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Book excerpt: "High Conflict," when life becomes "us vs. them"

The latest book from journalist Amanda Ripley, author of the New York Times bestseller "The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way)," follows her examination of tribalism, and why people may cling to group identities, even when they are misunderstood.

"High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out" (to be published April 6 by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS) is Ripley's look at how forcing people into narrow categories, a common tactic, actually breeds conflicts that can worsen divisions, and offers ideas on how to break free from viewing the world as "us vs. them."

Read the excerpt below, and don't miss Susan Spencer's interview with Amanda Ripley on "CBS Sunday Morning" April 4!


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Simon & Schuster

Four years ago, I went on a quest to try to understand how people get out of really ugly conflicts—personal, political, all kinds of conflict. Because it just felt like we were stuck, as a country, in conflicts that weren't going anywhere interesting—on social media, in politics, in the news.

I ended up following people who were trapped in all kinds of disputes: a politician in California, a former gang leader in Chicago, an activist in England, and regular, frustrated voters in New York and Michigan.

Eventually, I realized I was asking the wrong question. It's not about getting out of conflict. It's about getting out of high conflict.

High conflict is different from the useful friction of healthy conflict. That's good conflict, and it's a force that pushes us to be better people. Good conflict is not the same thing as forgiveness—or unity. It can be stressful and heated, but our dignity remains intact. Good conflict does not collapse into caricature. These days, we need more good conflict, not less.

High conflict, by contrast, is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. High conflict is what incites people to lose their minds in ideological disputes, political feuds, or gang vendettas. The force that causes us to lie awake at night, obsessed by a conflict with a sibling, a co-worker, or a politician we've never met.

In this state, each encounter with the other side, whether literal or virtual, becomes more charged. The brain behaves differently. We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side. When we encounter them, in person or on a cable news channel, we might feel a tightening in our chest, a dread mixed with rage, as we listen to whatever insane, misguided, dangerous thing the other side says.

Everyone I followed was trapped in high conflict at some point. But they aren't anymore. People do escape. I've seen individuals—even entire communities—create good conflict, instead of high. Curiosity returns. Humanity revives. IQs go back up. Conflict becomes necessary and good, instead of just draining. 

From "High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out" by Amanda Ripley. Copyright © 2021 by Amanda Ripley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

     
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