Earth Institute Profiles

Peter Coleman

Director, International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution; Associate Professor of Psychology and Education

Peter Coleman

Peter Coleman, chair of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4), recently created four short and engaging videos about intractable conflicts for AC4, an interdisciplinary research consortium led by Coleman and housed at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. To watch Coleman’s comfortable and dynamic on-camera performance, you might think that he was an actor rather than an academic—and you wouldn’t be so wrong.

Coleman began his professional career in the 1980s as a professional actor in New York working in television, theater and film. Although he left the spotlight (until recently) to serve as a mental health counselor for violent inner-city youth at the Regent Hospital, the offstage version of the “Peter Coleman Story” followed its own exciting arc. Fast-forward two years, Coleman became the hospital’s marketing director, and through that affiliation, the chair of the Yorkville Civic Council's Task Force on Youth Violence. It was then and there that Coleman found his true calling as an expert in conflict resolution, even though he says that, at that point, "I wasn't trained. I was just working from my gut." 

Eventually Coleman did train as a mediator for the New York State Criminal Court system, and that became the springboard to a doctorate in social and organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Today, in addition to his duties at AC4, he works as the director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, where he is also associate professor of psychology and education. He teaches courses in conflict resolution, social psychology and social science research and is a member of the Earth Institute faculty.

Coleman is an expert in intractable conflicts, which he says describes five percent of the world’s conflicts. However rare these conflicts are, they undermine the security and well-being of societies everywhere. For the past three years, Coleman has been the lead investigator on “Modeling the Fundamental Dynamics of Intractable Conflict,” a project funded by the McDonnell Foundation that applies the principles and methods of dynamical systems theory to understand what Coleman calls “the five percent problem.” The project is currently being conducted by an interdisciplinary research team that, besides Coleman, includes Andrzej Nowak and Robin Vallacher, two social psychologists with expertise in the application of dynamical systems to cognitive, interpersonal, group and social phenomena; Larry Liebovitch, a physicist with expertise in formal descriptions and modeling of system dynamics; andAndrea Bartoli, a social anthropologist and practitioner who specializes in international conflict and genocide prevention.

Coleman formally joined the Earth Institute in 2009, although his collaboration was already well underway. “The Earth Institute is trying to affect significant change in some very dire and complex social systems, and many of them are, in fact, in the middle of conflict zones.” Coleman sees his Earth Institute affiliation as a way to begin to “reorient our work from problems to solutions” and “marshal efforts related to sustainable peace.”

Coleman holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in social and organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A. in communications from the University of Iowa. Coleman is an affiliate of the International Center for Complexity and Conflict (ICCC) at The Warsaw School for Social Psychology in Warsaw, Poland. In 2003, he became the first recipient of the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. Coleman co-edited The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000; 2nd edition 2006), and has authored over 60 journal articles and chapters. He is also a New York State-certified mediator and experienced consultant. His forthcoming book, The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is being published by Public Affairs and will be out in May 2011.