Negotiation Research You Can Use: Hugging it Out

Repairing relationships after competition

By on / Conflict Resolution

Males and females react to one-on-one conflict differently, research suggests, and perhaps from an early age. Irreconcilable conflicts are more likely to disintegrate the activities and social groups of girls than those of boys, studies have found. Male college roommates were less likely than females to become embroiled in conflicts that led them to change roommates, Emmanuel College professor Joyce F. Benenson and her colleagues concluded from their research. And in a workplace study by Sun Young Lee of University College London and colleagues, female coworkers reported their relationships as being more damaged after competition than men did.

Benenson and Harvard University professor Richard W. Wrangham recently took a closer look at whether men and women rebound from conflict differently within the context of sports competitions. They had coders study videotapes of what happened after pairs of men and pairs of women from 44 countries finished matches in four sports: tennis, table tennis, badminton, and boxing. The coders found that following their competitions, men were far more likely than women to engage in friendly physical contact, such as handshakes, pats on the back, and hugs.

The results don’t contradict ample research showing that men are more competitive and aggressive than women. Rather, they show that men, at least in sports, may feel more compelled than women to strengthen bonds with adversaries after the competition ends.

Why? Drawing from evolutionary biology, Benenson and Wrangham cite the male warrior hypothesis, or the idea that men evolved with a strong motivation to repair relationships following competition and conflict due to the need to gather allies who could help them defend their group from outsiders in the future. Similarly, the authors note that rival male chimpanzees from the same troop tend to reconcile immediately following brutal fights— because of their need to build a broad, cooperative network to face off against other troops of chimps.

Meanwhile, human women, like female chimps, evolved to focus on cultivating cooperative relationships with family and a small number of close friends who could help with child rearing. Evolutionarily, women may have had less of a need than men to repair relationships with those outside their circle, the researchers theorize.

It would be premature to generalize the results of this study on sports competitions to business conflicts. But the findings offer interesting food for thought on how we may continue to be influenced by age-old human behaviors and should inspire negotiation researchers to examine possible differences in how men and women react to workplace conflict.

Resource: “Cross-Cultural Sex Differences in Post-Conflict Affiliation Following Sports Matches,” by Joyce F. Benenson and Richard W. Wrangham, Current Biology, 2016.

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