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Animals’ Behavior As Source For Unlearning And Relearning Strategies For Conflict Prevention And Resolution

by Luis Miguel Diaz
July 2008 Luis Miguel Diaz

Philosophers and scientists used to believe that the simplest animals occupy the lower floors of evolution, and that complexity would rise progressively toward the top, which was occupied by the human beings.

This view is no longer prevailing among evolutionist thinkers. Therefore, there may be much for humans to learn by examining, the similarities rather than differences and the patterns of animals’ behavior in conflict situations. A succinct review of animals’ behaviors in conflict follows.

Living in groups

Several animal species, including humans, live in groups. A society is composed of a group of individuals belonging to the same species living in a well-defined group with rules on food management, role assignments and reciprocal dependence.

Conflicts in animal societies

Animals in a social group live in circumstances in which an individual's welfare can easily come into conflict with either the group's welfare or that of other animals in the group. Conflict is a fact of life in social species.

Extreme conflict could lead to the dissolution of the group, and loss of the benefits of group living, such as shared defense or hunting.

Resolving conflicts that threaten the interaction between individuals in a group is necessary for survival, hence has a strong evolutionary value.

Equivalents to human jails to punish violators of rules are not present in animals’ species.

Mitigation of conflicts

Greetings, expressions of friendly behavior, grooming, and non-aggressive touching may enhance mutual tolerance of animals prior to situations which could cause a fight or can serve to reconcile group members who have clashed.

Reconciliation in animals

Reconciliation is a friendly reunion between two individuals following a conflict between them. Reconciliation occurs in groups where cooperative partnerships and kinship relations exist. A premise for the existence of reconciliation is a previous fight between opponents who have a relationship within a group. Conflicts between a dominant and subordinate animal over resources such as food or access to mates almost always end with the dominant individual possessing the resource. After the conflict finishes reconciliation is a ritual to show that a bond between the opponents still exists. Reconciliation also helps to insure future cooperation in the social group.

Ethologists have documented reconciliation rituals in many different primate species, in both captivity and the field, both experimentally and observationally; and in spotted hyenas, lions, dolphins, dwarf mongooses, domestic goats and domestic dogs.

These patterns suggest that the phenomenon is widespread, although different species that are living in groups, show diverse types of reconciliation rituals. Behaviors that are cognitively sophisticated tend to involve learning, but young animals are just as competent at reconciliation as adults.

Reconciliation is more common following conflicts related to access to mates or that appear to have no specific motive or that is more nebulous in origin and therefore has the potential to flare up again unless there is closure.

Why reconciliation

Evidence of the value of reconciliation as a stress-buster comes from physiological measurements taken before and after it occurs, showing that making up leads to a decreased heart rate. It is not surprising that natural conflict resolution is fundamental in tightly knit social groups.

Food controversies

Researchers have found that at least in primates, reconciliation almost never happens when individuals fight over food. Why?

In general, fights over an extinguishable resource tend to have a natural lifetime that ends when the resource is used up. Reconciliation is unnecessary because such fights are unlikely to affect long-term bonding between group members. Successive situations where one individual captures the food while the other misses the opportunity to get it, is a natural context for free animals.

Close proximity

When opponents were in close proximity to each other before the conflict they resume the exact same activity after the conflict. So, everyday aggression may not disrupt the relationships among individuals from the same family group and therefore reconciliation is not needed. Furthermore, it seems that revengeful conduct is absent in all species except Homo sapiens. Is the human interest in “justice” rooted in revenge?

Mutual grooming

In social animals grooming is a major social activity and a means by which animals that live in proximity can bond and reinforce social structures and build relationships. Social grooming is also used as a form of reconciliation and a means of conflict resolution in some species.

Human social grooming is associated with romantic partners and family affection while growing up and plays a role in pair bonding.

Ethologists call grooming the social cement of the primate world. The trust and bonding it builds is critical to group cooperation. Among primates, social grooming pays an important role in establishing and maintaining alliances and dominance hierarchies, for building coalitions, for reconciliation after conflicts, and is a resource that is exchanged for other resources like food and sex. Grooming stimulates the release of beta-endorphin which is one physiological reason for why grooming appears to be relaxing. Primates have been known to fall asleep while receiving grooming.

Other animals groom socially as well. These include insects, fish, birds, ungulates and bats. Mammals often perform social grooming. Domesticated animals, especially cats and dogs, will groom trusted humans as a sign of affection.

Reconciliation in spotted hyenas

Spotted hyenas are highly sociable. Like other animals that live in close-knit groups, they don't always get along. But spotted hyenas don't hold a grudge. Within about 5 minutes of a fight, the erstwhile combatants can often be seen playing, licking or rubbing one another, or engaging in other friendly acts to dissipate the tension. And they are not the only animals with a penchant for kissing and making up.

Reconciliation in primates

In chimpanzees, previous participants in conflicts actually are likely to be near each other, rather than avoiding one another. This close proximity allows the exchange of grooming, hugs, and kisses. These behaviors serve to diffuse the chances of future conflict.

