Jun 12, 2020 | The balance theory

Have you ever wondered why whenever two of your friends argue, you immediately get that itchy feeling that this will end up badly for you in one way or another? Or why, once you have just one conflict in a group of people, it starts propagating across the group like a virus? There is a forgotten theory in psychology that explains all this.

What to do if your friends have a conflict with each other? I haven’t thought about this issue for a long time. In academia, people don’t really fight all that much — if you don’t like someone as a person or feel hurt by them, you simply don’t cite their papers, you don’t follow them on Twitter, and you avoid them in person as much as you can. Since you usually attend just one or two major conferences in the field per year, avoiding thee people is not all that difficult. As a matter of fact, it’s relatively easy to avoid personal conflicts in academia — unless you have a deep disagreement with a person with whom you are bound with your employment contract, e.g., your direct boss. And even in that case, many people choose to change their job and go on and just forget about the traumas or the passband the associated people.

But I recently realized that things get much more complicated when there is a monetary exchange between people, namely when friends do business together and when every social contact that you have has a value that could be quantified in one way or another. Money can be an awesome thing — a great motivation, a means of commitment to the project, a reward, or proof of value — but it can also become an awful thing and turn people against each other. I always try to avoid conflicts so it’s hard for me to function among people who have harsh relations with one another. Especially given that I know about the balance theory by Fritz Heider.

I first heard about this theory at some lecture as an undergrad over 15 years ago when I was a junior student of Psychology, and I have never heard about it again — it seems that in today’s literature, the theory is marginalized and rarely cited. Yet, it is so useful!

So, what does this theory state? Let’s simplify the world and assume that every relationship you have with another person, can be either constructive (“positive”) or destructive (“negative”). Or in other words, you either like or dislike each other, and there is no middle ground. In this case, you only have two possible relations with another person. But what happens if there are three of you, namely when you have two friends who know each other? Then, found cases are possible:

A) You are a clique in which everyone likes each other;

B) You like both of your friends but they don’t like each other (which is a situation I mentioned above);

C) You have a friend whom you like, and you both dislike a third person;

D) You know two people whom you dislike, and they dislike each other as well.

What is interesting, is that some of these configurations are stable while others are unstable. Now, a quick IQ test: which of these options are stable, and which of them are unstable? To proceed to the solution, please read the text below the figure.

The balance theory, Heider psychology conflict

Option A is stable. If all three people like each other, there are no natural tensions that might easily push them out of the stable state. Hey, we all have groups of lifelong friends in which we support each other for a lifetime! 

Option B is unstable. Why? Just imagine that you have two friends can’t stand each other. This causes a strong tension as they both will try to pull you onto their side. It’s also possible that one of them will decide to reduce contact with you — the personal conflict with the third person is so painful to them that they will also disconnect from the close environment of that person, including you. In the end, most likely, you will either lose contact with one of these two friends (scenario C), or you will convince them to reconcile (scenario A).

Option C is stable; it’s this “shared enemy“ case. If you and your friend both dislike a third person, it brings you closer to each other. 

Option D is unstable. If there are three parties who all dislike each other, there is some constructive potential in it. Namely, it’s likely that with time, two people with notice that they have a lot in common and form a connection. Then, this structure will transform into the “common enemy” case that is beneficial to both sides (scenario C). It’s a very common situation in politics, when all of a sudden two people, parties, or governments that you have never expected to ever collaborate, suddenly start talking with each other. And then you watch the evening TV news, and you ask yourself, “Wtf is happening here? Why are these people together on one stage?”

Mind that in your environment, you form such triangles with multiple people and in multiple overlapping configurations at a time, hence the “triangulation.” In fact, this is a complex and dynamic system — if one edge in one of the triangles you participate in flips the sign, it will also put pressure on many other triangles in your network and can make them unstable. This is one of the reasons why building personal networks is so hard. It would be easiest if everyone just liked each and there are no flips, but hey, this is not the real-world case, and it’s hard to expect! 

Knowing about this principle always makes it easier to navigate between people (still not easy tho!), especially when entering a new environment: it’s always good to know who is friends with whom even before you make any close relations with anyone. Relations between your friends will have a direct impact on your relations with them — thus, knowing this triangular structure in your environment is just important from the very start. And of course, it’s important to try to flip as many edges into plus as possible!

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