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Reconciliation as an Evolved Strategy

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Conflict does not just plague human societies. It also afflicts other group-living animals, who (like humans) have evolved strategies for mitigating social conflict. One such strategy is ‘reconciliation,’ first defined by de Waal & van Roosmalen (1979) as post-conflict friendly interaction between former opponents.

Unlike the traditional ‘dispersal hypothesis,’ which posits that animals tend to avoid one another following aggression, the ‘reconciliation hypothesis’ predicts that opponents are preferentially attracted to one another following conflict. It was de Waal’s initial observations of a chimpanzee colony at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands that led him and colleagues to speculate that affiliation, rather than dispersion, indeed characterized many post-conflict interactions in this species. This was later confirmed by many carefully designed observational studies and experiments, carried out both in captivity and the wild. Since its initial documentation in chimpanzees, reconciliation has been demonstrated in over 30 primate species as well as a growing number of other social animals.

One of the most consistent findings from over three decades of work on reconciliation is that animals that reconcile are likely to have a more valuable social relationship. For example, in chimpanzees, males form very strong intrasexual bonds (but not females), and reconciliation rates between males are far higher than between females. In rhesus macaques, relatives are more likely to form strong bonds, and hence reconcile conflicts more frequently than do nonrelatives. In one experimental study, researchers manipulated relationship value by training pairs of long-tailed macaques to cooperate to obtain a food reward. They found that monkey dyads significantly increased their tendency to reconcile post-training to cooperate, as compared to baseline reconciliation rates.

These patterns, among many others, reveal interesting similarities with our own species. Like humans, conflict in other animals is an inevitable consequence of group living. But, like humans, conflict also provides important opportunities for resolution and repair, particularly among valued social partners. Evolutionary research and theory in this field points to myriad issues relating our capacity for reconciliation with that of other animals. For example, in most species studied so far, affiliative contact between former opponents is most likely to occur during the first several minutes post-conflict. This in mind, should pre-verbal children be put in “time-out” immediately following a conflict, without having the chance to reconcile their differences themselves? This is but one of the many thought-provoking questions that this work raises.

Cords, M., & Thurnheer, S. (1993). Reconciliation with valuable partners by long-tailed macaques. Ethology, 93(4), 315-325.

de Waal, F. B. M., & van Roosmalen, A. (1979). Reconciliation and consolation among chimpanzees. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 5(1), 55-66.

van Schaik, C. P., & Aureli, F. (2000). The Natural History of Valuable Relationships in Primates. In F. Aureli & F. B. M. de Waal (Eds.), Natural Conflict Resolution (pp. 307-333). Berkeley: University of California Press.*

*Natural Conflict Resolution is an interesting and thorough resource for further information on reconciliation behavior in humans and other species.

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University.


Christine Webb

Christine Webb is a doctoral student in Psychology at Columbia University. Broadly, her research interests include reconciliation, individual differences, evolution, and motivation. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Emory University, where she studied the social behavior of brown capuchin monkeys for two years. The following year, she worked as… MORE >

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