Award-winning journalist Amanda Ripley to discuss book on high conflict



As human beings, it’s hard to avoid any conflict. Yet conflict and disagreement can actually be beneficial for people, according to Amanda Ripley. However, the line between good conflict and high conflict is thin, and getting trapped in high conflict can become all-consuming. This is what investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author Ripley will be discussing at 10:30 a.m. Monday, July 19 in the Amphitheater as the first presentation of the Chautauqua Lecture Series’ Week Four theme, “Many Americas: Navigating our Divides.”

Ripley graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in government. At the time, Ripley wanted to go into political journalism, so she started writing for the Congressional Quarterly on Capitol Hill. 

“I remember vividly going to my first congressional hearing, and there were 10 other reporters there, and we were all writing down the same thing,” Ripley said. “And I just felt like, ‘Is this really adding value?’ Particularly at the national level, it’s kind of an echo chamber.”

Ripley realized she wanted to make a bigger impact, and she began freelancing. 

“I worked with a great editor named David Carr, who had these young writers and taught us about literary journalism. … It was a great way to learn and experiment,” Ripley said. “That blew my mind. It was a great way to develop a voice and get out of what my idea was of what journalism should be.” 

From there, Ripley worked for Time magazine for 10 years, reporting on topics such as disaster, terrorism and crime. Each book she’s written has stemmed from trying to uncover something for a magazine, when she would come to a wall about whether or not there was any sort of hope for that particular problem. This was the case for her study on high conflict, which will not only be the center of Ripley’s lecture, but is also the center of her most recent bestselling book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.

Ripley describes high conflict as being a situation where people, once drawn in, find themselves stuck. People become increasingly certain that they are right and will be quick to make negative assumptions about those who have different opinions. 

This all-consuming feeling can at times even lead to war. Each side doesn’t realize how much the conflict is negatively affecting their own lives or the lives of those around them. 

In today’s lecture, Ripley will be telling stories about people and communities who found themselves stuck in this dysfunctional conflict, both personal and political, all over the world, who were then able to make a shift into some kind of good conflict. 

“There’s a distinction between high conflict, which is all-consuming and ultimately destructive, and good conflict, (which) is stressful and difficult but generally healthier and productive,” she said.  

Ripley highlights that one doesn’t need to necessarily give up what they’re fighting for, but rather to shift into a more productive manner of advocating. An important aspect of doing so is recognizing what leads to high conflict. 

“There’s four forces that reliably lead to high conflict, and I’ll be talking about them,” Ripley said. “One example is probably the most underappreciated force, which is humiliation. You also have another force, which is the presence of conflict entrepreneurs. These are people or platforms that exploit conflict for their own ends. And they will often frame every loss as a humiliation, no matter how small. There are patterns that you want to watch out for if you want to stay out of high conflict.”

Ripley will apply this concept to present day incidents.

“I’ll talk about a synagogue in New York City that almost imploded in high internal conflict over Israel,” Ripley said. 

What sparked Ripley’s initial interest in this issue of high conflict occurred five years ago, in 2016. 

“My motivation was after Donald Trump won the election in 2016,” Ripley said. “It started to feel like journalism wasn’t working the way it had in the past. It started to feel like it just didn’t matter what facts you managed to dig up and how pretty you made them look, because people weren’t changing their mind, and I couldn’t really understand what was going on until I started learning from people who study intractable conflict as a system. And then it was like a light bulb moment, where I realized this is not normal; traditional journalism just doesn’t function in high conflict.”

One example of this is  perception. 

“Democrats think there are twice as many Republicans with extreme views as there actually are. And the same with Republicans. Both sides think the other side hates them much more than they do,” she said. “And you get into this kind of feedback loop of fear and resentment that really kind of perpetuates itself, so it becomes conflict for conflict’s sake.”

Ripley will also highlight the importance of understanding the root of what is being argued about in the first place. 

“You want to find ways to help people get underneath the conflict, so to speak — to understand what are we really arguing about — because in every conflict, there’s the thing we fight about endlessly and then the thing it’s really about,” Ripley said.

In today’s lecture, Ripley will also discuss how one can escape high conflict once in it. Though not an easy task, Ripley says it is possible. 

“The best defense against high conflict is to never get into it,” she said. “Once started it’s very hard to get out of. It’s just really magnetic for totally understandable human reasons.” 

She said that humans are also wired for good conflict, and that it can be a productive force in the world.

“Most major achievements of civilization have been in good conflict,” Ripley said, “but it helps a lot if you cultivate the rituals and rules that lead to good conflicts.” 


The author Nichole Jiang

Nichole is a rising senior at Penn State University majoring in digital print journalism with a minor in Chinese. At PSU, Nichole served as a web writer for Valley Magazine and is currently an editor and writer for College Magazine. As a first-timer at Chautauqua, Nichole is excited to be working with the Daily and experiencing everything the area has to offer. Nichole loves going to the beach and trying out new recipes.