Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 13: Intergroup conflict (pp. 488–513)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Sources of Intergroup Conflict: The Battle for Riches and Respect (pp. 489–492)
    1. Realistic conflict theory: Getting the goods
    2. Relative deprivation: When is enough enough?
    3. Social competition: Getting a little respect
    4. The special competitiveness of groups: Groups often value respect over riches
  2. Escalating Conflict: Communication and Interaction That Make Things Worse (pp. 492–496)
    1. Talking to the in-group: Polarization and commitment
    2. The special competitiveness of groups: When conflict arises, groups close ranks
    3. Talking to the out-group: Back off, or else!
    4. Threat and deterrence in international affairs
    5. Coalition formation: Escalation as others choose sides
  3. Perceptions in Conflict: What Else Could You Expect From Them? (pp. 496–500)
    1. Polarized perceptions of in-group and out-group
    2. Biased attributions for behavior
    3. The impact of emotion and arousal: More heat, less light
    4. The special competitiveness of groups: People expect groups to be supercompetitive, so they react in kind
  4. "Final Solutions": Eliminating the Out-Group (pp. 500–503)
    1. The special competitiveness of groups: Groups offer social support for competitiveness
    2. Final solutions in history
  5. Resolving Conflict and Reducing Aggression (pp. 503–513)
  6. Altering Perceptions and Reactions (pp. 504–505)
    1. Minimize cues for aggression
    2. Interpret, and interpret again
    3. Promote empathy with others
    4. Reducing aggression in society
  7. Resolving Conflict Through Negotiation (pp. 505–509)
    1. Types of solutions
    2. Achieving solutions: The negotiation process
    3. Building trust
    4. Trust and norm of reciprocity
    5. GRIT and international conflicts
    6. Negotiating across cultural lines
    7. Mediation and arbitration: Bringing in third parties
  8. Intergroup Cooperation: Changing Social Identity (pp. 509–513)
    1. Superordinate goals
    2. Why does intergroup cooperation work?
Sources of Intergroup Conflict: The Battle for Riches and Respect

Conflicts in groups are often caused by competition for valued material resources, or for social rewards like respect and esteem. These are the same reasons for which individuals turn to aggression. To determine what an acceptable level of resources is, people use social comparisons. Groups in conflict are often more focused on social rewards than on material ones.

Realistic conflict theory: Getting the goods

The realistic conflict theory argues that intergroup hostility, conflict, and aggression arise from competition among groups for mastery of scarce but valued material resources.

Relative deprivation: When is enough enough?

The relative deprivation theory suggests that social comparison, not objective reality, determines how satisfied or dissatisfied people are with what they have. Egoistic relative deprivation is the sense that you are doing less well than other individuals. Fraternal relative deprivation is the sense that one's group is not doing as well as other groups. Fraternal deprivation is much more likely to cause intergroup conflict than egoistic deprivation is.

Research activity: The relative deprivation theory

Social competition: Getting a little respect

Groups, like individuals, not only fight over material goods but also over social goods: respect, esteem, and "bragging rights." People's strivings for positive social identity might be the cause of intergroup conflict.

The special competitiveness of groups: Groups often value respect over riches

The first reason for the greater competitiveness of groups than individuals is that when groups want to be "Number One," social competition and the effort to outdo one's opponent frequently overshadow competition for material resources. In this supercompetitiveness, groups sometimes give up absolute gain in order to dominate their rivals.

Escalating Conflict: Communication and Interaction That Make Things Worse

Poor communication can make conflicts worse. In-group interaction hardens in-group opinion, threats are directed at the out-group, each group retaliates more and more harshly, and other parties choose sides. All of these processes tend to escalate the conflict. The same social and cognitive processes responsible for other forms of social behavior play a role in this too.

Talking to the in-group: Polarization and commitment

Group polarization is the process in which group members' views become more and more extreme because they talk with like-minded others. Furthermore, we also become more committed to our views during discussion.

The special competitiveness of groups: When conflict arises, groups close ranks

Processes of commitment and polarization represent the second reason for the special competitiveness of groups.

Talking to the out-group: Back off, or else!

Groups find it increasingly difficult to communicate productively when conflicts rise. Most people believe that threats increase their bargaining power and their chances of getting their way. But threats provoke counterthreats, diminish people's willingness to compromise, and generate hostility. Once people have coercive means at their disposal, they shift from reward-seeking to socially competitive behavior. Finally, when threats dominate communication they crowd out messages about cooperative solutions.

