Realistic conflict theory posits that groups tend to have more friction with each other when they are in competition for resources and will be more cooperative with each other if they feel solidarity or have unified goals. This is a social psychological concept and is thought to partially explain how prejudice develops. The most famous example of this theory was explored in an experiment called Robber’s Cave, conducted by Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif in the 1950s. Since then, other social psychologists have evaluated multiple aspects of this concept and how it impacts group interactions in many ways.
Numerous examples of realistic conflict theory in action exist in the waves of immigration to the United States. When a new group of immigrants from a specific ethnic background would arrive in great numbers, members of the group often met with profound prejudice because they were viewed as competitors for resources like jobs. Over time, this discrimination would die back, but it could be reignited if a group was thought to constitute an ongoing threat. Japanese immigrants, for instance, faced extreme prejudice and internment during WWII, and many people of Arabic descent were discriminated against after the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.
There are also many historical instances when groups cooperated together and formed greater bonds. The building of workers' unions often brought together immigrants of many groups that had formerly been characterized by high conflict relationships. Affiliation to political parties also created shared goals among different groups.
These examples and many others led to curiosity about the nature of conflict between groups. To study this more fully, social psychologists Carolyn and Muzafer Sherif designed an experiment called Robber’s Camp with two camps of pre-teen boys. The two groups were first unaware of each other and were studied for how they coalesced and formed bonds within the group.
After a few days, both camps were made aware of each other, and a variety of activities that were meant to increase friction and competition between the two groups were introduced. These led to a nearly immediate expression of group solidarity and intergroup discrimination. Rising tension was so profound that the second phase had to be discontinued after a few days.
The third part of the Sherifs’ realistic conflict theory experiment was to present both groups with shared goals that they could only earn through cooperation. As the groups began to work together, shared appreciation and solidarity developed. By the end of the study, strong bonds had grown between the two camps.
There have been many other studies since the Sherifs’ that appear to confirm realistic conflict theory. Moreover, some research has shown that the conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be real. Perceived competition for resources, whether or not true competition exists, may be enough to cause significant friction between groups.
Realistic conflict theory may partially explain group tension and discrimination. It’s also important to recognize that it poses a solution to conflicts between groups. Identifying common goals can begin to eliminate some discrimination and promote greater intergroup harmony.