The Complexity of Social Interactions, the borderline between competition and conflict
by Paola Giannetakis, Professor at Link Campus University


The confrontation with others is an experience that all people do everyday, in multiple occasions. The motives for which we confront with others are varying, for cars, dresses, for beauty or for grades. The function of this interaction is very important at social interaction level, but is also important at the individuals level. From this social confrontation different types of relations may come out. This paper intends to analyze the specific dynamics of competition and conflict. Competition is a moral acceptable behavior, is an important dynamic at the base of the occidental social structure.

Competition is frequent and natural (Park, Burgess, 1921), while conflict overwhelms this and has a total different logic.

Complex and intrinsic links exists between the dynamics of conflict and competition. Conflict is a type of interaction more or less conscious between two or more individuals or more subjects characterized by a divergence between the objectives in presence of few resources at disposition, in presence of this scarce availability it becomes necessary to eliminate the actions of the adversaries even if this implies to damage someone.

Glasl defines conflict as an interaction between actors in which actors in the dimensions of thought, perception, will, and are baffled by other actors.  In this perspective, competition is a form of social interaction, more natural and frequent in daily life. Conflict is a pervasive experience and cannot be last for long periods.


This distinction underlines that objectives of the conflict are antagonist; groups and subjects are in contraposition between them. For example Palestinian and Israeli sharing the same territory, or two TVs stations trying to conquer the same audience.


The theory of the realistic conflict puts in evidence, how the perception of the incompatibility of the objectives must be verified.

In the conflict rules are missing, while precise rules are present in the competition.

When two or more individuals share the same final goals in presence of scarce resources, then we can define this interaction as competition.

When resources are scarce and the purpose of the goals is quite different then we have a conflict situation.


Conflict and competition theories and researches


Conflict can be defined as the presence of conflicting motivational structures compared to the goal. In other terms the conflict in psychology indicate a clash between what a person or their group membership inner desires and an instance that prevents the satisfaction of need.  The need or the target associated with that desire.

Heraclitus believed that conflict is the mother of all things, because all happen as contrast and necessity. Conflict is the motor that allows the evolution that brings innovation and positivity. Anassimandro, in contrast, believed that conflict is negative, because brings war and oppositional positions between people.

In the Christian tradition, conflict is the evident negation of harmony and love. This contraposition between good and bad views of the conflict is still on debate within the sociological and psychological literature.

Many of the current psychology has adopted various nuances of the concept of conflict to better adapt own theories that have evolved over time.


The conflict in accordance with the psychoanalysis; one of the first to talk about conflict is Sigmund Freud in “The Interpretation of Dreams” in which he provides a distinction:

  • Conflict can manifest when there are two contrasting sentiments of which the person is conscious enough;
  • Whether the evidence manifests the latent conflict, is often deformed, hiding the real conflict between id and superego.

Freud considered the conflict a central element of his theory. We can identify three different modes of conflict in Freud’s writings that trace the evolution of his

Thought: 1. Conflict between pleasure principle and reality principle; 2. Conflict between sexual instincts and impulses of self-preservation (also called ego-instincts); 3. Conflict between life instincts (Eros) and death instincts (Thanatos).


The intrapersonal conflict, respect the wishes or conflicting goals that the person is normally conscious about, and especially in psychoanalysis, we use the term psychic conflict or conflict dynamic to show the mental conflict between instances of a person to a level not aware that only may emerge later on a conscious level, spontaneously or following psychotherapy, and be verbalized, interpreted, internalized and possibly resolved. Generally, the intra-psychic conflict affects instinctual aspects of nature, deep, existential, close to the person, and then only secondarily is related to the social sphere.


Festinger has developed the cognitive theory of dissonance; according to this theory, the individual in front of the cognitive conflict tends to reduce their importance. A survey conducted by the researcher, showed that the examined subjects tend to reduce the dissonance by looking information toward a comforting choice. There is a spontaneous tendency to reduce dissonance similar to the physiological mechanism that maintains homeostasis in the body.


The theory of aggression has relevance on theories of the conflict. In facts this theory, explains conflict as the result of frustration of the primary needs on which survival depends, such as food, water, physical security, territory.

Frustration influences the human’s behavior, for example a child who receives frustration from the mother, will become aggressive toward his peers or his toys. The social dynamics explained important historical events, for example Hitler and the humiliation of Germany after the World War I; the frustration has been moved toward ethnic minorities such as Hebrew and rom. (Dollard et al., 1967).

The conflict is closely linked with frustration because desires, needs and demands often continue to exist even though they are apparently incompatible with each other, in addition the conflict may be more or less conscious: an adolescent often refuses or denies the dependence on parents or by those who care yet he is conscious of having objectively need of them for survival.

But frustration is not enough to explain aggression. Berkowitz (1962) explained that more then frustration, aggression can be caused by suffering, hot or cold climate conditions, and from others toxic stimulus.

Deutsch (1973) classified the possible causes of conflict; resources control – religious and ethical values- beliefs- nature of human relationships- survival. Conflict can arise for any of the cited causes. Individuals may start a conflict because they do have different beliefs and expectations, for example French Revolution is a clear conflict example between classes and social groups.


Deustch  further distinguishes: Interdependence-positive individuals are linked in such a way there is a connection between the success of one and that of others (all wins if everybody wins); Interdependence-negative: people are linked by a negative correlation between the success of one and the other   -Absence of interdependence: each person pursues his personal goals.

Therefore we can say that competition is a kind of antagonism to conquer something, while conflict is not rational, and is not related on resources only. Conflict is toward power, often to establish a new social order.


Antagonistic objectives Common objectives
Lacking of structures Rules of the game
Personalization Impersonal
Discontinuity Continuity

1-      Distinctive characteristics of conflict and competition



The collaboration between Turner and Tajfel began developing the notion of social competition, to extend the meaning of process under the bias intergroup; groups can involve in a reciprocal competition to defend a certain status. Conflict can be the consequence of the defending the prestige acquired by a group. According to Turner and Tajfel (1979) three fundamental processes are involved; the social categorization, social identification, social confrontation. A useful element to define the cooperation and competition within a group is the concept of interdependence; (Lewin, 1948): a group exists because the people who compose it are in a relationship-oriented to achieve a common goal.

Tajfel demonstrated that competition can arise from the simple division between subjects, the need for individual identity and group identity become a primary need and therefore should be defended. For example supporters of a different football team, or religious identity.

Also Sherif studied competition in groups, in his theory he offered a new explanation, he studied how groups form, how conflict raises and how reduce conflict.

He wanted to demonstrate that competition does not derive from individual problems or frustration of needs, while derives from a social process that can occur and modify individuals’ behavior.

He proceeded to an experiment with 24 boys of 12 years, “Robber’s Cave Experiment”; an important experiment that is at the foundation of the Realistic Group Conflict Theory. Groups that are in conflict because of common resources to be conquered put in play dynamics from which is possible to get out with cooperation dynamics. Competition and conflict were showed, even if these participants were not frustrated, neither aggressive.

Competition is a phenomenon that occurs normally and that it has normally positive connotation and it is seen as a creative way to produce and innovate to demonstrate courage and loyalty, it helps social identity and group reinforcement. While conflict is often associated with negative events, such as war or aggression and harm of others; conflict surpasses the convenience’s logic, it occurs even when is not convenient anymore, the objective is to posses something, for its instrumental value.


Paola Giannetakis