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Revisiting the form and function of conflict: Neurobiological, psychological, and cultural mechanisms for attack and defense within and between groups

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2018

Carsten K. W. De Dreu
Institute of Psychology, Leiden University, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making (CREED), University of Amsterdam, 1018 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Institute of Psychology, Leiden University, 2300 RB Leiden, The
Jörg Gross
Institute of Psychology, Leiden University, 2300 RB Leiden, The Netherlands Center for Research in Experimental Economics and Political Decision Making (CREED), University of Amsterdam, 1018 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Institute of Psychology, Leiden University, 2300 RB Leiden, The


Conflict can profoundly affect individuals and their groups. Oftentimes, conflict involves a clash between one side seeking change and increased gains through victory and the other side defending the status quo and protecting against loss and defeat. However, theory and empirical research largely neglected these conflicts between attackers and defenders, and the strategic, social, and psychological consequences of attack and defense remain poorly understood. To fill this void, we model (1) the clashing of attack and defense as games of strategy and reveal that (2) attack benefits from mismatching its target's level of defense, whereas defense benefits from matching the attacker's competitiveness. This suggests that (3) attack recruits neuroendocrine pathways underlying behavioral activation and overconfidence, whereas defense invokes neural networks for behavioral inhibition, vigilant scanning, and hostile attributions; and that (4) people invest less in attack than defense, and attack often fails. Finally, we propose that (5) in intergroup conflict, out-group attack needs institutional arrangements that motivate and coordinate collective action, whereas in-group defense benefits from endogenously emerging in-group identification. We discuss how games of attack and defense may have shaped human capacities for prosociality and aggression, and how third parties can regulate such conflicts and reduce their waste.

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