Session 1 – The Dynamics of Conflict

Unit 6 – Metastability & “Winnerless Competition”

In the previous units we looked into the different practices demonstrating various aspects of conflict dynamics: starting from prey-predator relationship, moving on to schizmogenesis, and further towards the double-bind dilemma. 

All of those models take a closer look at the dynamics of conflict development, showing its oscillatory dynamics and the importance of having a “zoom out” perspective that can help see long-term patterns behind short-term fluctuations. Specifically, any conflict has several ways it can escalate and several ways it can be dissipated. The path towards escalation is often through a symmetric response (e.g. arms race, counter-attack, increased tension) or through a complimentary one (submitting to pressure, giving in).  The path towards dissipation is through short-circuiting the dynamics by way of providing an unexpected response. This response can either stay within the existing context (by way of reversal, deceleration or acceleration) or shift into a different context (by way of meta-communication or an unexpected “crazy” response). 

In this unit we will discuss the importance of conflict for maintaining a certain type of non-equilibrium stability, which is referred to as metastability.


We have mentioned before in the unit on prey-predator dynamics that many stable formations that can be found in nature and in society are able to exist for prolonged periods of time because of the inherent conflict within them.

In fact living systems have a natural tendency towards entropy or disorder. It is important to understand, however, that entropy does not equal “mess”. In fact, the disorder of entropy is to be understood literally: a system that has no order inside. Order is based on differences. If everything is like everything else, there are no differences, then there is no order = maximum entropy. 

In this context conflict can be seen as a process that helps maintain differences and prevents any system from sliding towards entropy.

An example of that is a group of people with opposing beliefs. If we were to equalize all individuals in a group, it would quickly become homogeneous and lose its ability to hold different opinions – and with that it would lose its ability to evolve and adapt based on its internal resources. A more homogenized group would increase its reliance on the environment in order to survive. This would make it much more susceptible to external influences and further reduce its adaptive capacities. 

If a group maintains a certain degree of heterogeneity, it is much more robust and adaptable as it can draw on internal differences in order to be able to deal with the constantly changing circumstances in its environment. 

At the same time if the differences within the group are too high, it may lead to its dissolution or escalation of conflict.

Several studies show that small-world social networks (groups that consist of loosely connected tight-knit communities) are the most stable formations in the long run and they are also the least susceptible ones to external influences (rumors, epidemics and such). Small-world groups are the kind of formations that maintain a certain degree of difference: the subgroups that they consist of are distinct.Yet there are also links between the different groups, which allows them to communicate and interact together.

Small World Organizational Cross Group Cliques Network Graph

The small-world principle is best exemplified by our brain, which has a small-world structure itself. That’s why we are able to be aware of the meaning of this sentence (processed one group of neurons) while at the same time feeling the temperature of the air (another group of neurons) and hearing the sounds around (the other group of neurons). All those experiences are happening at once and combine into a coherent view of reality, but they are also in conflict and competition with one another for our conscious attention. The presence of this conflict makes our experience more diverse and intensified. It also produces stability in the long run as we shift from one activity to another in order to be able to maintain ourselves (if it gets too cold we make ourselves warmer; if we are tired we stop reading and rest, perform some other activity or sleep).

In fact, this natural ability to maintain several states at once and shift between them was studied in detail by mathematicians who worked in the field of psychology. It is called “metastability” and it’s the basic operating principle for our ability to shift between different states. 


The origin of metastability is winnerless competition. Different states shift in between each other successively to give space to a different activity. After a while, a new state sets in instead of the old one. It has been shown that during the state our systems and inner rhythms are in sync, during the change they go out of sync (when body/mind is searching for a new temporary equilibrium). Therefore, an internal conflict is simply an indication that something is going out of sync. In order to synchronize it again we either need to shift to a new state (going meta and / or transcending the context) or make some changes to the already existing one (reversal or deceleration). 

Strange attractors within the brain produce local areas of metastability through synchronization

Strange attractors within the brain produce local areas of metastability through synchronization

In the next session of this course we will look closer at those biological rhythms and show how they can be used to modulate shifts between different states, which is a key element to maintaining latent conflict dynamics that is benevolent to a system and not destructive to it. 



Test Question – Group Design

Let’s suppose you are building a small team to work on a project. The project will be long-term and it will require expertise from across different fields and backgrounds. The participants will encounter various challenges and may need to be inventive and change their strategies as they go.

You have two possibilities to choose from when building your team. One (A) is a group of 15 people who worked together before and they all know each other. The other one (B) is 3 groups of 4-6 former co-workers / friends and only a couple of people from each subgroup know some people from the other subgroups. 

Which team formation would you prefer for your project and why?


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Practical Task – Metastable Position

Think of 3 different types of activities that you normally do during the week: for example, working, meeting friends and reading (you can choose any other ones as long as they are sufficiently different from one another). Try an experiment that will last 9 days. Spend the first 3 days doing all three activities every day, giving them more or less equal amount of time (e.g. 2-3 hours each) – stage A. Then spend another 3 days where you designate each day for only one task – stage B. Finally, spend another 3 days where you do all 3 activities but constantly shifting from one to another – stage C. Observe your emotional state, satisfaction, and progress. Share your experience with us, if you wish.

In this proposition time is the resource and because it’s required by each activity you will put them into conflict to one another, especially in stages B and C because they will be competing for a limited resource – time. However this conflict may generate interesting experience for you personally because you might discover different correlations between the way you organize your day and your progress / emotional state. It is different for everybody and we urge you to find the constellation that works for you, depending on what you prefer. Maybe you will like all 3 for all the different benefits that they bring…

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