Psychological Dynamics of Intractable Conflicts

Daniel Bar-Tal

Originally Published September 2004; Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2017.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

This article and the three that follow form a set contributed by Dan Bar-Tal, an Israeli and a leading scholar of the social-psychological causes and impacts of intractable conflict. They provide yet another take on the importance of psychology and emotions in difficult and intractable conflicts that supplements the ideas presented so far in the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar.More...


Fundamentals Seminar
Home | Syllabus / Other Posts
This Seminar is part of the...

Find out more...

The present millennium began with dangerous conflicts raging in various parts of the globe. The intractable conflicts[1] in Sri Lanka, Kashmir and the Middle East are examples of severe violent confrontations that threaten the well being of the peoples involved and the international community. These conflicts are real. They are over territories, natural resources, self-determination, and/or basic values--real issues that have to be addressed through conflict resolution. But these real issues are further complicated by intense psychological dynamics, which make the conflicts even more difficult to resolve. Although these conflicts may differ in particular demands, images, or intensity, their psychological dynamics are similar. Therefore, the understanding of the psychological foundations is a crucial challenge in view of the behavioral consequences that these foundations have in situations of intractable conflict, leading to violence, including losses of human life, ethnic cleansing and even genocide.

The intractable conflicts inflict threat, stress, pain, exhaustion, and high human and material costs. Also, during intractable conflict, life is marked by continuous confrontation that requires long-lasting sacrifice and mobilization of the group members. Thus, members must adapt to the situation in both their individual and social lives. From a psychological perspective, this adaptation requires the meeting of three basic challenges.

First, it is necessary to satisfy basic needs that are deprived during intractable conflict: for example, needs of mastery, safety , positive identity, and so on. These needs are of primary importance for human beings and they have to be satisfied in order to allow people to function properly as individuals and society members.

Second, there is a necessity to learn to cope with the stress, fear, and other negative psychological conditions which exist continuously in situations of intractable conflict.

Finally, adaptation requires development of psychological conditions (e .g, readiness for personal sacrifice, unity, solidarity) that will be conducive to successfully withstanding the rival group, that is, to attempt to win the conflict, or, at least, not to lose it.

To meet these challenges, disputing societies develop an appropriate psychological repertoire, which includes shared societal beliefs, attitudes, and emotions that are reflected in three major elements:

This psychological repertoire affects the dynamics of intractable conflicts because it gives meaning to the opposed social identities during this period (Ashmore, Jussim, & Wilder, 2001). It also enables the involved societies to adapt to the conflict situation, and eventually becomes an investment in the conflict that fuels its continuation.

Collective Memories

Each sides'  collective memory develops a history of the conflict that meets the needs of each society (Cairns, & Roe, 2003; Halbwachs, 1992). This narrative describes how the conflict began and unfolded over time. Though each narrative is unique, in general, they touch on at least four important themes, which influence the perception of the conflict and its management.

  • First, it justifies the outbreak of the conflict and the course of its development.
  • Second, it presents a positive image of one's group.
  • Third, it de-legitimizes the opponent.
  • Fourth, it presents one's group as being a victim of the opponent.

Conflict Ethos

In addition to the narrative of collective memory, societies evolve also a narrative about the present that is called is called an ethos. The ethos is the configuration of central societal shared beliefs that provide a particular dominant orientation to a society (Bar-Tal, 2000). This ethos gives meaning to the social life of the people and, along with their goals and aspirations, binds the members of a society together.

Belief Clusters that Make Up the Ethos:

The challenges of intractable conflicts lead to the development of at least eight clusters of societal beliefs that make up the conflict ethos (Bar-Tal, 1998). They include:

  • Societal beliefs about the justness of one's own goals, which
    • outline the goals in conflict,
    • indicate their crucial importance and
    • provide their explanations and rationales.
    • Societal beliefs about security
    • stress the importance of personal safety and national survival,
    • and outline the conditions for their achievement.
  • Societal beliefs of positive collective self image concern the ethnocentric tendency to attribute positive traits, values and behavior to one's own society.
  • Societal beliefs of one's own victimization concern self-presentation as a victim, especially in the context of the intractable conflict.
  • Societal beliefs which de-legitimize the opponent. These beliefs deny the adversary's humanity.
  • Societal beliefs of patriotism generate attachment to the country and society, by propagating loyalty, love, care and sacrifice.
  • Societal beliefs of unity refer to the importance of ignoring internal conflicts and disagreements during intractable conflicts, in order to unite the forces in the face of the external threat.
  • Finally, societal beliefs of peace refer to peace as the ultimate desire of the society.

Collective Emotional Orientations

In addition to such societal beliefs, the psychological repertoire in situations of intractable conflict includes collective emotional orientations, which refer to emotions that society members share (Kemper, 1990; Mackie & Smith, 2002). The most notable is a collective orientation of fear (Bar-Tal, 2001). In addition, societies in intractable conflict may be dominated by hatred toward the rival (Yanay, 2002) and anger (Kressel, 2002; White, 1984).

Institutionalization of the Psychological Repertoire

In view of the important functions that the psychological repertoire fulfills during intractable conflict, special attempts are made to institutionalize it. Such institutionalization is characterized by the fact that the repertoire is widely shared by society members, actively used by them, expressed in cultural products (books, newspapers, TV and radio) and disseminated via educational system (Ross, 1993). Thus the societal-psychological repertoire becomes part of the political, social, cultural and educational context in which society members live. This assures that the repertoire is stable and easily available throughout the society. Institutionalization also consolidates the psychological repertoire and facilitates its perseverance and durability--even in the face of contradictory information. Contradictory information is rejected and social control mechanisms operate to discourage people from even entertaining alternative beliefs and attitudes.

