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Realistic Conflict Theory: Definition & Example

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  • 0:01 Realistic Conflict Theory
  • 0:48 The Robber's Cave Experiment
  • 2:45 Other Examples of…
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor
Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Realistic conflict theory is used to explain the conflict, negative prejudices, and discrimination that occur between groups of people who are in competition for the same resources. Learn more about realistic conflict theory from examples and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition and Examples of Realistic Conflict Theory

The realistic conflict theory states that whenever there are two or more groups that are seeking the same limited resources, this will lead to conflict, negative stereotypes and beliefs, and discrimination between the groups. The conflict can lead to increasing animosity toward the groups and can cause an ongoing feud to develop.

Conversely, conflict, negative stereotypes and beliefs, and discrimination between groups can potentially be reduced in situations where two or more groups are seeking to obtain some superordinate goals. Superordinate goals are mutually-desirable goals that cannot be obtained without the participation of two or more groups.

Because of its emphasis on group behaviors and conflict, the realistic conflict theory is also referred to as the realistic group conflict theory.

The Robber's Cave Experiment

One of the earliest examples of realistic conflict theory is the Robber's Cave experiment conducted by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in the 1950s. Sherif conducted a field experiment at Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma using 22 adolescent males. Each of the 22 participants was 12 years old, came from a 2-parent home, and was from a white middle-class background. None of the participants knew each other before the experiment. Sherif divided the males into two separate groups: the Eagles and the Rattlers.

Neither of the groups was aware of the other's existence during the first stage of the experiment. During the first stage, the participants were involved in several activities with their group members such as hiking and swimming. These activities allowed participants to form attachments with their group and create their own group culture, norms, and expectations.

Once the participants had become attached to their own groups, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and arranged for competitive games and other conflicts between the groups. For example, one of the competitive games required the Eagles and the Rattlers to play each other in a baseball game. The winning group received a trophy and individual medals for the group members, while the losing group received nothing.

Sherif began to notice that the groups were calling each other names and teasing each other. However, as the competitive games continued, the groups became increasingly hostile. For example, the Eagles set the Rattlers' flag on fire and the Rattlers destroyed the Eagles' cabin. Eventually, the groups became so hostile with one another that they had to be physically separated.

Remember that the participants were 22 well-adjusted males. They were not criminals, nor did they have a history of aggressive or destructive behavior. However, once conflict and competition were introduced, their behaviors became discriminatory and hostile.

Other Examples of Realistic Conflict Theory

Suppose that the Eagles and Rattlers wanted to go on a hiking trip. The Eagles had all of the required hiking gear and the Rattlers had the required hiking maps and boots. The two groups would have to share their resources and cooperate with each other in order to make the hiking trip happen - a superordinate goal. Without cooperation, neither group would be able to go on the hiking trip. This cooperation might lead to positive communication between the two groups and could repair the relationship between the two.

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Additional Activities

Realistic Conflict Theory

Activity 1:

You read about the Robber's Cave experiment in the lesson. In this experiment, both groups consisted of 12-year-old Caucasian boys. The researcher was able to overcome inter-group conflict by presenting a superordinate goal. What do you think would happen if the groups were not equivalent to begin with? What if one group was boys and the other group was girls? What if one group was Hispanic teenagers and the other group was African American teenagers? Would the result have been the same as it was with two groups of Caucasian boys? Would a superordinate goal bring the groups together successfully as it did in the experiment? Write a two to three paragraph opinion paper discussing these issues.

Activity 2:

Think of a time that you have had to compete with a friend for a limited resource. For example, perhaps you competed for first place in a gymnastics or tennis competition. Did this competition affect your friendship? Did you disparage the other person in your head in terms of ability or personality? How were you able to get your friendship back on track after one person won the limited resource and the other person lost? Write a journal entry reflecting on your experience with limited resources against a friend.

Activity 3:

The world is full of groups that are different in demonstrable ways. People have different skin colors, different religions, different languages, and different modes of dress. Prejudice and discrimination exist often due to a perceived competition for resources, or simply because sometimes people think that "different" means "wrong" or "worse." Do you think it is possible for a superordinate goal to bring all these disparate people together such that they feel unified in achieving a goal? To use an unrealistic and extreme example, what if aliens landed on earth, intending to harm humans? Would humans all come together to work to defeat the aliens, eliminating discrimination and prejudice, or is the superordinate goal not powerful enough to overcome deeply rooted differences between people? Write an essay describing the power or superordinate goals, or lack thereof, when it comes to making diverse people feel on the same "side."

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