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The Realistic Conflict Theory



Realistic conflict theory is a social psychological theory aimed at explaining intergroup conflict and prejudice. The theory was proposed by Muzafer Sherif in 1966 after he conducted his famous Robbers Cave Study.


The theory explains why prejudice and hostility occur between groups when competing over conflicting goals, and limited resources.

What is Negative Interdependence

Negative interdependence is present in a situation where two groups are both competing or aiming to achieve the same goal or prize, however, only one group can achieve this. Throughout situations of negative interdependence intergroup relations may start to deteriorate with each member trying to make their team win social solidarity between team members will increase however, this may lead to ‘hate’ and ‘prejudice’ begin shown at the other team in order to try to intimidate or try to assert their dominance.


Negative interdependence often occurs when there is competition for limited resources. These resources may be tangible such as food or prizes, they can also be non-tangible such as power, respect, and recognition.


What are Positive Interdependence and Superordinate Goals

Positive interdependence is present when neither of the groups can reach its goals unless the other group also reaches theirs hence, they are interdependent. This leads to groups working cooperatively and closer together, reducing prejudice and hate. Sherif used the term ‘superordinate goals’ to describe goals that require positive interdependence in order to be achieved. This is what Sherif highlighted as the main factors in reducing prejudice.

Research Into Realistic Conflict Theory

Research into realistic conflict theory comes from Sherif et al.’s (1961) study, known as the Robbers Cave Experiment. In his study, Sherif took two groups of boys to a setup summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park, where he explored how competition and frustration led to prejudice.


The results proved that intergroup competition led to an increase in frustration and prejudice as well as hostility towards the outgroup.


The credibility of this theory can be argued, as in the Robbers Cave experiment researchers had to artificially increase prejudice by secretly raiding the cabin of one group and making it seem like the other group did it.


Furthermore, Tyerman and Spencer (1983) tried replicating the Robbers Cave Experiment with their sea scout troop of 30 boys, however, the replication failed with the boys not displaying any increase in prejudice or increases in in-group solidarity. This could also suggest that prejudice may only arise between people that do not know each other that well.


Realistic conflict theory can successfully be applied to society, this can be done through the introduction of superordinate goals in competitive scenarios. This may take place in schools where competition between various student groups may lead to prejudice and hence bullying, by introducing supercoordinate goals pupils will have to cooperatively work together in order to achieve a certain mutually beneficial objective such as longer breaks.


  • A major strength of the Realistic Conflict Theory is that it is supported by Sherif et al.’s 1961 study – The Robbers Cave Experiment. In the second stage of the experiment, negative interdependence was introduced by making the two groups compete for limited resources with prizes for the winners but nothing for the losing group. Researchers noted that this led to an increase in hostility and prejudice between the groups.


  • Aronson et al. (1978) also supports realistic conflict theory through his Jigsaw Classroom experiments where students were split into groups but had to complete a puzzle as a whole, showing examples of positive interdependence and how superordinate goals. Due to the jigsaw experiments, students were found to have higher empathy and lower prejudice.


  • A weakness of realistic conflict theory is that competition between groups and limited resources may not be needed for prejudice to occur as is proven by Tajfel’s (1970) study. In Tajfel’s (1970) Minimal Group Experiment, students had to allocate both in-group and out-group points which they were told can be exchanged for cash without any competition between them as both groups would receive the money. Tajfel found the boys would be more give more points to the in-group rather than the out-group in some cases even opting to maximise the difference in points between the groups even if it meant they received fewer points themselves! Suggesting that the mere existence of an out-group is enough to create inter-group competition and prejudice.


  • A further weakness of this theory is due to the ecological validity of the study this theory is based on. The experimenters had to artificially trigger the display of prejudice through their staging of the cabin raid.

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References/Further Reading

Realistic Conflict Theory – Wikipedia -

Jigsaw – Wikipedia -

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