In essence, the psychological repertoire becomes a prism through which society members construe their reality, collect new information, interpret their experiences and then make decisions about their course of action.[2] This shared psychological repertoire has important cognitive, affective and behavioral consequences both for society members as individuals and for the society as a whole. For example, the repertoire influences

  • the way disputants view social reality about the conflict,
  • how they become involved and mobilized to confront the conflict,
  • the sense of solidarity and unity they experience,
  • the conformity expected from society members,
  • the pressure exerted on leaders, and
  • the direction of action taken by the leadership.

Eventually, the psychological repertoire becomes a rigid repertoire which is resistant to change during the conflict and thus inhibits de-escalation and peaceful resolution. Rather, the repertoire serves as a catalyst for continuation of the conflict, contributing to a vicious cycle, as both sides are behaving in this negative, hostile way. Thus, as the conflict evolves, each of the opponents develops a negative psychological repertoire, which fulfills important roles on both the individual and collective levels. Over time, this repertoire serves to motivate, justify, and rationalize negative actions and policies towards the other side(s). The other(s) then see these actions as justifications for their own negative psychological repertoire, and the cycle reinforces itself time and again. The behaviors of each side reinforce the negative psychological repertoires and justify harming the rival(s).

Changing the Psychological Repertoire

These vicious cycles of intractable conflict are detrimental to the well being of both the individuals and societies involved, as well as posing a danger to the world as a whole. Since the negative psychological repertoires of the parties play an important role in these cycles, it is vitally necessary to change these repertoires, in order to change the nature of relations between the rival groups. Changing the psychological repertoires developed and reinforced by societies involved in intractable conflict is a necessary condition for advancing the peace process and stopping the violence.

In the same way that the psychological repertoire which supports conflict is shared by society members involved, so the change cannot occur only among leaders or narrow societal segments, but has to include the great majority of the society at large. In order to establish lasting peace between former adversaries, a societal reconciliation is needed that goes beyond the agenda of formal conflict resolution to changing the motivations, goals, beliefs, attitudes and emotions of the great majority of the society members (Bar-Siman- Tov, Y. 2004; Rothstein, 1999). Specifically, lasting peace requires reconstruction of the shared beliefs of collective memories, as well as a change of the beliefs regarding national goals, one's view of the opponent, one's relations with them, view of one's own group, and view of peace. These changes, which take shape via the reconciliation process, support peace as a new form of intergroup relations and serve as stable foundations for cooperative and friendly acts that symbolize these relations.

Current Implications

This article and the three that follow form a set contributed by Dan Bar-Tal, an Israeli and a leading scholar of the social-psychological causes and impacts of intractable conflict. They provide yet another take on the importance of psychology and emotions in difficult and intractable conflicts that supplements the ideas presented so far in the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar.

In 2013 Bar-Tal published a book entitled Intractable Conflicts: Socio-Psychological Foundations and Dynamics which expounds further on the ideas presented here and in the following three essays. Since Dan is an Israeli, I expected him to primarily focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict in these essays and the book. But as can be noted in these essays and even more in his book, he applies these ideas much more widely than that.  

Indeed, all of his theories are applicable to intractable conflicts across the globe and across time.  There is nothing here that is no longer true...all of these dynamics still occur and they are destroying lives just as much now as they were in 2004.  

The only thing, it seems, that has changed is one location that he describes as intractable: Sri Lanka.  Although there are still problems there, the long-lasting civil war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the insurgent Tamil Tigers.  Most of the country has moved on; the majority of the remaining Tamil tigers have given up the fight, and while they were treated very harshly at first, relations have improved over time.

But conflicts in Kashmir and the Middle East continue, and we can add many more to the list...including to my surprise, the United States, although fortunately, ours has not become widely violent yet.

I re-read this essay thinking about Trump supporters versus Trump opponents (which roughly corresponds to Republicans versus Democrats, but not entirely).  Every one of these observations about the nature of the conflict and people's attitudes about it rang true to me! We have different histories of our social, economic, and political activities of the last few decades, and we have different goals for the future.  We de-legitimize the other side, and see our own side as the victim. 

The unanswered question is whether we can accomplish any of the suggested responses to these destructive psychological dynamics? Can we develop shared goals for the future?  Can we change our sense of victimhood and our enemy-images of the other? Can the pro-Trump and anti-Trump factions reconcile in any meaningful way?  And if the answer is no...where does that leave us?

-- Heidi Burgess. July, 2017.

Back to Essay Top

[1] I define intractable conflicts as "conflicts over essential and existential contradictory goals that are protracted, irreconcilable, violent, of zero sum nature, and central, in which involved parties invest much to continue them? (Azar, 1990; Bar-Tal, 1998; Goertz & Diehl, 1993; Kriesberg 1998). Intractability implies that parties involved in the conflict cannot win it and do not perceive a possibility of resolving it peacefully in the present time.

[2] This psychological repertoire is much like a "frame" as presented in the article on frames, framing, and reframing.

Use the following to cite this article:
Bar-Tal, Daniel. "Psychological Dynamics of Intractable Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.

Additional Resources