By: Curtis Peterson ©
What does it mean to be an ‘American’ (aka United States Citizen)? I think everyone in the United States asks this question at least some time during their lifetime – I know I have. But I would be willing to bet, that the answers while using the same symbolic words – such as freedom and bravery – these words have a completely different meaning for many groups. This can be seen very clearly in the deep divisions between political ideals and between racial groups. I often wonder if there is anything that can actually bring the United States away from division and instead have a shared meaning and life goals? In my reading and contemplation on this matter, I can’t stop thinking about a famous research program – Robber Cave Experiment – by Muzafer Sherif.
What Sherif wanted to test is a developing theory in the study of group dynamics called Realistic Conflict Theory. By this time, social psychologist had already established that all someone needs to do to create prejudice behaviors between two groups, is to randomly assign them to either a group ‘A’ or group ‘B’. This became known as the minimal group paradigm.The problem was, is that in the real world very seldom are we randomly assigned to a group, we always come from a group or enter a group, that has a history and connection with one another. Realistic Conflict Theory aimed to explain how conflict occurs in the real world where conflict due to competition and resources matter. What Sherif did in his study was to conduct a three-week summer camp where young boys all around the age of 10 to 11, were randomly assigned to one of two camps, for which the two groups had no contact for the first week. Over the following week ,the two groups played competitive games against each other. What Sherif wanted to test, is whether mere contact (aka mere exposure effect) between the two groups in the absence of competition would reduce conflict in the third week. What he found was is that no, in fact, conflict got worse and resulted in violence and vandalism (sound familiar democrats and republicans?).
How did Sherif ultimately reduce conflicts between the two groups and increase intergroup liking? What Sherif did, he implemented a set of superordinate goals and task that benefit the entire camp instead of just one group or the other. Examples included having them rope tow a truck to camp and filling a water tank. These superordinate goals had two qualities (1) they benefited both groups, and (2) they forced both groups to work together. After having the boys complete these superordinate goals not only did the vandalism and violence go away but, scores of intergroup liking between the two groups increased significantly.
Now there has been times that the United States that we have seen the Robber Cave effect, two immediate examples included the bombing of Pearl Harbor and 09/11. After both of these events – for a short time anyways – significantly decreased prejudicial behaviors, hate crimes, and violence. Both of these events created a superordinate goal for the American people, in the first, it was to seek revenge on Japan, and the latter was to care for those injured and fallen and to seek out those who caused 09/11. The question that I think that we should pose, is will it take another 09/11 or Pearl Harbor for us as a people to see eye to eye and let go of our divisions and difference and unite as one people?
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