Conflict Resolution Reconciliation

In the summer of 2002, various national European behavioral biology and ethology societies came together for a conference on animal conflict resolution. This field started out with simple descriptive work but is now rapidly moving towards a theoretical framework supported by observational as well as experimental data (for reviews, see de Waal 2000; Aureli and de Waal 2000; Aureli et al. 2002).

Reconciliation was first reported by de Waal and van Roosmalen (1979). A typical example concerns two male chimpanzees who have been chasing each other, barking and screaming, and afterwards rest in a tree (Fig. 1). Ten minutes later, one male holds out his hand, begging the other for an embrace. Seconds later, they hug and kiss, and climb down to the ground together to groom each other. Termed a "reconciliation," this process is defined as a friendly contact not long after a conflict between two parties. A kiss is the most typical way for chimpanzees to reconcile. Other animals have different styles. Bonobos do it with sex, and stumptail macaques wait till the subordinate presents, then hold its hips in a so-called hold-bottom ritual. Each species has its own way, yet the basic principle remains the same, which is that former opponents reunite following a fight.

Fig. 1. Reconciliation 10 minutes after a protracted, noisy conflict between two adult males at the Arnhem Zoo. The challenged male (left) had fled into the tree, but 10 minutes later his opponent stretched out a hand. Within seconds, the two males had a physical reunion. Photograph bythe author.

Primatology has always shown interest in social relationships, so the idea of relationship repair, implied by the reconciliation label, was quickly taken seriously. We now know that about 30 different primate species reconcile after fights, and recent studies show that reconciliation is not at all limited to the primates. There is evidence for this mechanism in hyenas, dolphins, and domestic goats (Schino 2000). Reconciliation seems a basic process found, or to be found, in a host of social species. The reason for it being so widespread is that it restores relationships that have been disturbed by aggression but are nonetheless essential for survival. Since many animals establish cooperative relationships within which conflict occasionally arises, many need mechanisms of repair.

A standard research method is the post-conflict/matched control (PC/MC) method (de Waal and Yoshihara 1983). Observations start with a spontaneous aggressive encounter after which the combatants are followed for a fixed period of time, say 10 minutes, to see what subsequently happens between them. This is the PC or post-conflict observation. Figure 2, which concerns stumptail macaques, shows that approximately 60% of the pairs of opponents come together after a fight. This finding is compared with control observations that tell us how these monkeys normally act without a preceding fight. Since control observations are done on a different observation day but matched to the PC observation for the time of the day and the individuals involved, they are called MCs or matched controls.

Minute

Fig. 2. Primates show a dramatic increase in body contact between former opponents during post-onflict (PC) as compared to matched-control (MC) observations. The graph provides the cumulative percentage of opponent-pairs establishing friendly contact during a 10-min time window following 670 spontaneous aggressive incidents in a zoo group of stumptail macaques. Based on de Waal and Ren (1988).

Minute

Fig. 2. Primates show a dramatic increase in body contact between former opponents during post-onflict (PC) as compared to matched-control (MC) observations. The graph provides the cumulative percentage of opponent-pairs establishing friendly contact during a 10-min time window following 670 spontaneous aggressive incidents in a zoo group of stumptail macaques. Based on de Waal and Ren (1988).

Notice that there is far more contact after fights than in the control observations, which is exactly the opposite picture from that presented by the textbooks I read as a graduate student. In those days, Lorenz's (1963) On Aggression was influential. The popular idea was that aggression is a dispersive behavior, which serves to space out individuals. This idea was developed on territorial species, which were the first studied. With social animals, however, things are quite different. In primates, we actually see the opposite: aggression literally brings individuals together.

If the same observations and analyses are conducted on human children, as a co-worker and I did at a preschool near our university, one finds the familiar PC/MC pattern (Verbeek and de Waal 2001). An extensive review of recent child studies by Verbeek et al. (2000) confirms that the data look essentially the same for children, chimpanzees, monkeys, and goats. After fights, individuals come together more than normally, often with intense contact patterns, doing so especially with partners whom they need for one reason or another. The latter is known as the Valuable Relationship Hypothesis, which can be formulated thus: "Reconciliation will occur especially between individuals who stand much to lose if their relationship deteriorates." This hypothesis is well-supported by observational studies as well as by an elegant experiment on monkeys, which manipulated relationship value by promoting cooperation (Cords and Thurnheer 1993).

The Relational Model

Peace is not sought for peace's sake but in order to preserve mutual interests. The same principle is known in human affairs. For example, the idea underlying the European Community was that nations with a recent history of mutual warfare may show an increased tendency to keep the peace if they are made mutually dependent on each other. Europeans have worked on increasing relationship value since World War II, recently culminating in the adoption of a common currency.

I have formalized the above ideas in the Relational Model, which places conflict in a social context. Instead of aggression being an instinct or an automatic response triggered by frustration, it is one of several options for the resolution of conflicts of interest. Other options are avoidance of the adversary (common in hierarchical and territorial species) and the sharing of resources (common in tolerant species). Weighing the costs and benefits of each option, conflict may escalate to the point of aggression, after which there still is the option of undoing its damage by means of reconciliation, which option will be most favored by parties with overlapping interests (de Waal 1996b, 2000).

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