Some Psychological Underpinnings of the Third Party's Role in Resolution of Conflicts on the Societal and International Levels

By Mitskovska, Alina | Trames, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Some Psychological Underpinnings of the Third Party's Role in Resolution of Conflicts on the Societal and International Levels


Mitskovska, Alina, Trames


1. Introduction

The time when members of the human race were scarce on the Earth disappeared approximately a hundred thousand years ago. Since then individuals have increasingly interacted with each other: both within their own groups and on the inter-group level. (1) Interaction has bred, among other things, disputes and conflicts. Given limited, and often inadequate, resources and the human psychological makeup as we know it, no wonder that conflicts among people have frequently grown into bloody feuds and wars. At the beginning it seemed that to destroy one's rival, to vanquish one's opponent, and to conquer one's troublesome neighbour were the best ways to deal with a conflict in hand. However, fairly soon people discovered that in many cases a more rational and advantageous way to tackle a conflict was to invite some neutral authority to arbitrate over the conflicting situation. Thus, the third party emerged as an additional party to the conflict between two sides (parties).

This paper deals with the role of the third party in achieving conflict resolutions. It must be admitted at the outset that much has been written on this topic. Just to name a few issues and authors: the problem of what conditions an individual, an organisation or an institution should meet to be deemed the third party is tackled in Pruitt and Carnevale (1993) and in Krolikowska (1993). The issue of strategies and tactics of the third party is dealt with in Fischer (1983, 1989). Psychological aspects of international politics are highlighted in Kelman and Bloom (1973) and Kelman (1991).

The interference of the third party has been studied both theoretically and experimentally (see, for instance, Zartman and Berman 1982 and Kelman 1987). Also, the influence of the third party has been analysed historically: historians have explained how the third party has operated, under which conditions, and with what success (for references see, for example, Burton 1984, and Rubin, Pruitt, and Kim 1994). And surely this issue has not been neglected by psychologists, who, by studying the role of the third party in conflicts, found a fertile ground for testing their hypotheses and theories.

The structure of the paper is as follows. First, I will make a distinction between two radically different types of the role of the third party. Second, I will concentrate on one of the types and suggest a taxonomy that introduces three levels on which the third party may function. Finally, I will present an evaluation of psychological motives that exist on the two of these three levels.

My major contention will be that the success and effectiveness of the third party are mostly determined by satisfaction of psychological needs for stability and approval. Where such needs cannot be fulfilled, the role of the third party is negligible. At the end, I will venture a few suggestions as to how to make the intervention of the third party more compelling and efficient.

2. Two different types of the third party's role

The distinction I want to propose is a novel one. It is drawn between the third party as an adjudicator and the third party as a humanitarian aid provider. I will explicate the difference by briefly discussing both types. First, I will take on the third party as an adjudicator.

When there is a disagreement between two parties (these might be particular individuals or associations or even states) and when the two parties find it reasonable and beneficial to address some impartial force (the third party) and to invite it to settle their disagreement (or at least to pronounce its opinion on it), then we are dealing with the third party as an adjudicator. In this situation, the third party is chosen by both conflicting parties either for one particular case or for a series of possible cases. For example, two friends are in disagreement and they ask their mutual friend (the third party) to arbitrate between them. …

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