In his 2015 book, “Pavlov’s Dogs: Groundbreaking Experiments in Psychology,” author Adam Hart-Davis poses this question in the beginning of a chapter that discusses group conflict: “What is it about groups or gangs that creates tension, and what can be done to prevent it?”
Over the decades, criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists have all weighed in on this question, and some interesting suggests have been put forth. Some argue, for example, that conflict can be grouped in the “reductionist” branch of science; in other words, there’s a biological or genetic answer to the question, they say. While others, on the other hand, attempt to approach the question of violence from a psychological approach, arguing instead from the view of social psychology, group conflict and so on.
This article takes a look at the social psychological perspective, the perspective that groups compete for scarce resources, and that, in turn, creates conflict.
In 1961, a group of researchers—M. Sherif, O.J. Harvey, B.J. White, W.R. Hood, and C.W. Sherif—set out to design an experiment that attempted to pin down how and why group conflict arises. According to Davis-Hart, “[The researchers] invited two groups of 12-year-old boys to a summer camp at the Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.” He continues to explain: “Next the researchers arranged for the groups to compete over several days at baseball, tug-of-war, touch football, tent pitching, and a treasure hunt, and promised prizes to the winners.” In short, at the games continued, so did the competition, and the researchers concluded that, “conflict arises from competition for resources rather than individual differences.”
The “Robber’s Cave” experiment, as it later became known as, was a landmark study in social psychology that helped researchers understand how conflict arises. In a way, this experiment was very much a part of the times . . . the 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of work being done in social psychology. Form Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiment to Zimbardo’s “prison experient,” psychologists were trying to understand why people act differently in groups. This urge to understand social psychology was due, in part, to the work being in shock after the events of World War II. But this research, however, continues to remain relevant.
Hart-Davis sums up the importance of the “Robber’s Cave” experiment this way: “From this study, Sherif reckoned that because the groups [in the experiment] were created by approximate equal, individual differences are not necessary for intergroup conflict to occur.” He continues: “When the boys were competing for valued prizes, hostile and aggressive attitudes arose because they were competing for resources only one could get.”
Finally, with conflict being a daily topic in the morning’s news, perhaps it would be helpful to look back on some of this early social psychology research and learn from insights from it.
By Kenny Luck, M.A.
Hart-Davis, A. (2015). Pavlov’s Dogs: Groundbreaking Experiments in Psychology. Metro Books, New York, NY.