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Current Advances


Current Advances in the Dynamical-Systems Theory of Intractability
(source: Final Progress Report 2006-2007)

Conceptual Model
Dynamical systems theory is ideally suited to capture the complexity and intrinsic dyn
amics associated with intractable conflicts. Dynamical systems theory emphasizes both the penchant for constant change and the maintenance of stable states or “attractors” in complex systems. Thus, we initially developed a framework within which the attractors of intractable conflicts can be conceptualized and investigated. In this framework, conflict manifests as a self-organizing system, in which different elements within a person (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) or a group (norms, beliefs, symbols, etc.) become organized around incompatibilities with a different person or group. These self-organized ensembles function as attractors, so that despite divergent information and contradictory external influences, the system’s behavior consistently converges on the same pattern of thought, affect, and action – destructive conflict. Even an unambiguous event that runs counter to the attractor will likely be assimilated to the attractor. A peaceful overture by an antagonist, for instance, will be seen as insincere or as a trick if there is intense mistrust regarding the antagonist.
When the dynamics of conflict become defined in terms of an attractor, even a relatively inconsequential incident can propel the relations of disputants rapidly into escalated states of conflict that can be extremely resistant to resolution. And if such a conflict undergoes momentary de-escalation, the forces at work are likely to reinstate the conflict. This account paints a rather gloomy picture. It implies that even a minor conflict will inevitably progress to intense conflict. A complex system, however, may be characterized by multiple stable states (attractors), each providing a unique organization for the myriad elements comprising the system. The potential for multiple attractors suggests that an intractable conflict can be resolved if one of the system’s attractors is associated with thoughts and actions of a benign or positive nature. In such an attractor landscape, the resolution of conflict may appear suddenly and catastrophically, as thoughts and actions move from the basin of one (negative) attractor to the basin of another (benign or positive) attractor that was previously latent.

Theoretical Propositions
The conceptual narrative described above has been translated into a series of theoretical propositions, which are described in detail in Coleman, P. T., Vallacher, R., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2007). Below is a summary of the main propositions of the model.

1.  Intractable conflict can be conceptualized and investigated in terms of fixed-point attractor dynamics.
2.  Each party’s attractor is maintained by dynamic processes. 
3.  An attractor associated with intractable conflict can be characterized with respect to its basin of attraction.
4.  An attractor associated with intractable conflict can be characterized with respect to its depth.
5.  Attractors for intractable conflict are formed when the cognitive, affective, and behavioral patterns characterizing a party’s conflict-relevant dynamics lose their complexity.  
6.  The loss of complexity in each party’s attractor is maintained by positive feedback loops among the lower-level elements comprising the party’s pattern of thought, feeling, and action.
7.  The parties to intractable conflict are likely to have more than one attractor for their respective mental, affective, and behavioral dynamics.  
8.  Each party’s dynamics can be captured by a latent attractor, promoting a qualitative (as opposed to incremental) change in relationships between the parties.
9.  The change in state associated with movement to a latent attractor may be transitory if the original attractor continues to exist.
10. An attractor can lose its power to constrain a party’s mental, affective, and behavior processes if it is deconstructed.
11.  The deconstruction of an attractor for intractable conflict involves introducing negative feedback loops into the relationships among issues, among dimensions of social judgment, and among action tendencies. 
12.  Because of the press for coherence in dynamical systems, the lower-level elements comprising a deconstructed attractor are likely to become integrated with respect to another higher-level pattern of thought, feeling, and behavior.

As proposed, we are conducting a case-study and several laboratory studies to test, validate, and refine the main theoretical propositions from our model. The research is described in a subsequent section.

Control Parameters of the Dynamical Model of Intractability
Interpersonal and inter-group conflicts are highly complex and dynamic, reflecting the operation of myriad factors at different levels of reality, from history and geography to everyday events of both a banal and an emotionally charged nature. In dynamical systems theory, however, a distinction is made between the multitude of factors that change only the current state of the system and the much smaller subset of factors that control the dynamic properties of the system. The latter factors, referred to as control parameters, provide the focus of dynamical models. The question, then, is how can one identify the control parameters for interpersonal and inter-group relations characterized by intractable conflict?   

       In general, the identification of control parameters requires the reciprocal interplay of theory, empirical research, and computer simulations. The literature on intractable conflict is enormous, emphasizing both fundamental theory and substantial data collection from laboratory studies and diverse real-world conflict situations. From conflict theory and research, several candidates for control parameters have been identified that seem to cut across vastly different types of conflict scenarios. Findings from experimental and case study research, for example, suggest that intractable conflicts are most likely to occur under conditions of relatively equal power between parties (where one party cannot simply overwhelm the other through force), confined interdependence (where neither party can simply escape the relationship), and where the parties have strong competitive (win-lose) orientations to the conflict. We suspect that these three factors may constitute control parameters for intractability. If so, changes in the magnitude of these variables (e.g., degree of competitive orientation or confined interdependence) should go beyond intensifying the level of conflict to changing in fundamental ways the nature of the conflict. 

            With the recent advent of the dynamical approach, it is possible to assess whether these factors do indeed function as control parameters, or whether other factors play this role in intractable conflict. Computer simulations, in particular, can be employed to distinguish between factors that change only the momentary state of a conflict from those that reset the basic dynamics of a conflict. The results of simulations can then provide the basis for empirical research and theory construction. In sum, the reciprocal interplay of theory, data collection, and computer simulation captures the essence of the dynamical approach and may prove useful in identifying basic control parameters of intractable conflict that are relevant in a broad range of conflict domains.