Threat and deterrence in international affairs

A policy of deterrence is a political strategy in which one side threatens to use force in the hope of preventing the other side from using force. Deterrence, like other uses of threats, can elicit counterthreats and escalation. A group without power may appear to be easy prey for strong aggressors who have little fear of retaliation. But even equality in power and command of threats cannot guarantee an absence of conflict.

Coalition formation: Escalation as others choose sides

Conflicts often begin as one-on-one confrontations, but coalition formation occurs when two or more parties pool their resources to obtain a mutual goal they probably could not achieve alone. Coalition formation tends to polarize multiple parties into two opposing sides. It is usually seen as a threatening action that only intensifies competition. For these reasons, the formation of coalitions and alliances between nations usually increases the possibility of armed hostility.

Perceptions in Conflict: What Else Could You Expect From Them?

As escalation continues, the in-group sees the out-group as evil and itself as unrealistically positive. These conflict-driven perceptions affect the group's understanding of what is happening and why. Self-fulfilling prophecies can cause a vicious cycle to begin, in which the out-group is thought to be more hostile and devious.

Polarized perceptions of in-group and out-group

Categorization can make people evaluate their own group more positively than the out-group. These perceptual biases become much stronger in conflict.

There are three blind spots in the thinking of groups:

  1. The in-group can do no wrong.
  2. The out-group can do no right (and any action taken against them is justified).
  3. The in-group is all powerful.

Aggressive posturing or the "hairy chest syndrome," a preoccupation with appearing powerful, prestigious, tough, and courageous, has dangerous side effects. Because the group's focus is on winning, this can decrease thinking about the merits or morals of in-group actions.

Biased attributions for behavior

Groups in conflict often attribute the same behaviors of the in-group and the out-group to opposite causes.

These attributions are biased in two different ways:

  1. In-group motives are positive; out-group motives are negative.
  2. Situations dictate in-group actions; character flaws prompt out-group actions.
The impact of emotion and arousal: More heat, less light

Emotional arousal (i.e., tension, anxiety, anger, frustration, and fear) affects processes of perception and communication, and produces simplistic thinking. People tend to perceive members of out-groups negatively, and anxiety, perceived threats, and emotion strengthen this tendency.

The special competitiveness of groups: People expect groups to be supercompetitive, so they react in kind

Biased and extreme perceptions of out-groups are a third reason for which groups act more competitively than individuals. People expect groups to be highly competitive and hostile and, as a result, will try to beat them to it, either to deter them, or at least to defend themselves.

"Final Solutions": Eliminating the Out-Group

When power differences exist between the groups and the out-group is morally excluded, one group may try to eliminate the other. A normal conflict that started over valuable resources can then become a battle for social supremacy, in which the primary concern is defeating the opponent, not controlling the resource.

Three factors seem to be important in pushing a group to seek a "final solution" to intergroup differences:

  1. A difference in power between the groups translates desire into action: Without power, no group can turn prejudice into discrimination, or discrimination into domination.
  2. Moral exclusion blocks moral outrage: Moral exclusion is particularly likely when people harm others under orders from their in-group authorities.
  3. Routinization produces desensitization: Repetition of individual actions becomes routine, until even acts like torture and murder can become mundane.
The special competitiveness of groups: Groups offer social support for competitiveness

The power of groups to define norms for their members is the most fundamental reason for groups so often being more aggressive than individuals.

Final solutions in history

The Holocaust in Nazi Germany is an example of what can happen as the ultimate result of these forces. There was need for a scapegoat: Jews. There were three factors that made the Holocaust possible. First, the Nazis had power. Second, the Nazis dehumanized the Jews. Third, killers became desensitized to their acts through routine and repetition.

Resolving Conflict and Reducing Aggression

Reducing aggression often involve altering people's immediate perceptions of others, or the situational cues that may increase aggression. Conflict-resolution strategies focus on reconciling the parties' concrete goals and aspirations. Other strategies encourage cooperation.

Altering Perceptions and Reactions

One approach to reducing aggression and conflict is to minimize or remove the cues that often cause individuals to commit aggressive acts, and to encourage careful interpretation and identification with others.

Minimize cues for aggression

Some cues activate aggressive thoughts and feelings, making overt acts of aggression more likely, whereas other cues can decrease aggression.

Interpret, and interpret again

Factors that make it difficult for people to think carefully, such as alcohol use, high emotion, or limited time to think, generally increase aggressive behavior.

Promote empathy with others

Aggression is easiest when victims are distanced and dehumanized. To avoid this, people should intentionally think about the fact that victims are still human beings, because similarity is a barrier to aggression. Empathy is incompatible with aggression.

