Session 1 – The Dynamics of Conflict

Unit 3/6 – Schismogenesis in a Relationship: Pacing and Leading

Schismogenesis is a term coined by an influential anthropologist Gregory Bateson to describe a process of deviation from equilibrium in the context of a relationship. It describes a feedback loop in a relationship.

A classic example of schismogenesis is an imbalanced couple where one person dominates the other and where an increase in submission leads to an increase in domination until the relationship is destroyed. It’s a real-life example that can be found in relations between parents and their children, between companies at competitive markets, as well as politics and international relations.

This dynamics is similar to the prey-predator dynamics described in the previous unit. The only difference is that if there’s no balancing mechanisms in place, the whole system is very unstable and eventually collapses.  

Bateson proposed specific mechanisms that can help avoid escalation that may be detrimental to the whole system. 

An example of complimentary and symmetric schismogenesis feedback loop

 Examples of complimentary (+–) and symmetric (++) schismogenesis feedback loop

He defined two types of schismogenesis: symmetrical (++) and complimentary (+–)In complimentary schismogenesis both parties exhibit opposite behaviors: for example, one party dominates and the other party submits. In symmetrical schismogenesis both parties mirror each other’s behavior, increasing the stakes and expending resources until either one or both of them are depleted (a relationship fight or an arms race is a good example). Bateson proposed to introduce balancing mechanisms by

1) detecting schismogenesis;
2) identifying its type (complimentary or symmetric);
3) reversing the standard logic;

Reversing the standard logic in this context means to act in the way that is opposite to the expected trajectory. For example, if one is involved in a verbal fight where both parties are escalating (symmetric schismogenesis), reverting the logic of this dynamics and diverting towards a quieter, calmer tone of voice will help dissuade escalation and bring the conflict into a more productive flow (that of a discussion). This is a strategy of deceleration in the context of mutual acceleration. In case of complimentary schismogenesis the response would be to start mimicking the the other party’s behavior instead of complimenting it with the opposite. This is a strategy of mirroring.

Short-circuiting schismogenesis feedback loop dynamics through mimicking or reversal

Short-circuiting schismogenesis feedback loop dynamics through mimicking or reversal

Both deceleration and reversal are very efficient techniques that can help dissuade any conflict and redirect interaction into a more peaceful realm. 

It is important to note that those two strategies function much better when they are based on pacing and leading. A certain dynamics has to be acknowledged before it is to be reversed or decelerated. For instance, if somebody is shouting then choosing to decelerate from the very beginning might be not very efficient, because it may be interpreted by the other party as a +– dynamics and they may simply escalate even further. So it makes more sense to take an invitation towards escalation (pacing: responding to + with +) and to then gradually start de-escalating (reversal) in order to dissuade the conflict.

A good example of this approach can also be found in history: the arms race between the US and USSR. The United States were the first to grow their nuclear arsenal and the Soviet Union followed (++ dynamics of escalation). As soon as Russia started to decrease its nuclear potential (deescalation), the US followed as well. An interesting moment here is that this dynamics could also be seen as a sort of provocation on the part of US contributing to the Soviet Union collapse (engage into a nuclear race, as soon as the tendency of the opponent to escalate is stabilized, stop escalation but do not withdraw, wait until they reach the maximum of their capacity, then guide them towards de-escalation). 



Another case we would like to look at is a classic example of pacing and leading from politics. Here the strategy is to first engage into the polarity that is proposed by the situation (+ vs. + or + vs. -), but to then take the lead in the process. During the presidential debate of 1992, Bill Clinton and George Bush were asked how they can actually do something about the national debt if it hasn’t personally affected them. While the question itself was contrived (the person who asked it implied that it affected her much more than them – introducing a +– complimentary dynamics of “I’m different then you are”), Clinton used it to his advantage by acknowledging the fact that the audience member who asked the question was, in fact, affected by it and then suggesting that in fact he, as a governor who has to talk to people on a daily basis is affected by it much more than she is (reversing the roles in the +– dynamics that was established). 


It is important to note that it might still be necessary for the system to occasionally shift out of equilibrium in order to give it a chance to reconfigure and to restructure itself. This behavior is often implemented both on social and personal levels: e.g. days off work on weekends, various cultural rituals, etc. Bateson observed that some tribes were engaged in habitual reversal of roles between different groups on a regular basis to ensure social homeostasis. Such schismogenesis maintains differences (which can be beneficial for the community), but does not allow it to spiral out of control.

A similar approach is described in panarchy – a social organization, which is based on regular reversal of dynamics: from growth to conservation, from release to reorganization. Such constant rotation allows for sustainable development and it also ensures that interests of all the different groups will be catered to by the system. 


The prism of schismogenesis can give us a more precise point of view on the development of a conflict and its trajectory. Is it accelerating or decelerating? Is the conflict we are involved in symmetrical or is it complimentary? Depending on the answers given we can then take the right course of action to direct situation in the direction that is beneficial for all the parties involved.

In the next unit we will demonstrate other efficient strategies that are normally associated with pathologic behaviors using the examples from psychology.


Test Question – Schismogenesis Type

What type of schismogenesis are you witnessing in the first 30 seconds of this video?

  • Symmetrical
  • Complimentary
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Test Question – Dynamics Reversal

In the same video, what type of schismogenesis are we witnessing starting from the 30th second?

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Test Question – Short-Circuiting Strategies

How would you describe the dynamics of the fight shown in the video below using the model of schismogenesis? What are the stages the fight is going through and what was the key point for it to dissuade?

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Practical Task – Transforming the Context

In order to test out the strategies presented above try to implement them in a real-life situation. The easiest way to do it would be through making an experiment either in a social network or in real life. In order to perform the experiment, choose a politically charged but a slightly controversial statement that you can associate with (e.g. “I don’t think anyone should vote for Bernie Sanders because he will lose to Donald Trump, so even though I don’t like Hillary I will vote for her” – or something along those lines). Post it online or say it out loud and wait for a conflict to happen. When it occurs try to escalate for a moment (engaging in a symmetric ++ dynamics) and after two or three steps start to decelerate (responding with – to +). See what happens. You can write your observations below. 

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