The Brain as Mediator: Exploring the Neuroscience of Conflict


In the summer of 2014, nearly 25,000 employees of Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain, walked off the job in support of their fired boss, billionaire Arthur T. Demoulas. Even customers, in support of the workers, stopped shopping at the chain. The two new CEOs first fired eight strike leaders, and then offered a series of ultimatums. The workers, who had not attended Ivy League business schools where “do not negotiate” and “never apologize” positions are often encouraged, ignored the ultimatums. They roasted lamb in supermarket parking lots and served it to customers who carried placards supporting the staff.

In the end, the workers won. Arthur T. Demoulas’ bid to buy Market Basket for $1.5 billion was successful. Ten days after Market Basket employees returned to work and stores crowded with shoppers, fast food workers in 150 U.S. cities, driven by the desire to begin earning a livable wage, followed suit by going on strike.

Dr. David Morin, who holds a master’s degree in business administration and is a clinical psychiatrist with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services, commented: “I got an MBA 10 years ago and at that time, the fad was to build consensus, talk in groups, and to diminish aggression. Today, bullying management in many organizations appears to be a response to intense competition.

There is a battle over resources and who is going to have the wealth. But the Market Basket case was in some instances a poll on public opinion about such management and the outcome was in many ways a publicity and marketing coup for the new owner of the chain. Market Basket gives good quality at a low price, but the conflict showed that people want quality in terms of how corporates treat their employees too.”

Can any of this translate into political conflict, especially that involving countries or terrorist groups? Are there any lessons from, or for, neuroscience? With recent sieges tearing apart much of Iraq and Syria, and past conflict in Ukraine, now seems a more crucial time for conflict resolution from a scientific standpoint than ever before. While there is considerable research about aggression and conflict, there is a paucity of research into the impact on the brain as it moves from conflict and confrontation to negotiation and collaboration.

Harvard psychologist Dr. Joshua D. Greene, author of “Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them,” believes that moral sense is compromised by the “moral tribes” that divide the modern world. Everyone has moral machinery on board, but we don’t always respect the cultural differences of others. This creates an inflexibility of moral intuition. We have heartstrings, but they’re not designed to be tugged from very far away. And our heartstrings are more likely to respond to those we recognize as allies, and to be cold to those we see as “others.” There is no surprise in that, it has enabled and fueled every war the world has seen.

But as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi found in their pursuits of ending conflict in their respective nations, progressing from conflict to negotiation, accommodation, and peace means finding and emphasizing that which links us, not that which divides us. Mandela, who ran for president of South Africa after spending over a quarter of a century in jail for his activism, advocated a policy of reconciliation. Radicals in South Africa hotly debated his views. They had experienced a decade of state-orchestrated death squads, torture, and imprisonment. He listened patiently to one such angry debate and asked, “What will it cost us to negotiate?”


There were no answers. By his example, he revealed that the hearts and minds of even the most militant racists could be transformed not by blame, nor punishment, but by recognizing our shared humanity. His tenure as South Africa’s first democratically elected president remains his nation’s golden age.

Dr. Gerard Finnemore, a South African neuropsychologist based in Johannesburg says: “The revenge-focused brain communicates between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala firing messages that say, ‘we’ll get you back, we’ll get you back.’ That’s what you see in the Israel-Palestine situation. The response is always emotional. It’s the same sort of response if a man is in a pub and someone looks at his girlfriend and he picks a fight. But the brain that learns how to control the amygdala, through meditation as an example, has a slower, more controlled response.”

This may be why the Department of Veterans Affairs offers meditation as a major component in its treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder for returning military personnel.

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