Reducing aggression in society

School-based programs aimed at reducing aggression are generally effective, and the effects endure over time.

Resolving Conflict Through Negotiation

Conflict resolution also involves the parties in trying to find mutually acceptable solutions, which requires understanding and trust.

Types of solutions

An imposed solution is a solution dictated by one party. This technique is rarely successful in ending conflict. Distributive solutions involve mutual compromise or concessions that carve up a fixed-size pie. Integrative solutions are the best solutions because one side's gain is not necessarily the other's loss. These are often termed win–win solutions because both sides can benefit simultaneously. One strategy that can lead to integrative solutions is log-rolling, in which each party gives up on issues that it considers less important but that the other group views as crucial.

Achieving solutions: The negotiation process

Negotiation is reciprocal communication designed to reach agreement in situations in which some interests are shared and some are in opposition. When parties are under time pressure, they are less likely to reach integrative solutions. Reactive devaluation, an obstacle to integrative solutions, is the process in which, when one side proposes a solution, the other side automatically views it less favorably, reasoning that "if it's good for them it must be bad for us."

Case study: The negotiation process

Building trust

By focusing on specific issues, negotiation can reverse the decline of trust that occurs during the conflict. This reversal happens in two ways. First, when one party successfully negotiates an issue with the opponent, liking and trust for the other party increase, making later issues easier to settle. Second, when issues are specific, the parties in conflict have a better chance of accurately perceiving each other's positions.

Trust and norm of reciprocity

Graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension reduction (GRIT) is a technique that can be used to de-escalate conflicts. The process begins with one side making a small concession to its opponent. The norm of reciprocity pushes the opposing group to make a small concession of its own or risk public condemnation. A feeling of trust gradually decreases tensions.

GRIT and international conflicts

The GRIT strategy tactics have been used successfully in international relations.

Negotiating across cultural lines

Whether individuals come from individually oriented or collectivist cultures can make a big difference to the motives they bring to interactions. When conflict takes place within a group, fair treatment, politeness, and respect for all may increase the chances of agreement.

Mediation and arbitration: Bringing in third parties

Third-party intervention may offer better hope for a solution than direct communication. Mediators help the opponents focus their discussion on the issues and reach a voluntary agreement. In arbitration the third party has the power to hand down a decision after hearing the disputants present their arguments and information.

Third-party intervention has several advantages. First, mediators or arbitrators can arrange details so they don't become sources of conflict. Second, skillful intervention can improve intergroup relationships. Third, because outsiders bring fresh ideas, they may be able to offer more creative integrative solutions. Finally, a skilled third party can leave room for graceful retreat.

Intergroup Cooperation: Changing Social Identity

Conflict resolution can also be facilitated by cooperating toward shared goals that can be attained only if groups work together. Under the proper conditions, cooperative intergroup interaction reduces conflict.

Superordinate goals

Superordinate goals are shared goals that can be attained only if groups work cooperatively as a team.

Why does intergroup cooperation work?

Intergroup cooperation only works when the right conditions exist to resolve conflicts. These conditions are:

Intergroup cooperation resolves conflicts because it makes the out-group a source of rewards rather than punishments. Cooperation works at multiple levels: increasing the importance of a new in-group, and decreasing the importance of group-membership in general. Intergroup cooperation for superordinate goals holds the promise of true conflict resolution, rather than conflict management. Conflict resolution turns groups' basic strivings for mastery and connectedness toward positive ends.

Research activity: How conflicts can be resolved

So what does this mean?

The realistic conflict theory argues that intergroup hostility, conflict, and aggression arise from competition among groups for mastery of scarce but valued material resources.

The relative deprivation theory suggests that social comparison, not objective reality, determines how satisfied or dissatisfied people are with what they have.

Poor communication and in-group interaction can make conflicts worse. As conflict escalates, the in-group sees the out-group as evil and itself as unrealistically positive.

Approaches to reduce aggression and conflict involve minimizing or removing aggressive cues; altering perceptions; encouraging cooperation; encouraging careful interpretation and identification with others; trying to find mutually acceptable solutions; or working together toward a shared goal.

Negotiation is reciprocal communication designed to reach agreement in situations in which some interests are shared and some are in opposition.

Superordinate goals are shared goals that can be attained only if groups work cooperatively as a team.

Back to chapter 13 introduction

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 13 introduction
  2. Aggression, conflict, and human nature
  3. Interpersonal aggression
  4. Intergroup conflict
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions