Studying Conflict

Conflict is a social phenomenon that occurs across species, time periods, and cultures. (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008, p. 3)

Studying conflict is “a multidisciplinary and multilevel scholarly enterprise” (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008, p. 3). Different terms are used to refer to the field of studying conflict, including peace and conflict studies, conflict resolution studies, as well as conflict analysis and resolution studies (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008, p. 3; Neu & Kriesberg, 2019). Many scholars, practitioners and organisations also use the term conflict management to distinguish the process of managing conflict from that of resolving conflict (see for example Condliffe, 2016). For reasons of conciseness and consistency, we will mainly use the term conflict management throughout this eBook, which is meant to include confict analysis, resolution, management and other approaches to dealing with conflict. Please be aware that the various readings referred to in this eBook may use different terminology (e.g., the study of peace and conflict studies).

While there are designated conflict scholars and/or practitioners, many ideas that inform conflict management have been (and are being) provided by people from outside the field (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008). People engaged in conflict management come from a range of disciplines and fields, especially those that form part of the social sciences like psychology, sociology, history, geography, communication studies, political science, international relations, organisational behaviour, and anthropology (De Dreu & Gelfand, 2008; Neu & Kriesberg, 2019). Some contributions to understanding conflict and conflict management have been made from people working in the formal sciences like mathematics and physics, as well as in biology and neuroscience. Since conflict studies are informed by such diverse fields and disciplines, we can increase our understanding of the formation, escalation, management, and resolution of conflict by looking at some of them in more detail.

Linking the Study of Conflict and Psychology

The field of psychology is particularly relevant for the study of conflict management. For example, the American Psychological Association has a division that is dedicated to applying psychology knowledge to conflict situations, called “The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology”. In fact, peace psychology is a distinct field of study with an International Centre for Peace Psychology, and the journal Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology.

As another example, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) recognises on its website some of the contributions that psychologists can make to understanding and managing conflict, including that “psychology can offer important insights about psychological factors that underpin social conflict and the most effective ways to bring people together to maximise positive relationships and productive outcomes” (APS, 2023). These ways include “approaches to resolving conflicts, and forms of governance that prioritise co-operation over coercion” (APS, 2023). Some conflict scholars, including Pruitt and Kim (2004) and Bar-Tal (2013), focus on social psychology, one of the sub-disciplines or branches of psychology that we look at in more detail in this eBook to explain why and how conflict occurs and why some conflicts are particularly resistant to resolution. Social psychology has been used, for example, to explain how social cohesion can best be strengthened to prevent social division and conflict.

The previously mentioned APS also considers violence as a specific topic that has relevance to conflict management, including by helping explain why violence occurs, what effect it has on people who suffer violence and how violence may be prevented. More information about social issues that relate to conflict and that are considered by psychology research and advocacy is available from the APS website.

Introducing Psychology

Now that we have established the relevance of psychology for conflict management, we will briefly look at what the field of psychology covers overall before we dive deeper into the branches of psychology covered in this eBook.

Different textbooks provide different definitions of the term psychology, but many seem to agree that it focuses on the study of mental processes and behaviour (and their relationship) (see for example Zimbardo, Johnson, & McCann, 2009, p. 4).

To learn about the history and focus of psychology overall, please watch the following video clip [10:54]:

If you would like to learn more about the range of branches of psychology, including, but not limited to those that are being considered in this eBook, the following reading is suggested:

Contemporary Psychology in Mullin, G. (n.d). Introduction to Psychology.

Linking the Study of Conflict and Neuroscience

Besides psychology, the field of conflict management is increasingly looking to neuroscience to gain a better understanding of why conflict occurs and how it may best be managed/resolved. As discussed in contemporary conflict literature, the field of conflict studies has recognised that people’s brains and bodies are significantly involved in the facilitation of societal conflict (Bruneau, 2015; Burgess, 2022; Fitzduff, 2021; Influs et al., 2019). For example, Fitzduff (2021) notes in her book Our Brains at War that “new genetics, brain, and hormonal sciences are providing very strong evidence that many of our personality traits, including how we relate to other groups, have at least some basis in the biology of the brain” (p. 14). By explaining and demonstrating this basis through “new and more sophisticated and nuanced insights into the way that people actually think”, neuroscience makes a critically important contribution to the field of conflict management (Burgess, 2022).

