The Cybernetics of Having a Thick Skin!

Human beings are survival machines; they, by nature, strive to reduce their discomfort as much as possible. When we are hungry, we search for food; and when in need of protecting ourselves against environmental elements, we secure a shelter. Understanding that conflict is a discomforting difference, any conflict perceived by any individual will force them to move (i.e., a change in the system’s state) and search for a solution to their discomfort, as Kenneth Cloke writes in the preface of his book, “conflicts are immense sources of stress and pain, which we try to avoid.”[1].


Conflict and Emotion

The existence of a conflict indicates 

    A) the perception of a difference and 

    B) the evaluation of the perceived difference as discomforting. 

In a social system (any number of interacting people), individuals sense and receive pieces of information—mainly from their surroundings, and sometimes within themselves through self-awareness—which when evaluated and compared against the set of parameters they hold as an equilibrium steady state (i.e., beliefs, values, aspirations), produce an understanding of a difference between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be.’ This perceived difference will not initiate any alarms of conflict, as long as it is not evaluated as discomforting and a deviation from the equilibrium state. But, as soon as it is perceived as a deviation, conflict has occurred, and by definition, so have the discomforting emotions, our control system’s response to push us towards equilibrium[2]. That’s the main reason why “it is easy for parties […] to cast themselves as innocent victims acting on principle”[1], because they have perceived information as a deviation to what they hold as equilibrium, and they have acted—as they believe is right—to correct it.

That is why the same information can evoke different reactions in different people. One may perceive a piece of information as a deviation that should be corrected in order to maintain their equilibrium, while the other, although finding it different from what they hold as equilibrium, don’t evaluate it as a discomforting difference, meaning they can tolerate it without moving away from their steady-state: An attribute of complex human systems we may colloquially know as thin vs. thick-skinned.

Thin vs Thick Skinned

Considering Ashby’s statement that “the whole is at a state of equilibrium if and only if each part is at a state of equilibrium in the conditions provided by the other parts”[3], it follows, naturally, that in a social system, conflict will cause disturbance, pushing individuals who have perceived the conflict out of their equilibriums, and as a result, the system as a whole will be out of its equilibrium state. Therefore, we can conclude that a social system in equilibrium will be a group of interacting people (i.e., a system) with no conflict between them: a state of no conflict.



[1] Cloke, K. (2001). Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution [Kindle Version]. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Emotion, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA): “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event.” Invalid source specified.

[3] Ashby, W. R. (1956, October). An Introduction to Cybernetics (Vol. 37). London: Chapman & Hall.

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