Anger and Retaliation in Conflict
By Keith G. Allred
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Allred, Keith G. "Anger and Retaliation in Conflict" in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000, pp. 236-255.
Whether a conflict occurs or not often depends upon what reasons or motives one person attributes to another, that is, on how they explain the other's action. Allred summarizes scholarly views on attribution, and explores their implications for conflict and conflict management.
Social psychologists have researched the process of attribution from two perspectives. First, they have examined how people make attributions. Generally, actions are attributed either to the actor's internal disposition, or to the actor's external circumstances. Observers decide first whether the action was intentional or not. Intentional actions that have a strong effect (negative or positive) on the observer are usually attributed to the actor's disposition. Less significant actions may be attributed to circumstances. Allred also describes some of the biases that affect this basic logic of attribution. The fundamental attribution error is that we tend over-attribute other people's behavior to dispositions. However, actor-observer bias leads us to attribute our own behavior to circumstance. Intergroup attributional bias leads us to attribute out-group members' actions to their disposition, although this may be more pronounced in conflicting groups.
The second line of research focuses on how people respond in light of their attributions. Peoples' emotional responses to an action vary according to whether they attribute an internal or external cause for the action, how much control they attribute to the actor over the cause, and how stable or changeable that cause seems to be. Observers respond with sympathy when the cause of negative behavior is beyond the actor's control. Observers respond with anger when the cause of negative behavior is within the actor's control. Anger prompts a punishing or retaliatory response. Research has discovered an accuser bias, where a negatively affected observer is more likely to attribute control to the actor. Conversely, the bias of the accused is to attribute their own harmful action to causes beyond their control.
Allred discusses implications of attribution theory for our understanding of conflict. Angry, retaliatory negotiators are less likely to reach mutually beneficial outcomes, because they have less regard for the other party's interests. Angry conflicts often rest on attributive biases--particularly on accuser/ accused biases--which cause the conflict to escalate. Conflicts are most likely to escalate when the harmed party (accuser) holds the accused more responsible than the accused party holds himself. Indeed, the accused party may themselves feel harmed by the first party's anger (perceived as baseless and undeserved). This can ignite a vicious cycle of angry accusations and counter-accusations. Such patterns of attribution can become entrenched, self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating. Fortunately, positive patterns of attribution can also become entrenched.
Attribution theory also has implications for conflict management. First, the popular technique of encouraging parties to "vent" their anger is counterproductive, and even harmful. Rather than dissipating anger, venting "is an exercise in rehearsing the very attributions that arouse anger in the first place,"(p. 249) and tends to increase the party's anger. Second, research suggests two techniques for reducing anger and correcting the basic attributional biases that fuel destructive conflict. Educate parties about attributional biases and about rational information processing, and encourage empathy with the other party. Educating parties about the bias of the accused can help them deal with anger directed toward them, and reach a more accurate assessment of their own responsibility. Apologies can diffuse anger. In some cases, a fuller explanation of the circumstance that caused the harmful action may relieve some of the harmed party's anger.
Allred concludes that "conflict management training programs and mediation strategies that help the parties overcome their biases in judging responsibility can go far toward preventing or dissipating the anger driving destructive conflict."(p. 252)