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Social Psychology – Intergroup Relations and Conflict

Answers the Question

Why do groups behave the way they do toward each other?

How it Began

The research of Muzafer Sherif built a base for most of the understanding psychology has today about the nature of groups and its members. The Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT), developed by Sherif in 1961, accounts for inner group conflict, negative prejudices, and stereotypes as a result of actual competition between groups for desired resources.

Inter Group Conflict

In the Robbers Cave experiment, 22 white, fifth grade, 11 year old boys with similar average-to- good school performance and above average intelligence and a protestent, two parent background were sent to Robbers Cave State Park Summer Camp. None of the boys knew each other prior to the study. The researchers divided the boys into two different groups and assigned them cabins far apart from each other.  Neither group was aware of the existence of the other group The boys developed an attachment to their groups throughout the first week of the camp by doing various activities together; hiking, swimming, etc. The boys were encouraged to choose names for their groups, e.g. The Eagles and The Rattlers, and added them onto shirts and flags.

After the first week Researchers set up a four day series of competitions between the groups. As the competition went on , prejudice began to become apparent between the two groups. At first, this prejudice was only verbally expressed, such as through taunting or name calling. As the competition wore on, this expression took a more direct route, with The Eagles burning the Rattlers’ flag and the Rattlers ransacking The Eagle’s cabin in retailation. The groups became so aggressive with each other that the researchers were forced to physically separate them.

During a two day cooling off period, the boys we asked to list characteristics of the two groups. The result of which was that the boys tended to characterize their group in highly favourable terms and the other group in very unfavourable terms. Sherif then attempted to reduce the prejudice between the two groups. Simply increasing the contact of the two groups only made the situation worse. Whereas forcing the groups to work together to reach subordinate goals, or common goals, eased the prejudice and tension among the groups.

Key Terminology

  • Intra group conflict – Select individuals a part of the same group clash with one another
  • Inter group conflict – Distinct groups of individuals at odds with one another

In Brief

RCT is a social psychological model of intergroup conflict.  The theory explains how intergroup hostility can arise as a result of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources as well as offers an explanation for the feelings of prejudice and discrimination toward the outgroup that accompany the intergroup hostility.

Groups may be in competition for a real or perceived scarcity of resources such as money, political power, military protection, or social status. Feelings of resentment can arise in the situation that the groups see the competition over resources as having a zero-sums fate, in which only one group is the winner (obtained the needed or wanted resources) and the other loses (unable to obtain the limited resource due to the “winning” group achieving the limited resource first) The length and severity of the conflict is based upon the perceived value and shortage of the given resource.According to RCT, positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.

Group conflict can be separated into two sub-categories of conflict: inter-group conflict, and intra-group conflict. Although both forms of conflict have the ability to spiral upward in severity, it has been noted that conflict present at the group level (i.e., inter-group rivalries) is generally considered to be more powerful than conflict present at an individual level – a phenomenon known as the discontinuity effect

Two main sources of intergroup conflict have been identified: ‘competition for valued material resources, according to realistic conflict theory, or for social rewards like respect and esteem, as described by relative deprivation theory .  Group conflict can easily enter an escalating spiral of hostility marked by polarisation of views into black and white, with comparable actions viewed in diametrically opposite ways: ‘we offer concessions, but they attempt to lure us with ploys. We are steadfast and courageous, but they are unyielding, irrational, stubborn, and blinded by ideology’.

It is widely believed that intergroup and intragroup hostility are inversely related: that where there is external conflict there is unlikely to be internal strife, or where there is internal fighting there is unlikely to external wars. Thus individuals who are part of a group can experience an extraordinarily comforting feeling of mutual support from their group by focussing on a common enemy.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Within groups both constructive and destructive conflict occurs, it is very important to accentuate the constructive conflict and minimize the destructive conflict. Conflict is bound to happen, but if used constructively need not be a bad thing.

Use constructive conflict by bringing up problems and alternative solutions (while still valuing others) allowing the group to work forward.  While ‘conflict may involve interpersonal as well as task issues’, keeping a window open for dissent can prove very advantageous.  On the other hand, there is evidence that an organizational culture of disrespect unproductively ‘generates a morass of politicking status games and infighting.

Intergroup Conflict

RCT can also provide an explanation for why competition over limited resources in organizations can present potentially harmful consequences in establishing successful organizational diversity and the establishment of organizational silos based on functions or teams.. RCT provides an explanation of this pattern because ingroup members are seen as competing for economic security, power, and prestige with the outgroup.

The second type of conflict is ‘domination of the outgroup by the ingroup,’ usually present in management versus employees or in a sales organization where customer service is seen as second fiddle to the sales teams. This occurs when different groups do not have equal status. If domination occurs, there are two responses the subordinate group may have. One is stable oppression, in which the subordinate group accepts the dominating group’s attitudes on some focal issue and sometimes, the dominant group’s deeper values to avoid further conflict. The second response that may occur is unstable oppression. This occurs when the subordinate group rejects the lower status forced upon them, and sees the dominating group as oppressive.

The dominant group then may view the subordinates’ challenge as either justified or unjustified. If it is seen as unjustified, the dominant group will likely respond to the subordinates’ rebellion with hostility. If the subordinates’ rebellion is viewed as justified, the subordinates are given the power to demand change.  The use of employee opinion surveys can give permission to employees to challenge management dominance.

Intragroup Conflict

Task Conflict: Task conflict arises when intra-group members disagree on issues that are relevant to meeting shared goals. Effective groups and organizations make use of these conflicts to make plans, foster creativity, solve problems and resolve misunderstandings. However, people who disagree with the group do so at their own peril, even when their position is reasonable. Dissenters often receive a high level of animosity from other group members, are less well-liked, assigned low-status tasks, and are sometimes ostracized.

Process Conflict: Process conflict refers to disagreement over the methods or procedures the group should use in order to complete its tasks. It occurs when strategies, policies, and procedures clash. For example, some group members may suggest discussing conflicting ideas, while other group members prefer to put conflicting ideas to a vote. In essence, during procedural conflicts, group members disagree on how to disagree. Situations of procedural conflict can be preemptively minimized by adopting formal rules or policies that specify goals, decisional processes, and responsibilities.

Personal Conflict: Personal conflicts, personality conflicts, emotional conflicts, or relationship conflicts, are conflicts that occur when group members dislike one another. Personal dislikes do not always result in conflict, but people often mention their negative feelings toward another group member when complaining about their groups. Also, there is evidence that a large proportion of group conflicts are indeed personal conflicts. One study of high level corporate executives revealed that 40% of disputes were due to “individual enmity between the principals without specific reference to other issues” (Morrill, 1995, p. 69). Criticism, when one person evaluates another, or his/her work negatively, is one common cause of personal conflict.


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