Conflict Tips Through the Lens of Science and Nature (Part 2 of 2)

Series Intro: 

Lately I’ve come across multiple articles in the press showing how much science and nature have to teach us about conflict management. For this two-part series, I thought I’d share some lessons in conflict management from the world of nature, naturalists, scientists, and science. 

Series Part 2: Collaboration and Altruism as Seen Through Science and Nature

Immersing oneself in nature is a well-established way of coping with mental health challenges, including those that arise when we’re involved in a conflict. But did you know that the natural world also has a lot to teach us about techniques for dealing with conflict? Let’s look at a few of the ways in which observing nature can help us learn to mitigate competitiveness and foster altruism and collaboration. 

A view from space can lessen divisive tendencies

Ever heard of the overview effect? As The Atlantic recently explained, the term refers to the profound psychological impact that the view of Earth from space has been said to have on those who’ve experienced it. While the overview effect manifests itself differently for everyone, one common response to observing the globe from far above is to more fully recognize the planet’s inhabitants as not divided by arbitrary, invisible political borders but rather as interconnected through their residence on the same solitary sphere. 

Taking such a figurative view “from above” can also help us work through our own challenges and conflicts, even if we’re not astronauts. When we’re experiencing tough times in our relationships with others, focusing on commonalities and shared interests can often help us find a way to bridge the divide. 

Animals show us the benefits of bystander intervention

Many people have had experience with aggressive individuals at some point in their lives. When we see a person behaving like a bully toward someone else, it can be hard to know what to do in response. Some animals, though, seem to have it figured out. 

For example, Natural Geographic recently noted that when ravens get into a fight, “other ravens send friendly calls to the loser, edge closer, and eventually groom them.” In a somewhat similar vein, Popular Science revealed that “when two pigs are fighting, a bystander pig’s intervention can either reduce the number of attacks by the aggressor or can help reduce the anxiety in the victim.”

Both approaches echo what’s been recommended for humans in such situations as well. When we see one person behaving aggressively toward another, we have several options for intervening as a bystander to try to defuse the conflict, whether it’s by confronting the aggressor directly or offering support to the victim, among other possibilities. (Check out guidance from Right to Be for more detailed bystander intervention tips.) 

Trees teach us the value of cooperation and collaboration

Believe it or not, some scientists believe that animals and humans aren’t the only inhabitants of the planet who come to one another’s aid in times of need. Some studies have suggested that trees may engage in a form of cooperation and collaboration as well. 

As a New York Times article has shown, some scientists believe that trees in forests often share resources with each other, despite the Darwinian expectation that they would engage in competitive “survival of the fittest” behavior. 

If this understanding of trees’ connections to each other is accurate, it shows that these plants have in a sense latched on to a method that has long been espoused for dealing with human conflict as well: collaboration. While trees don’t carry out verbal negotiations, of course, their interconnectedness and resource sharing allow both individual plants and the entire forest to thrive. 

Similarly, when two parties are engaged in conflict, the best way forward will often be not competition but collaboration, or the seeking of a “win-win” solution that can meet both parties’ needs and preserve the relationship as a whole—something that competitive behavior rarely if ever achieves.

All in all, science and nature have a lot to teach us humans about the importance of bridging divides and working together toward common goals. 

By: Dr. Julia Farmer, Director of Ombuds Services, University of West Georgia

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