Sometimes, two conflicting groups hate each other so much that the thought of both camps ever reconciling and becoming allies seems unrealistic. The same is true in some relationships; both partners are so bitter toward each other that couples therapy seems more of a formality before the inevitable breakup instead of an honest attempt to reconcile the relationship.
Surprisingly, two groups that are staunchly against each other can, indeed, become allies. This phenomenon is called Realistic Conflict Theory, and it does not just apply to large groups--it is even relevant to partners in a broken relationship.
The Robber's Cave
In the summer of 1954, Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif performed a field experiment that revealed some intriguing human behaviors. He performed this experiment at an Oklahoma boys' summer camp. Even though Sherif and his assistants planned the whole experiment, the participating boys were unaware that they were participating in a social experiment.
Sherif divided the 22 camp boys--all from similar backgrounds and upbringings--into two groups. None of the boys knew each other prior to the experiment, and at the beginning of the experiment, neither group of boys was aware of the other group.
After the boys in each group bonded with their peers, Sherif pitted the two groups against each other. He purposefully made the results of these competitions frustratingly close, and also purposefully created situations that would deepen the hatred between the two groups. During the competitions, the two groups verbally assaulted each other, stormed and ransacked each others' cabins, and created an atmosphere of aggression and terror.
When Sherif was satisfied with both groups' mutual hatred for each other, he relocated all 22 boys to a new location. He introduced new problems, like a water shortage, outside vandals, and decision-making tasks; amazingly, the animosity previously felt between the two groups of boys eroded, and the "summer vacation" ended peacefully.
Realistic Conflict Theory
The Robber's Cave experiment supported Sherif's Realistic Conflict Theory. According to Realistic Conflict Theory, if two or more groups are competing for the same limited resources, the groups will negatively perceive and treat the rival groups. Some of the most common manifestations of this conflict, as evidenced by Sherif's 22 boys, include discrimination, hatred, and development of negative stereotypes. When confronted with a superordinate goal (something that all sides want but cannot achieve without the help of the other groups), the desire to accomplish the goal overpowers the conflict.
How Realistic Conflict Theory Can Help in Relationship Counseling
When a couple seeks relationship counseling, the two partners are, at first blush, seemingly one against one. In almost all cases, however, the problems extend well beyond the two individuals in the relationship.
Perhaps one partner cheated. Or the other partner constantly sides with an in-law. Or maybe one parent is constantly playing the "bad cop" with the children. All of these scenarios can cause relationship strife and push each partner into opposing groups. Like Sherif's children, the conflict can be striking and seemingly irreparable. Yet, as the Robber's Cave experiment shows, even outright aggression and hatred can be reversed and camaraderie restored. Thus, a superordinate goal that both partners in a relationship want but cannot achieve independently is quite possibly the golden ticket to help feuding partners reconcile their relationship.
If you want to find out more about how this and other theories can help your relationship, contact a group like Comprehensive Behavioral Health Associates Inc for help.
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