Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

A Biological Approach to Understanding Resistance to Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Group Conflict

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

A Biological Approach to Understanding Resistance to Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Group Conflict

Article excerpt


In the early, heady, halcyon days of the conflict-resolution movement, the true believers asserted that all conflicts could be resolved through the persistent application of a rational, constructive mediation process. Some asserted that mediating with a divorcing couple was ultimately no different than mediating with warring factions in international disputes or internal civil unrest. That many of those making such assertions at the time had never mediated in the context of large-scale, intergroup conflict was not lost on those skeptics who had. The latter summarily dismissed the bold assertions of the former, and the field of conflict resolution has since evolved into two primary camps, one concerning itself primarily with interpersonal, dyadic disputes and the other focusing on intergroup conflicts of various scales.' The field is palpably divided between those who work with individuals in conflict and those who work with groups in conflict. This symposium challenges us to bridge that divide because, although the symposium's focus is on group-conflict resolution, the emotions and behaviors associated with apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation are experienced at a deeply personal and individual level.

This article takes up the challenge by introducing a biological approach to understanding resistance to apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation in intergroup conflict. To start with, reconciliation takes place at the level of the individual. To understand resistance to group reconciliation, one must understand why individuals resist reconciliation. In turn, one must understand how membership in the group affects individual resistance. This article first examines the behaviors that promote or discourage reconciliation. Using evolutionary biology and game theory, we illustrate how the strategic dynamics of dyadic interaction tend to favor these behaviors and derive a schema relevant to a reconciliatory cycle. We then explore how the distinct context of intra- and intergroup conflict reinforces these behaviors. Finally, we identify those barriers to individual reconciliation that result from the strategic dynamics of social-group architectures, particularly those that differ from the ancestral social architecture within which individual behavior has evolved. We conclude with a brief application of this conceptual approach to truth and reconciliation commissions.


Reconciliation is the Holy Grail of conflict resolution. Specifically, it refers to the restoration of a preexisting cooperative relationship after estrangement. (2) Reconciliation among those who have had a relationship is important for the simple reason that we fight more amongst ourselves than with others. That is to say, we have more conflicts within social groups (3) than between groups, and resolving those conflicts is essential for the survival of the group. Ostensibly, some benefits to be gained in the group relationship cannot be more easily gained outside of it; however, the increased interaction of individuals within a group leads to more situations in which conflict can arise. Thus, we are more likely to have disputes with our spouses, our children, our siblings, our parents, our friends, our neighbors, and our colleagues than with strangers. Conflict is unavoidable in these relationships and, if left unresolved, it has the potential to tear them apart with the concomitant loss in the benefits of cooperation. Reconciliation is how we preserve and repair cooperative relationships in the face of our disputing.

More broadly, reconciliation refers to the establishment of cooperative relations between persons, either individuals or groups, who have been at variance without regard to whether they have had a prior cooperative relationship. (4) As strangers encounter one another and come into conflict in pursuit of their own interests, they can choose to either compete or cooperate. …

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