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Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966)

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Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966)

Andy and Jim, colleagues from work, both love football. Andy is a Manchester United supporter, and Jim supports the Liverpool team, which is probably why they hate each other passionately. On one occasion, they discuss with a colleague, a volleyball fan, which sport is better, football or volleyball? Andy and Jim, who now play on the same team and have a common goal, become closer and decide to have lunch together. So can belonging to competing groups affect how we interact with others?

We might find answers to some of these questions in the realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966).

What is realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966)?

In life, there can often be only one winner. Early experiments examining how groups interact showed that when multiple groups compete for the same goal, conflict and ethnocentrism (the feeling that one’s group is better) arise.

The Realistic Conflict Theory Sherif (1966) proposed is a psychological theory of prejudice that suggests competition for scarce resources as the reason for conflict between groups. Group members are more likely to perceive their group as the better one and to view intergroup differences as evidence of the other group’s inferiority. Negative attitudes toward the out-group are therefore associated with the inter-group competition.

Each group nourishes its own pride and vanity, boasts itself superior, exalts its own divinities, and looks with contempt on outsiders. Each group thinks its own folkways the only right one. – Sumner (1906)

However, when groups work together to achieve a superordinate goal (a common goal that all groups strive for but can only achieve if they cooperate with each other), it decreases conflict and promotes cooperation.

In the Olympic Games, sports teams from different countries compete against each other. The goal here is to win the gold medal. Supporters of sports teams can often make claims against each other or even feel anger and aggression toward the supporters of the competing team because the other team’s victory would be their loss.

Prejudice against migrants often increases when they are perceived as an economic threat. The prospect of competing with migrants for jobs (a scarce resource) can increase hostility toward them.

Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) Competition in a rugby game StudySmarterCompetition in a rugby game, Pixabay

Realistic conflict theory (Sherif, 1966) research

Sherif developed the realistic conflict theory to explain the results of his Robbers Cave study. Let us take a look at this study.

The Robbers Cave study

Sherif’s (1954) Robbers Cave study was one of the first studies to examine intergroup relations at three levels: group formation, inter-group conflict, and conflict reduction. The sample consisted of 22 white boys, approximately 11 years of age, from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and Protestant families.

In-group refers to the group to which an individual belongs, while out-group refers to the other group. In the context of limited resources, a competing out-group can be considered a threat.

In-group formation phase: upon arrival at a summer camp, boys were randomly divided into two groups, the ‘Eagles’ or the ‘Rattlers’. During the first week, each group spent time getting to know each other through group activities such as creating a flag for their group, hiking, or swimming.

Competition over limited resources

To see if competition for rewards would lead to conflict, the researchers designed the inter-group conflict phase, in which two groups competed against each other in a series of contests such as tug-of-war. The winning team received a reward. Inter-group competition is an example of negative interdependence, a condition in which victory for one group means a loss for the other.After competing against each other, the boys became verbally and physically aggressive toward the out-group. The boys threw food at the other group, called each other names during mealtime or even burned flags of the out-group. These results show that competition leads to conflict, or at least exacerbates it.

Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) Tug-of-war fostering conflict StudySmarterA tug-of-war fosters conflict with the other team, Pixabay

Collaboration and superordinate goals

To bring Rattlers and Eagles together, the researchers set tasks that required cooperation between the groups to achieve a common goal that both groups desired. Superordinate goals create a state of positive interdependence – both groups must work together to succeed.

One of the superordinate goals used in the experiment was to get the truck delivering a movie out of a ditch. Both groups were interested in seeing the movie, so they had to join forces and work together to pull the truck out of a ditch using a rope.

Achieving common goals led to less animosity and aggression between the groups. Cooperation was highly effective in reducing conflict between the groups.

Realistic conflict theory examples

Sherif’s (1954) Robbers Cave study showed that superordinate goals effectively reduce conflict between groups. Giving multiple groups a common goal has led to more harmony in the real world.

The European Union is a group of many European countries working together in one organisation. It was formed to make a future war in Europe impossible because these countries now work together to achieve superordinate goals.

Realistic conflict theory evaluation

Let’s now evaluate the Realistic conflict theory.

Strengths

  • Research and real-world support: Realist Conflict Theory has been demonstrated in studies such as the Robbers Cave study. We can also see this theory in action in the real world, such as in the European Union.

Weaknesses

  • Alternative explanation – the role of group identity: in general, mutually exclusive goals exacerbate intergroup conflict. But the question of whether group identity alone can explain prejudice between groups remains. The two previously hostile groups might now coexist with almost no prejudice, having achieved a common goal. However, it is possible the common goal worked because it created an overarching (shared) group identity. In this case, the nature of the goals would not be as crucial in explaining prejudice as the boundaries of the group identity.

