6 unexpected psychological reasons people get into fights

Photo: Jeffrey/ Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Arguing is (almost) never fun.

Whether you’re fighting with your significant other, friends, coworkers, or family, a bad fight can leave you feeling unhappy and overwhelmed for days on end.

More often than not, it also keeps you from achieving the very goals you’re arguing about.

A study of nurses found that when they argued about patient care on the treatment floor, they were less likely to arrive at a good decision, and lost focus on the task at hand in favour of interpersonal conflict.

But we don’t always have a good sense of why we fight. What pushes us to the point of conflict, when we know it will make us unhappy? And why does it leave us feeling so glum afterward? These findings from the world of psychology offer some less-than-obvious answers.

1.You (or someone you know) have lots of power, but not much respect

One of the ways researchers think about interpersonal conflict is by analysing the situations that create it.

A series of studies found that in the workplace, people who are given lots of power but low status tend to spark an unusually high level of conflict. Put them on a task with someone else, and a 'vicious cycle' of perceived insult and responses is likely to form, which can lead to arguing.

Source: Organisation Science

2. You (or your partner) are not getting enough sleep


If you've followed the science of sleep at all, you know that missing sleep has all kinds of negative effects. It's bad for your health, your brain, and your ability to get things done.

But sleep seems to play an important role in arguments as well, even when you weed out the effects of related issues like stress and anxiety. A study that looked at couples in a laboratory found that when even one partner had gotten too little sleep, both partners were less likely to act warmly toward one another or resolve problems, and more likely to get into fights.

Source: Social Psychology and Personality Science

3. You're rational -- to a fault

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for FOX

What do people say when they're arguing with someone who just can't seem to compromise?

Be reasonable. Be rational.

But it turns out too much rationality can actually make us more likely to argue with one another, not less.

Research suggests that humans are actually at their most reasonable when they're arguing, picking positions that are easier to defend from criticism and thinking over each choice and word more carefully. But that same reasonableness makes it hard for people to actually compromise or see one another's points. They use all their mental resources trying to overcome another person's argument, and none on examining it or seeing its value.

Our minds seem to deploy reason as a weapon, and a way of defeating another person, and it can blind us to the the truth.

Source: Behavioural and Brain Sciences

4. You're self-involved

Christopher Furlong / Staff / Getty Images

Being self-involved improves the odds that after a conflict and its compromise, you find yourself feeling terrible.

A study of 261 students at National Taiwan University examined accounts the students gave of recent conflicts and compromises they had with their parents.

The researchers used the number of times the students said 'we' as a measure of the degree to which the students thought of themselves and their parents as one unit, versus two separate units. Students who used the word 'we' more often were more likely to feel better and have higher levels of well-being after a conflict than students who were more self-involved.

Source: Journal of Happiness Studies

6. You're not authentic

Flickr Creative Commons/Highland

Fights happen. Even if you were to take steps to change the way you go about your life so that you're perfectly in tune with your needs and the needs of others around you, you're going to run into people who don't take those steps. And sometimes you're going to have to stand your ground.

You get through those kinds of situations without feeling miserable afterward by being authentic to yourself.

Research has found that people who don't feel like they're subsuming or covering up their feelings or beliefs are protected from the emotional fallout of conflicts. They can get through a fight without feeling unhappy afterward. But people who don't feel authentic in their actions tend to wind up feeling down for hours or even days after a fight has ended.

Source: Journal of Research in Personality

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