Mind games: The mental representation of conflict

Nir Halevy*, Eileen Y. Chou, J. Keith Murnighan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Perception and misperception play a pivotal role in conflict and negotiation. We introduce a framework that explains how people think about their outcome interdependence in conflict and negotiation and how their views shape their behavior. Seven studies show that people's mental representations of conflict are predictably constrained to a small set of possibilities with important behavioral and social consequences. Studies 1 and 2 found that, when prompted to represent a conflict in matrix form, more than 70% of the people created 1 of 4 archetypal mixed-motive games (out of 576 possibilities): Maximizing Difference, Assurance, Chicken, and Prisoner's Dilemma. Study 3 demonstrated that these mental representations relate in predictable ways to negotiators' fixed-pie perceptions. Studies 4-6 showed that these mental representations shape individuals' behavior and interactions with others, including cooperation, perspective taking, and use of deception in negotiation, and through them, conflict's outcomes. Study 7 found that the games that people think they are playing influence how their counterparts see them, as well as their counterparts' negotiation expectations. Overall, the findings document noteworthy regularities in people's mental representations of outcome interdependence in conflict and illustrate that 4 archetypal games can encapsulate fundamental psychological processes that emerge repeatedly in conflict and negotiation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)132-148
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Conflict
  • Mental representations
  • Mixed-motive games
  • Negotiation
  • Outcome interdependence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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