Rationality After a Conflict

· February 14, 2019
After conflict, it seems like our natural human inclination is to not be rational. However, some research suggests that group decision-making can improve cooperation and problem-solving after a conflict.

Is it possible to be rational after a conflict? After a conflict, thinking rationally and cooperating with the other person seems difficult, even if it’s for your own good. It’s even less common in a group setting. If your group has a conflict with another group, your group will trigger negative emotions in you, so your behavior will be negative. That happens even if your bad behavior causes problems for you as well.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to be rational after a conflict and some situations make it more likely. When decisions are made as a group, the back-and-forth makes the process slower and more deliberate. As a result, the group will make more rational decisions and maybe even decide to cooperate with the opposing group.

A ripped photo of an angry couple.


Humans have had many conflicts throughout history, some of which have led to violence. The idea of a harmonious existence free of conflict seems more impossible every day. What’s more, violence between different groups of people seems to have some advantages in terms of reproduction. On the other hand, history teaches us that groups aren’t always at odds with each other. Humans can also build relationships based on trust and mutual cooperation.

“Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.-

Thus, we exist within a paradox of contradicting behavior. You have cooperation on one side and aggression on the other. How do you know what will happen after a conflict? It really all comes down to post-conflict management.

After a conflict, there might be emotional wounds that make resolution impossible. Both parties find cooperation impossible, which deprives everyone of potential economic and social benefits.


Psychological theories about decision-making argue that there are two ways two make decisions:

  • Making decisions after processing information in a rational, slow, and deliberate way.
  • Making decisions automatically, based on experience and past emotions.

In situations of conflict, the “other” becomes an automatic trigger of negative emotions. This association is what leads people to make decisions automatically. You choose to trust your emotions and past experienceHowever, this method has a downside. After all, experience isn’t always your greatest ally when you’re trying to evaluate the consequences of your decisions.

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

-John Steinbeck-

Nevertheless, if those involved in the conflict deliberate as a group, it’s likely that you’ll make decisions rationally. This is because, in a group setting, individuals are capable of ignoring their experience and emotions and tend to make more rational decisions.

A couple being rational after conflict.

Being rational after a conflict

The conclusion that we can draw about being rational after a conflict is that the group has a civilizing effect on the individual. While it’s true that groups can also be irrational and put pressure on their members during decision making, the group can also offer a context that fosters discussion. This space for deliberation makes it possible to correct mistakes and make rational decisions.

We can apply this principle to current conflicts if we want to find a solution. Inviting the affected parties to weigh the different options will make it much more likely for them to opt for cooperation. Rational thought can help us move towards making society better.

Sasaki, T., & Pratt, S. C. (2011). Emergence of group rationality from irrational individuals. Behavioral Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arq198 Bornstein, G., Kugler, T., & Ziegelmeyer, A. (2004). Individual and group decisions in the centipede game: Are groups more “rational” players? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.11.003