According to Tajfel’s social identity theory, mere identification with a group may be sufficient to develop a prejudice against out-groups and a preference for one’s group, even when the groups are not competing with each other.

  • Shared efforts are not always enough: in some cases, overarching goals alone do not reduce conflict between groups. When efforts to achieve a common goal are unsuccessful, conflict can intensify. When groups cooperate but fail to achieve the common goal, it is common for the in-group to blame the out-group for the failure.

Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) - Key takeaways

  • Realistic conflict theory states that when groups compete for mutually exclusive goals, conflict arises, whereas cooperation toward common goals reduces conflict.
  • Researchers found competition between groups in the Robbers Cave experiments to cause conflict between groups (negative interdependence). Researchers also found that when groups cooperate to achieve a superordinate goal, inter-group conflict decreases (positive interdependence).
  • Realistic conflict theory states that prejudice against out-groups occurs when competing for scarce resources. Members of out-groups are perceived as a threat and viewed as inferior.
  • Ethnocentrism leads to more favourable judgments about one’s group and attributing negative characteristics to the out-group.
  • According to social identity theory, group identity can explain prejudice even in the absence of conflicting goals.

Frequently Asked Questions about Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966)

Sherif’s realistic conflict theory is a psychological theory of prejudice that suggests competition for scarce resources as the reason for conflict between groups. However, if the groups work together to achieve a shared goal, this reduces conflict and fosters co-operation. 

Realistic conflict theory has been demonstrated in the Robbers Cave study. We can also see this theory in action in the real world, such as in the European Union. 

Realistic conflict theory includes conflicts between countries competing over natural resources or conflicts arising between supporters of two frequently competing sports teams.

The realistic conflict theory of prejudice posits that negative attitudes toward out-groups develop when competing for scarce resources. Out-group members are perceived as a threat and considered inferior.

Sherif (1966) pioneered the theory to explain his findings from the Robbers Cave study.

Final Realistic Conflict Theory (Sherif, 1966) Quiz

Question

What is Sherif’s realistic conflict theory?

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Answer

Sherif’s realistic conflict Theory explains the inter-group conflict in terms of the nature of goals of interacting groups. 

  • Mutually exclusive goals, like competing for scarce resources, produce conflict. 
  • Superordinate (common) goals that require cooperation reduce conflict.

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Question

What were the three key phases of the Robbers Cave experiments?

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Answer

The three key phases of the Robbers Cave experiments were in-group formation, inter-group conflict,and conflict reduction.

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Question

How did Sherif encourage group bonding in the in-group formation phase of Robbers Cave studies?

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Answer

During the in-group formation phase of Robbers Cave studies, boys spent a week engaging in group activities, like creating a flag for their group, hiking, or swimming.

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Question

What are superordinate goals? How do they affect inter-group conflict?

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Answer

Superordinate goals refer to shared goals both groups desire but can only accomplish if they cooperate with each group. Superordinate goals reduce group conflict and encourage group harmony.

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Question

According to the realistic conflict theory, what could reduce conflict between students from two schools that often compete against each other in sports?

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Answer

Introducing common goals to students from both schools could reduce conflict between them. For example, students could work together to organise a fundraising event for charity.

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Question

According to the realistic conflict theory, how does conflict between groups develop?

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Answer

According to the theory, mutually exclusive goals, like competing for scarce resources, produce conflict and ethnocentrism.

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Question

Why is ethnocentrism a problem for intergroup relations?

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Answer

Ethnocentrism results in more favourable judgements about the in-group and attributing negative characteristics to the out-group.

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Question

When can superordinate goals worsen conflict?

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Answer

Common goals worsen conflict when one group contributes more to achieve them.

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Question

What is an alternative explanation for the effectiveness of superordinate goals in reducing conflict?

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Answer

Superordinate goals may work because they create a superordinate group identity. This shared identity can result in in-group solidarity stronger than the previous conflict.

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Question

How does realistic conflict theory explain prejudice?  

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Answer

The realistic conflict theory states prejudice develops due to competition for limited resources. Competition produces negative attitudes towards the out-group.

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Question

How can we explain prejudice between groups that are not competing for scarce resources?

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Answer

According to social identity theory, group identity can explain prejudice even in the absence of conflicting goals.

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Question

Who developed the Realistic Conflict Theory? 


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Answer

Sherif (1966).

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