In 2006, I joined a group of about 40 peace experts in a small remote village in Poland called Kazimierz, a historic haven for Jews in a predominantly Catholic region of the world. There Andrea Bartoli, an accomplished peacemaker and devout Catholic who works tirelessly around the world to reduce deadly conflict, made an hour-long presentation arguing that because highly contentious conflicts can become so constricting—in terms of what we are allowed to feel, imagine, aspire to, discuss, or make happen—they imprison us.

In his words, high conflict becomes a place where we come to exist “in the frozen reality of high tensions.” Even contemplating reaching out to a member of the enemy in conflict zones such as Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, or Mozambique in the 1980s was so likely to trigger the wrath of your own community that it became unthinkable. Under these circumstances, he concluded, movement is the cure.

A few years later, our team stumbled on a similar finding while running a type of computer simulation called cellular automata, which presents a checkerboard surface that looks like an urban neighborhood from one thousand feet up, where each of the squares represents people or households in the community.

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We ran the simulation under different conditions to see when conflicts in the community would get better and worse. Sometimes the disputes would remain minor and vanish over time. Other times, events would escalate in the community, and the conflicts would become very hostile, deep, and embedded, resulting in much more change-resistant conflicts. None of that was surprising.

But then we learned something new. Our team had somewhat arbitrarily set a rule stating that people could not move across the community (this simplified the dynamics of the initial model for us). When we changed that operating rule to allow mobility in the space, the tendencies toward intractable disputes disappeared—even when the agents needed to compete for scarce resources! If people could move away from tensions, they often did, and this reduced the self-perpetuating clustering of negativity in these fortress structures, allowing it to dissipate in time.

Bartoli was right! Peace is in the movement! But why?

A former student of mine named Christine Webb has tried to connect the dots between movement and conflict. Across a range of studies of humans, Webb found that locomotion increased both the motivation and the likelihood to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Webb found similar results with primates (31 adult and adolescent chimpanzees). She and her colleagues collected data in a series of controlled observation sessions over several years, with researchers recording all occurrences of chimpanzee antagonistic interactions (tugs, brusque rushes, trampling, biting, grunt-barking, shrill-barking, fighting, crouching, shrink/flinching, or bared-teeth screaming—just as seen on Capitol Hill) and affiliative interactions (kisses, embraces, grooming, touch, finger/hand in mouth, play, and mounting—less common in public on Capitol Hill). Webb found that the chimps evidencing more locomotion behaviors (a general tendency to quickly initiate movement from state to state) had higher rates of reconciliation with other chimps (showing affiliative behaviors), and did so more rapidly after an antagonistic encounter. So even locomotor primates prefer peace.

Why does this matter? The study of locomotion tells the tale. Webb studies locomotion as a basic motive—the need or desire to move from one state to another, like from being cold to being warm. This is often contrasted with another basic motivation we have for assessment, which is the need to stop and critically evaluate what we are doing (our goals) and how we should best achieve them (our strategies). Her research has found that there are important implications for whether we are more motivated to “Just do it”—get moving—or whether it is more important for us to “Do the right thing,” or choose the best objective and course of action.

In the human conflict-resolution world, mediators, negotiators, and diplomats of all stripes—as well as parents, teachers, managers, and other dispute resolvers—tend to spend the vast majority of their time (95%?) going deep into the analysis of our problems and assessment of our solutions and very little time moving—cognitively or physically—forward. Of course, going deep into the specifics of our problems and options is important and useful. But Webb’s research consistently found that a predominance of interest in locomotion over assessment was best for promoting readiness and a willingness to resolve conflicts, reconcile, and move on.

There are a multitude of ways to leverage the insights from research on locomotion to begin to loosen the grip of polarization on you, your community—or even your family, after two years of being stranded at home by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are a few tactics, small and large.

1. When in conflict, just get up and move

The most straightforward application derived from locomotion research is the value of getting up and moving for freeing up your feeling and thinking. Going for a walk, exercising, building something, gardening, playing catch, and running have all been shown to help shift our mind out of deep ruts and at times liberate us from dysphoric rumination and other types of adverse emotional traps.

Moving outside in nonurban spaces has been shown to have the most revitalizing and reparative effects, helping us reorient to the flow of change that is the natural state of our life (our brains evolved in the open plains, not in the context of static, squared-off rooms).

When you feel particularly stuck—in a terrible mood, hateful thought pattern, or painful relationship dynamic—just do it! As philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burden-some that one cannot walk away from it.” 

2. Use your body to make a map

Systems mapping techniques can help us begin to better see and understand the flow of some of the cycles that are affecting our divisions. Sketching how certain elements are increasing each other (e.g., when spikes in our anxiety increase our political news intake, which further heightens our anxiety) or decreasing each other (such as when listening to thoughtful speakers from the other side of the aisle discuss their views of contested issues lessens your animosity for the other group and increases the odds you will seek out their opinions again) can help us locate levers for change.

This essay is adapted from The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization (Columbia University Press, 2021, 296 pages).

Beyond the cognitive benefits of mapping, I want to highlight the fact that the physical nature of joint mapping—of getting up with markers and whiteboard or flipcharts and together discussing and sketching an understanding of the problem set—can also change the conflict dynamic.

Typically, we ask disputants to sit in chairs on either side of a table and talk through conflicts. This makes it much more likely that each disputant sees the other side as the problem—thus personalizing it. With mapping, disputants are tasked with co-creating their shared understanding of a complex set of elements that feed the problem by physically drawing key factors and connecting the dots on a surface in front of them.

