New Research Suggests Methods of Identifying and Limiting Psychological Barriers Within Intergroup Conflict | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

October 27, 2019by Noah Shaw

Summary of:

Friend, W. & Malhotra, D. (2019). Psychological barriers to resolving intergroup conflict: An extensive review and consolidation of the literature. Negotiation Journal (Harvard Law School). 407-442.

Background & Theory:

Conflict within groups can come from a plethora of sources and can often be devastating to work environments. Often, intergroup conflict can stem from personal psychological barriers. This research attempts to identify these barriers and pinpoint ways of weakening them in negotiation and conflict settings.


Past studies on psychological barriers in conflict were consolidated and analyzed to answer the following questions:

1. What common psychological barriers to resolving conflict have been established and how can they be cohesively categorized for practitioner use?
2. What are the potential remedies for these psychological barriers that have previously been studied?


To find studies related to the topic of this work, Friend and Malhotra used specific keywords such as “intergroup disputes” and “negotiation” on a number of scholarly databases. This eventually led to a total of 140 unique articles and book chapters mentioning psychological barriers.

One author then went through all of the articles and created a comprehensive list of all of the psychological barriers mentioned. This led to a list of 80 psychological barriers which was then further consolidated to 26 unique psychological barriers by combining barriers that were conceptually identical and that stemmed from the same psychological mechanism. These 26 unique psychological barriers were then organized into three generalized barrier categories. A disclaimer was also made that some barriers fit into multiple categories.

Research was also gathered about methods of weakening these barriers via keywords and was consolidated into five primary methods.


After reviewing six decades of work and compiling it into a list of 26 unique psychological barriers, Friend and Malhotra categorized them under the groups of cognitive, affective, and motivated psychological barriers.

Cognitive barriers, in this case, are considered perspectives and beliefs that enhance conflict out of cognitive limitations, biases, and heuristics. One example of a psychological barrier that fits under this category is the barrier of “fixed-pie perceptions,” the idea that if someone else is winning, you are losing and there is no possibility of mutual benefit.

On the other hand, affective barriers are rooted in attitudes or emotions that limit intergroup conflict resolution. An example of an affective barrier is “fear,” the belief that the opposing group poses a threat to the well-being of your group.

Motivated barriers are based out of a desire to see one’s self or the group positively. “Confirmation bias” is a good example of a motivated barrier because it occurs when one interprets a situation in a biased way out of their beliefs and attitudes.

The unique psychological barriers within these three categories were also analyzed to see how they all relate to each other. This analyzation found that barriers were more likely to be studied when they were in the same category in comparison to those not in the same category. There were also more cognitive-affective and cognitive-motivated links than affective-motivated links which could mean there are cognitive structures that outline affective and motivated barriers.

In addition to these barriers, Friend and Malhotra also analyzed potential intervention strategies to help remedy the problem of psychological barriers. These intervention strategies include awareness, contradictory information, redirection, affirmation, and mindfulness. Each of these techniques can help weaken certain psychological barriers. For example, “fear” can be countered with contradicting information because providing information that contradicts the premise of why someone is fearful can refute why one should fear.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this study, we can take away a few key things:

• Recognizing your own psychological barriers to resolving intergroup conflict and remedying them can help resolve the conflict more efficiently. Additionally, identifying the roots of why a barrier exists is key in overcoming it, which is why categorizing the barriers can be so helpful.
• Understanding that psychological barriers to resolving intergroup conflict exist can help create an understanding of why certain conflicts are difficult to resolve.
• Intervention strategies that can combat these barriers are useful resources for the process of changing biases to resolve conflict.

Final Takeaways:

For Consultants: In mediating disputes and assessing intergroup conflict, psychological barriers to resolving the conflict can easily be at play. Learning how to recognize and weaken these barriers is vital to resolving the conflict in a way that benefits everyone.

For Everyone: Recognizing the deeper underpinnings of why you may personally have difficulty resolving conflict is the first step at resolving it. When psychological barriers can be identified and worked through, resolution becomes possible.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.

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