After fights, the chimp who came off worst in the argument is the one who instigates the reconciliation. In fact, this is a general pattern for most instances of conflict resolution. It is the same in goats.

The different reconciliation styles of chimpanzees and bonobos are illustrative. Chimps follow the usual pattern in primates, with the loser trying to make amends. For bonobos, however, it is the winner who makes the first move.

Reconciliation in goats

Most interactions between goats are reconciliatory, consisting of friendly acts such as grooming and muzzle rubbing between animals that had been fighting previously. As in primates, this was most often initiated by the loser of the fight.

Like hyenas and most primates, goats are sociable animals. And this seems to be one of the key attributes of species that go out of their way to resolve their conflicts.

Reconciliation in dolphins

Reconciliation rituals are also found in dolphins. Although they seem to have happy grins perpetually plastered on their faces, dolphins are surprisingly aggressive. And, sure enough, they are big on conflict resolution. While studying a small group of bottlenose dolphins at the zoo, it was noticed that after a fight opponents often engaged in "gentle rubbing" or "contact swims," in which one dolphin towed another through the water.

Feuding families

In addition, some pairs of combatants are more likely to seek reconciliation after a fight than others. One of the most influential models of natural conflict resolution is the valuable friendship model, which is built on the idea that the more you depend on another individual, the more costly it is to allow a rift to develop.

Detailed controlled experiments testing the hypothesis are rare, but one study with long-tailed macaques found that reconciliation is indeed more likely after fights between partners who normally help each other get food than between other individuals. What's more, for a wide range of primates the most valuable social relationships tend to be among kin, and disputes within families often end in reconciliation.

This is not the case with spotted hyenas. Hyenas are more likely to initiate reconciliation with non-kin than with kin. Not because family relationships are less valuable, but because kin may be more forgiving of one another than strangers are.

Comparative studies reveal that in species where reconciliation is most common it is more likely to be associated with unique, unambiguous actions such as "embracing" in pig-tailed macaques and "grasping" in Tonkean macaques.

Reconciliation unnecessary

Reconciliation may be unnecessary in certain societies. Ring-tailed lemurs, for example, are either friends, almost always interacting peacefully and to mutual benefit, or enemies who never get along. Between friends, reconciliation is redundant; between enemies it is infertile.

Learning reconciliation

Rhesus monkeys are aggressive and rarely opt for reconciliation; stumptails on the other hand have a talent for making up. The researchers wanted to see what would happen if they reared juveniles of the two species together. They found that the young stumptails exerted a benign influence over the slightly younger rhesus monkeys, whose behavior towards other group members gradually became more and more conciliatory.


The outcome of the examination was unexpected. No new learning for humans was discovered from animal behavior. Popular wisdom shows puzzles of the picture: “flighting like dogs,” “Lion lay down with the lamb,” “vicious as a hyena,” “eat their young like a fish,” So, Animal species and Homo sapiens seem to respond to the same evolutionary patterns for conflict resolution in societies.

One conjecture, however, to explain the growing distance between animal and human behaviors for conflict is that human population is today mainly urbanized. Modern human contexts are really new phenomena from an evolutionist perspective. When most of the population lived and worked on natural environments or farms and with close contact with animals, we were more alike other species. In those societies personal acquaintance among the members of the population existed and the importance of harmonizing in the group was more important. Now in large societies each person is more anonymous.

As a consequence, to improve our strategies for conflict prevention and resolution in modern societies, it seems necessary to unlearn prejudices that are blocking our evolutionary patterns for dealing with conflict and learn new conduct appropriate for the new contexts.

To the annotated end, the path is to empty the space of what is false so it can be occupied by what is real. The real is the knowledge manifested in the evolutionary pattern manifested in both human and animals’ strategies for conflict prevention and solution.

Perhaps we should set aside prejudices that are contrary to the evolutionary patterns that are incorporated into our communication and conflict resolution languages. For example, perhaps we should eliminate the constraints and rules that have come to govern our personal communication; eliminate the formal rules for processing disputes; favor personal dialogue or discussion over written settlements; and learn to represent our interests directly in conflict situations rather than through proxies such as legal representatives. All of these unproductive evolutionarily recent norms of conduct prevent the humane management of disputes.

In order to move from false to real we must recognize, accept and reorient our evolutionary patterns by liberating ourselves from the bewitchment of rules and constraints that hinder group harmony. Our more ancient evolutionary patterns include simple productive harmonizing strategies such as greetings, expressions of friendly behavior, grooming, and non-aggressive touching.

A more intensive, broader use of these strategies could aid humans in the humane resolution of ordinary disputes in the urbanized world in which we live.


Merri L. Hanson edited and improved this text. Merri is the Director of Peninsula Mediation & ADR in Williamsburg and Hampton, Virginia.


Luis Miguel Díaz, unfortunately now deceased, fathered four children and distrusted language, theories and authority, including his own as a father. Admires artists and scientists and their lives. He received his Law Degree at UNAM, Mexico (1974); and LLM (1976) and SJD (1986) at Harvard University Law School. President of the Interdisciplinary Center for Conflict Management in Mexico City. Author of more than 100 articles and 15 books. We all miss Luis.


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