This process promotes both synchronization and collaboration through moving together, allowing the disputants to externalize the problem onto the flipchart or wall, thereby decreasing personalization. We have found that these joint action mapping processes can be game changers when groups are mired in a state of mutual contempt. Try it!

3. Get on the road

The positive effects of foreign travel on people’s openness to experience and tolerance for difference has long been a truism, but little research had been done on this until quite recently. One project looked at the effects of studying abroad on changes in students’ personalities and found that it was associated with increases in two of the “Big Five” personality traits—openness to experience and agreeableness—and a decrease in a third trait, neuroticism.

A second project found even more evidence for the specific effects of locomotion during travel. Over five studies, the authors found that the effect of “breadth of foreign travel” (number of countries traveled) but not the depth of experiences (amount of time spent traveling) produced greater levels of generalized trust. This is an important finding because the effects of more extensive forms of travel not only improve travelers’ attitudes toward the people they visit but also seem to generalize to a more comprehensive sense of trust in humans. All of these foreign travel–induced effects make for more effective and constructive conflict resolution.

So how far out is the notion of red-blue student and citizen exchanges, or travel packages to the foreign territories and cultures of urban versus rural America? Not so much. The nonprofit group Etgar 36 currently does just this with American teens. Their mission is to develop the political voices of American youth by taking them on journeys across the country and exposing them to different cultures, ideas, and methods of argumentation. To date, more than eighteen thousand adults and teens have “gotten on the bus.” Might this be a blueprint for moving America forward?

4. Make locomotion the law

When Botswana first achieved independence from the British in 1966, they were worried. Having watched other African nations recently emerge from colonialist rule (Mali, Congo, and Nigeria), many of them finding that their new borders had been sketched out on the back of a cocktail napkin by the former colonial powers, they feared the worst. Too often this resulted in deadly ethnic clashes and civil wars.

The new configuration of lands put together by former rulers of Botswana included some 20 different tribes, many with different languages and traditions, including the Kalanga in the north, the Bakwena south of the Kalahari Desert, and the Bangwato in the center. What could they possibly do to try to head off what seemed like inevitable ethnic violence?

The most radical and critical step they took was to mandate employment location transfers for all civil servants—doctors, teachers, engineers, and public administrators—which made up the largest percentage of the workforce in the country. Every few years, these workers would be reassigned to other regions of the nation. They would need to pull up stakes, move, take on a new position, and settle into a new community, typically with a different dominant tribe.

While the policy of location transfers did have its downsides, it has been heralded as one of the main reasons Botswana has been able to avoid ethnic violence and establish one of Africa’s least corrupt, most prosperous, and best-functioning democracies. The intentional mixing of civil servants in and out of different historically tribal areas seems to have provided sufficient levels of meaningful intergroup contact and cross-ethnic bonding to make ethnic violence much less likely.

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Implementing a similar labor policy or law seems farfetched in the United States today, but the idea is solid. One way would be to modify and support the CORPS Act (Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic Through Service Act), a bipartisan bill recently before Congress that proposed doubling the number of AmeriCorps positions this year to 150,000, providing a total of 600,000 opportunities for unemployed youth to assist struggling communities. The initiative could stipulate the need for these workers to travel across our political divide and serve communities in areas quite different from their own, moving from urban to rural and from rural to urban.

5. Move in tandem

Synchronization is simply the operation or activity of two or more things at the same time or rate. Clocks, computers, engines, and factory lines are often synchronized. Dancers, emergency room medical teams, orchestras, restaurant kitchen staff, and Olympic synchronized swim teams all need to get in sync to function effectively. So do lovers, fencers, parents and infants, tennis partners, and negotiators.

Synchronization between disputants was one of the more intriguing findings from our studies of difficult conversations. When dyads had conversations over moral differences that went well, we found that these pairs evidenced higher levels of emotional synchronization (feeling similar emotions at similar times) than pairs that resulted in negative outcomes. This finding is consistent with those of other conflict lab studies that have found similar differences of emotional synchrony and inertia, or decoupling of emotions, evident in happily versus unhappily married couples, and top-performing versus subpar work teams.

Most relevant to our focus, however, is the finding that physically moving in sync with others has been shown to enhance cooperation, prosocial behavior, and the ability to achieve joint goals, and it also increases our compassion and helping behavior. One study showed that walking in sync with a group of people made them more willing to make personal sacrifices that benefited the group. In fact, some of the effects of synchrony on cooperation and helping have been evident in research with participants as young as four years old and infants!

In the late summer of 1982, two nuclear arms negotiators, American Paul H. Nitze and Soviet Yuli A. Kvitsinsky, left a formal session on arms control talks in Geneva and took a private, unofficial walk in a wooded area outside the city. Walking along a path in this more serene setting, they were eventually able to achieve a breakthrough in a stalemate in the talks. This informal practice of strolling in nature has begun to be integrated to some degree in other types of dispute resolution and peacebuilding, particularly those that require deeper thinking, healing, and repair. Unfortunately, this simple adjustment is sorely underutilized.

Nevertheless, the combined findings from the studies on locomotion and synchronization strongly indicate that you should make a good-faith effort to incorporate walking into your conflict management portfolio whenever possible. Whether it involves tensions with a sibling, schoolmate, or senator, the potential benefits from walking together—particularly when moving smoothly, in nature, and side by side—have been shown repeatedly to help trigger synchrony and deliver various individual, interpersonal, and group benefits. A recent study found that even walking alone, before engaging in a tense encounter, can help to mitigate the negative feelings and perceptions that often accompany such alienating encounters.

So what, really, do you have to lose? As it is written in the Bible: “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”

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