Cooperating in an Age of Competition: A Psychological Examination of Conflict Resolution

Dr. Sam Turner

I’m delighted to introduce you to Dr. Sam Turner, today’s guest blogger.  Sam and I met at a local SIETAR meeting and it quickly became apparent that he was a prime candidate for a guest post.  Please enjoy his informative piece;  it challenges us to think through how we resolve conflicts.

In the summer of 1954, twenty-two 11-year-old boys from Oklahoma City headed to overnight camp. Unbeknownst to them, they were taking part in one of history’s most interesting social experiments designed by psychologist Muzafer Sherif. He was interested in discovering how conflict unfolds naturally in groups. Instead of observing competition and conflict in already established groups, the boys in the Robbers Cave Experiment, as it has come to be known, were divided into two groups—the Rattlers and the Eagles.  These boys fell instantly into their assigned roles and created psychological and physical boundaries between groups.

The Rattlers and the Eagles made references to the members of the opposing groups as “those guys” and “outsiders”.  They insistently asked the camp staff (i.e. the researchers) to arrange some sort of competition against the other. Benign activities became increasingly competitive (tent pitching, baseball, tug-of-war, cabin inspections, and a rigged treasure hunt). The competition eventually led to nighttime cabin raids that resulted in broken personal belongings and stealing. The Eagles eventually won the overall competition only to find the Rattlers stole their prizes and fistfights broke out between the groups. Is this the stuff of legendary activities of boys being boys at summer camp or an ingenious depiction of how real competition can quickly become dark and ugly between groups?

People have a natural tendency to favor their own group (ethnic, national, etc.) and engage in active ways to benefit one’s own group while demonstrating an active bias against members of other groups based on arbitrary attributes such as nationality or ethnicity or even team membership. Realistic conflict theory suggests that competition becomes antagonistic when commodities are scarce or in limited supply. Conflict can occur between groups over food, territory, wealth, power, natural resources, or energy. Even kids who compete over winning games at a summer camp can devise strategies to win that not only work against liking the competitors, becomes a win-loss campaign.

We are flush with contemporary examples of conflict, unfortunately. The Palestinians and the Israelis; the Pakistanis and the Indians; and the Russians and Chechnyans. Even ethnic tensions exist within otherwise peaceful countries such as France, Canada, Ireland, and Spain. Many of these ethnic and territorial conflicts bubble below the surface, waiting for a point where tension will burst the transient peace between the sides and make headlines.

There are two modern conflicts that illustrate where harmony and coexistence have been replaced by contempt and active conflict: the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and the Flemish and the Walloons in Belgium. Both involve deep and complex social issues; the former involved genocide and led to 800,000 deaths in only 100 days, while the other involves a dysfunctional mess that has led to hostility and disdain, and a fallen federal government. The two outcomes appear on the surface very different, but the processes that triggered these events have certain elements that are shared: scarce resources, ethnic and linguistic divides, and longstanding social traditions of isolation and resentment. What they both lack is a shared national narrative; a mental model that the collective population understands and values.

It seems hardly reasonable to draw conclusions from a summer camp experience that happened in the 1950ies as a potential guideline to settle national and international conflicts. Yet, the story of the Robbers Cave might lay the foundation to understanding how to approach modern conflict in the future.

Intuitively, the first inclination people have to solve problems is to simply bring people together to get to know one another. The contact hypothesis would suggest that just being around one another allows for connections to form from the shared values of human experience to bridge our differences. The boys should “get to know one another” and the Belgians should learn to solve “their differences”.

In Austin, Texas in the early 70ies, psychologist Elliot Aronson was asked to come in to help solve hostility between kids of different ethnic backgrounds in the newly desegregated school system. The school discovered that just putting kids together didn’t lead to them getting along—the students naturally drew social distinctions and reinforced them as frustrated educators stood by unable to cope with the situation.

A technique named the “Jigsaw Classroom” was developed as a result. It involved students taking parts of the lesson that was required to be learned, mastering it individually, and then teaching the remaining members of the group their part of the lesson. This caused something unique to happen—the autonomous individuals were suddenly reliant on one another and cooperation melted away the indignity of differences.

The Eagles and the Rattlers eventually were forced to work together in successive stages toward what are known as “superordinate goals”—goals that required collaboration. A rigged broken water line stopped the flow of water in the camp. The kids worked together to find a solution that involved everyone. Then the idea of a Movie night led the boys to pool their money to pay collectively for a movie to watch. Individually they would have been unable to accomplish what had to be done, but together they were successful.

This isn’t entirely different from the “Jigsaw Classroom” method. Collective groups are forced to work together in order to accomplish a bigger goal. As Aronson and Sherif both discovered in different groups, we quickly form boundaries that can prevent us from getting along and understanding one another. Environmental tensions cause us to “dig in our heals”; to be intractable and uncooperative.

Coexistence isn’t enough in of itself; people have to be forced to pool their efforts and work together for the greater good.

It is true that competition has created innovation in medicine, business, science, and just about every domain in contemporary society. Yet, subjugating the growth and development of others is too often a temptation. Creating categories is a natural part of the human understanding of the social world. But when we begin to foment ideas of “we are better than them” or “us versus them” competition becomes exclusionary. Our attempts at gain are accompanied by win-loss strategies—winning at the loss of all others.

How is it possible to compete and excel, yet allow for healthy competition and even cooperation? There is perhaps another way to approach gain while allowing others to flourish. Benign or enlightened self-interest allows us to strive to be the best we can while not doing so at the detriment of others.

The lessons of playing fairly seem to fade as we age, yet the value of working with others endures and is perhaps more essential later in life. The stakes are much greater than finding harmony in the sandbox. Countries or societies that are comprised of people who are multinational, multilinguisitic, and multicultural must strive to find superordinate goals to connect its citizens together.

Coexistence is difficult; yet, forced to work together, we can find unique and creative solutions that benefit all and emphasize our similarities while taking the focus away from our differences. The challenge in contemporary conflict is to find that “Jigsaw” intervention; to create obstacles to individual gain over losses to others; to create “superordinate” goals for people of various backgrounds to work together to attain.

Sam Turner, Ph.D. is a social psychologist, an educator, trainer, consultant, and interculturalist. He holds a bachelors degree in communications and French literature. He began his career in sales and management and then returned to school to pursue a masters and doctorate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He spent a year as a youth exchange student in Belgium and has traveled in over twenty countries.

Here is a book about the Robbers Cave Experiment:


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