Is that a Threat?

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Resource conflicts, such as those over money, time, or land, emerge when people disagree primarily about the allocation of scarce resources. On the other hand, value conflicts stem chiefly from differences in beliefs, often involving entrenched personal notions of justice and morality. A body of previous research has established important differences between resource- and value-based conflicts, particularly when it comes to effective resolutions. A new study by Kouzakova and colleagues (2014)1 of Leiden University sheds light on the motivational underpinnings of these discrepancies.

According to these researchers, unlike resource conflicts, value conflicts can put in question the validity of one’s own identity, making negotiation and compromise less likely. They tested and built on this premise by examining two different indicators of threat: cardiovascular (CV) measurements and self-regulation strategies. Undergraduate participants engaged in decision-making discussions with confederates, where they expressed an opinion for or against something, basing their choice either on their values (value condition) or financial interests (resource condition). Within each condition, confederates always selected the conflicting standpoint, followed by conversations wherein each side defended its own arguments. Results revealed that participants in value conflicts showed a stronger CV threat profile, while participants in resource conflicts exhibited a stronger CV challenge profile. According to biopsychosocial models, the threat response results from the evaluation that one has insufficient resources to deal with the demands of a situation, whereas the challenge response results from the evaluation of sufficient resources. Consistent with this notion, value conflict participants also self-reported significantly more prevention-focused strategies than did resource conflict participants. According to regulatory focus theory, prevention is a motivational state concerned with safety and security, in which people guard against loss. This finding thus furthers their hypothesis that value conflicts are more self-threatening than resource conflicts.

Though Kouzakova et al. (2014) acknowledge that real-life conflicts are often “mixed,” they cast doubt on the applicability of certain resolution techniques (often developed in response to resource conflicts, e.g. negotiation) to value-laden conflicts, given the different motivational concerns raised by each. Their findings complement recent research supporting the efficacy of interventions such as self-affirmation, particularly as a means of reducing identity threat in such situations. Because conflicts are harder to solve when values and resources are intertwined (e.g. when people have value-driven preferences about the division of land), future research should consider whether it is possible to disentangle the conflict into different motivational demands before selecting the appropriate intervention.

1Kouzakova, M., Harinck, F., Ellemers, N., & Scheepers, D. (2014). At the heart of conflict: Cardiovascular and self-regulation responses to value versus resource conflicts. Social Psychological & Personality Science, 5: 35-42


Christine Webb

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University. Broadly, her research interests include reconciliation, individual differences, evolution, and motivation. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Emory University, where she studied the social behavior of brown capuchin monkeys for two years. The following year, she worked as… MORE >

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