As another example, Bruneau (2015), in her book chapter “Putting Neuroscience to Work for Peace”, highlights the value of neuroscience that lies in “looking “under the hood” directly at neural activity” to turn psychology-based conflict theories into “mechanistic understanding” and to “proceed from describing and demonstrating … psychological barriers to effectively dismantling them” (p. 143).  Similarly, Fitzduff (2021) notes that neuroscience has “helped to sharpen the field of traditional social psychology and in some cases validate many of its findings through biological processes that can be objectively measured” (p. 13). Both scholars mention the value that lies in the methods used in neuroscience, such as neuroimaging technologies (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)), to help explain the occurrence and management/ resolution of social conflict. Bruneau, for example, discusses in her chapter how fMRI can “(1) help characterize intergroup biases, (2) expand our theoretical understanding of the psychological processes driving intergroup conflict, and (3) aid practical evaluations of conflict resolution efforts” (p. 144). You will be referred to both Fitzduff’s and Bruneau’s publications towards the end of Chapter 1.

As an easy-to-digest introduction to the topic, read the following article by Guy Burgess, who provides some interesting ideas about how conflict analysts and practitioners may use findings from neuroscience for their work:

Burgess, G. (2022, February 3, 2022). Reflections on neuroscience, conflict, and peacebuilding. Beyond Intractability.

Linking Neuroscience and Psychology

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and an interdisciplinary field that integrates biology, chemistry, psychology, and more. In this ebook, we are particuarly interested in the intersections between neuroscience and psychology. It may help to think of neuroscience as dealing with the ‘physical’ (brain) and psychology dealing with the ‘abstract’ (mind). The functioning of our brain, hormones and neurotransmitters significantly affects our behaviours, cognitions, and social experiences, which is why the links between neuroscience and different areas of psychology are increasingly being recognised, studied, and taught. Lempert and Phelps (2016) note that “the bridge between neuroscience and psychology has been critical to the advancement of psychological theory” (p. 99). Furthermore, the intersections between neuroscience and various branches of psychology have resulted in the creation of new interdisciplinary fields. These new fields include, for example, “neuropolitics, neurobiology, neu­ropsychology, genopolitics, political physiology, behavioural genetics, and cognitive neuroscience, all of which are investigating the interplay between the brain, society, and politics” (Fitzduff, 2021).

We will now have a quick look at social neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience since they are particularly relevant for this eBook. Understanding how these interdisciplinary fields relate to each other and to conflict management will help you make sense of relevant literature. For example, in Chapter 2, you will learn more about cognition and be referred to readings that consider cognitive neuroscience for conflict management.

Social neuroscientists study the brain and body to explore how an individual thinks and feels about and behaves towards other people (Ito & Kubota, 2022). In this way, social neuroscience looks at the same topics as social psychology but with the additional dimension of neuroscience.

The following image illustrates the intersection of social psychology and neuroscience.


Simple Venn diagram showing the intersection of social psychology and neuroscience. Overlapping are three things- neuroscience, social neuroscience and social psychology.
Figure.Social Neuroscience by Tiffany A. Ito and Jennifer T. Kubota used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence


To find out more about social neuroscience, you may wish to read the following text:

Ito, T. A. & Kubota, J. T. (2022). Social neuroscience. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. DEF Publishers.

Cognitive neuroscience, on the other hand, refers to the study of the physiological basis for cognition (Goldstein, 2019). In this way, cognitive neuroscience looks at the same topics as cognitive psychology, including cognitive processes like memory and learning, with a specific focus on the role of the brain and body in these processes.

Reflective Questions

  • After engaging with the above content (reading the text and watching the videos) what interests you most regarding the study of the mind (psychology) and the brain (neuroscience) in the context of conflict and conflict management?
  • Which branches of psychology or topic areas do you find most relevant for conflict management?
  • After reading the blog by Guy Burgess, what were the most interesting take-home ideas as to how knowledge from neuroscience may help analyse/ understand and manage/resolve conflict?


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Neuroscience, Psychology and Conflict Management Copyright © 2024 by Judith Rafferty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.