselves that we remain largely in control of our conflicts, and that we can apply these new and developing fields of knowledge to our personal and professional benefit, to the benefit of our communities, country and this war-ravaged earth of ours. 

We can immediately start applying the following conflict practices in our own lives. 

Be careful with those “facts only” arguments 

As we have seen, identity and value based conflicts run on different tracks than merely fact based arguments, and cornering our opponent with a barrage of facts may very well be counter-productive and cause further polarization (see our article on the nine-step technique that can be applied in these instances). We see this in stark detail in the Covid wars, where presumably clear scientific facts simply fail to convince large groups of people, mainly because the wrong conflict persuasion tools were used. 

Remind yourself that anger, aggression and bad manners often stem from fear 

This does not excuse such conduct, but it does make it less personal. 

Be careful to base your conflict strategies solely on rationality 

As we have seen, these are not the only, in fact not even the main, concerns for most people. In convincing people in conflicts you need to speak to their hearts, their emotions as much as (or even more than) their rational minds. Remember the reaction to the perception of unfairness. 

Group thinking, tribal behaviour and us/them motivation is inherent in all of us 

Again, use this knowledge to resolve your conflicts in lasting ways. Do not be surprised or offended by such thought processes. Anticipate them. 

Accept that people actually believe what they are saying – as irrational as this may appear to you 

Stop attributing malice or ignorance to some of these statements, as unfounded as they may appear to you. These other values and “truths” may simply have been arrived at by way of one or more of the abovementioned processes or influences, and may therefore appear to be perfectly reasonable to the other person. This does not mean that you have to accept such positions, only that in understanding them you are in a better strategic position to deal with it. This is of particular importance when we start arguing about personal, moral matters, and where our perceptions of unreasonable conduct may lead to permanent alienation and vilification of the “other”. Be particularly alert when you are being manipulated to do so on social media. 

Remind yourself often that you are also susceptible to manipulation and bias 

Your truth may look just as strange and unreasonable to “them” as theirs do to you. 

Show how a reality lived with “others” and diversity can and does work 

Research shows how contact with “others” in an efficient, friendly and safe environment can break down most of these evolutionary walls and fears, especially over time. 

In building systems (at work, communities) that must deal with these conflicts, build fair and efficient systems 

There is no point, current research shows us, to tell people how to behave in their conflicts if their lived systems and environment remain unfair and unequal. Build this into your solutions. Create new groups for people to be a part of. Be sensitive and realistic about cultural differences – these are not items of politeness, but actual processes how people assess and integrate their facts and realities. 

Traditional dispute resolution mechanisms will need upgrading 

Work done by Tim Hicks and others show how important conflict resolution tools like mediation will have to be brought in line with these studies, so as to better understand and make use of people’s default neural dynamics. It is important to understand how people assess and process information during conflicts if we are to maximally help them. Work done by Roger Mac Ginty shows how neuroscience is contributing to the field of conflict analysis as a method of peacemaking, and the benefits that we can derive from this progress.     

Be alert, and work with, the power dynamic of political and community leaders, and how they are influenced and in turn influence their followers 

Leaders are often less convinced than persuaded in their own interests. Learn about and apply these conflict dynamics in working with such groups. 

Support and build trust in local and national peacebuilding persons and institutions 

Communities need to have some level of trust in deserving and capable individuals or groups during conflict resolution processes before they will co-operate and follow them. Where possible and appropriate, build, foster and encourage such trust. 

Actively involve more women in peacebuilding processes and structures 

This is not a politically correct piece of wokery, but a simple fact established by the current research under discussion. Women often have measurable differences in their neurological abilities and processes, and show an increased and skilful use of compassion, an attribute often missing in conflict resolution. International research also shows that without the participation of women, peace agreements are 64% more likely to fail. 

Educate yourself and others about social media and how manipulation on such platforms work Important work is being done in this crucial conflict field. Stay ahead, stay learning about these developments. 

Actively set out to constructively and deal with the past 

The observed fact that people view history through different lenses does not detract from the fact that a common history that shares some aspects of that reality is very beneficial to groups in conflict. Before such a partially shared history can be arrived at, conflict resolution is unnecessarily more complex. Our neurological processes can struggle to deal with conflict in the present when there are real or perceived past injustices with current consequences. South Africa is in the process of addressing this. 

Be very clear, in word and deed, that both individual and social change is possible 

In our conflict work, however minimal it may be, we need to show those small victories, we need to understand and inspire people that even if we get better at conflict one conversation, one street at a time, it is possible, and it is necessary. Neuroscience is showing us, in at times a disturbing fashion, how our thought and decision making processes work during conflicts, how vulnerable we are to manipulation and distortion, and how we can use this new knowledge to meet our new and old conflict challenges.

 (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

Andre Vlok 

MAY 2022

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