Study Examining Research in Conflict Shows its Roots: Human Psychological Needs

Summary of:

Thomas Gries & Veronika Müller, 2020. “Conflict Economics and Psychological Human Needs,” Working Papers CIE 135, Paderborn University, CIE Center for International Economics.

Background & Theory

The basic approach in conflict economics, to explain motives and conditions for civil strife, is based on the assumption of choice. Wars, civil conflicts, or terrorism are thus analyzed as outcomes of goal-driven choices according to underlying incentives and constraints. While this would imply that rational agents are primarily motivated by material gains, this paper argues that individuals may also join groups and use violence for psychological reasons and this choice is not subject to irrationality. Factors such as group belongingness, threat, a shared group-identity, and self-esteem are important determinants in explaining violent mobilization. People make choices in order to serve their mental preferences, their fundamental human needs, to understand and control their environment, to find their role and purpose in life, and to feel accepted and efficacious in their choices and actions.

Research Question(s)

The authors seek to answer the following question:

  1. What is the role of human psychological needs, versus external environmental conditions in causing conflict?


A vast amount of interdisciplinary literature was reviewed and identified three need dimensions: existential, relational, and self-related human needs. Each of these needs is shaped by internal determinants, such as agent ́s dispositions, and by external determinants, such as economic, social, political, or environmental factors. Therefore, to properly understand why individuals join rebel groups and are willing to accept a high level of personal risk to advance their group’s ́ goals, their psychological human needs beyond economic incentives are considered.

More than 400 theoretical and empirical studies, as well as books, across various disciplines, including economics, psychology, political science, and sociology were reviewed. They used several databases such as EconLit, WISO, Web of Science, ScienceDirect, PsycINFO, PsycARTICLES etc. to collect, analyze, and form a theoretical framework.


The principal argument of this paper is that individuals may join radical groups, adopt radical ideologies, start illegal activities or resort to violence because they are deprived of resources, opportunities, and a supportive social environment to serve their existential, relational, and self-related needs. They then make choices and search for alternative coping strategies and reconciliation options to serve their fundamental needs, given the environmental conditions and resource constraints. While individuals may also join rebel groups for prospective material gains or political, social, and economic payoff (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004), the psychological drives should be also taken into consideration.

How This Translates for the Workplace:

  1. Importance of Coaching: Conflicts arise out of unmet psychological needs that can manifest in the form of projection. Jumping directly into the mediation process without spending enough time privately with clients can ignore these individual needs that led to the conflict in the first place. In order to get to the root of the problem, invest in the coaching of employees in the pre-mediation process so that the mediator can understand their client’s perspective better, and assist them in behavior change. The goal is to help them meet their psychological needs through ways outside of the conflict situation. This can help accelerate the resolution process. Focusing on solutions, such as how those needs could be met by both parties and a win-win situation could be found is a creative process that is imperative for effective mediation. Many workplaces have now begun investing in executive coaches too as an important service to ensure employee well-being.
  2. Importance of Maintaining a Healthy Company Culture: This paper gives regard to the external reasons for conflict too: economic, social, political circumstances that prevent individuals from fulfilling their psychological needs. A company culture where employees’ psychological needs are generally met is a mammoth task, but prevention is better than cure. Ensuring employee happiness through individual check-ins, building a conscious culture, an environment of free speech and expression, and promoting authenticity are steps in the right direction. A democratic culture with clear role division and clear expectations leads to consistency, retention, and long-term stability. By ensuring that the external environment is healthy, companies can prevent the creation of conflict in the first place. However, they can’t eradicate it entirely because they can’t control the inner psychological world of employees regardless of the positive conditions they create.