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Prejudice & Discrimination Theories #2

Realistic Conflict Theory
It is widely recognised that people tend to identify with their groups. They also tend to have negative views about some other groups – out-groups. But why do some outgroups attract hostility and discrimination but others are treated neutrally or sometimes even admired? This is what Realistic Conflict Theory (RCT) tries to explain.

RCT states that, whenever there are 2 or more groups seeking the same limited resources, this will lead to conflict, negative stereotypes and beliefs about the out-group – prejudice –  and discrimination between the groups. The negative beliefs about the out-group become shared memes, affecting the schematic set-up of the group members. The conflict generated can lead to increasing animosity and eventually to violence. Competition over resources can be played out as a ‘zero-sum game’, in which only one group is the winner (obtained the needed or wanted resources) and the other loses (unable to obtain the limited resource due to the winning group achieving the limited resource first). The likely length and severity of the conflict is based upon the perceived value and shortage of the given resource.

It is tempting to think of ‘limited resources’ as BEIGE survival needs – eg: water and food – but, depending on which vMEMES are dominant in the vMEME stack, ‘resources’ can be money, jobs, places in schools or even social resources such as friends.

The word  perception is critical here as the competition for resources can itself be a perceived competition and does not always need to be necessarily a real competition.

According to RCT, positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place. As in-group and out-group work together towards superordinate goals, feelings of hostility and the tendency to conflict are reduced because they are cooperating, rather than competing, to achieve the resources they all want.

Although the theory was officially named by Donald Campbell in 1965, the structure of the theory was derived from Muzafer Sherif et al’s 1954 Robber’s Cave study and the detailed account and analysis published in 1961. This showed groups of boys getting into conflict when they were put into competition. Sherif et al used superordinate goals to remove the competition and the boys became friendly.

Realistic Conflict Theory – graphic copyright © 2016

The theory, outlined in the graphic above, has a clear application because RCT says you can reduce prejudice by getting people from different groups to meet and work together in a spirit of co-operation. Gordon Allport’s (1954) Contact Theory says that, if groups mingle, they will lose their stereotypes of each other. There are several further examples of familiarity reducing hostility in Is Racism Natural…?

John Duckitt (1994) has attempted to develop RCT a bit further, suggesting that conflict can happen even when an out-group has lower status and isn’t really a competitor over resources. This is because the low-status group might resent the high-status group but the high-status group doesn’t think this is justified. Duckitt terms this ‘unstable oppression’ and states that the high-status group is likely to respond with hostility. Where the low-status group accepts the inequality, Duckitt terms this ‘stable oppression’.

While a very powerful theory, the original RCT can only explain inter-group hostility where there is at least a perceived competition for resources. Duckitt’s extension of RCT can help explain inter-group hostility when there is inequality between groups. But what about when there is no competition for resources and no obvious inequality between groups…?

Social Identity Theory
Social Identity Theory (SIT) proposes that the simple act of being grouped inevitably leads to prejudice against another group. Developed by Henri Tajfel & John Turner (1979) from the former’s (1970) ‘Minimal Group Studies’, SIT shows group identity and inter-group animosity going through 3 stages:-

  1. Social Categorisation
    This is putting yourself and others into groups. The very act of labelling others – eg: Muslims, women, children, etc – either puts them in the same category as yourself or puts them into another, different category. Your group is then the in-group and the other group is the out-group.
    The in-group will almost certainly develop stereotypes of the out-group, by which they will judge all its members. Thus, women often describe men as “after one thing” while men may regard women as “nags”. The development of stereotypes amongst members of a group is an example of memetic viral infection.
  2. Social Identification
    According to Tajfel (1982), we may each have several ‘selves’, each fitting with a group  we belong to. In this stage we associate our ‘self’ with the group values and norms and absorb the culture of the group. This taking on of group values and norms is driven by the PURPLE vMEME’s need to find safety-in-belonging.
  3. Social Comparison
    For their self-esteem people need their in-group to look better than the designated out-group. This is influenced by:-
    – how much the individual identifies with the group and how much of their self-esteem they have invested in it
    People with very strong RED may have such self-esteem that they are less influenced by the need to belong and, therefore, are less likely to conform to group values and norms. Equally those who are more introverted on the Extraversion Dimension of Temperament are usually much less motivated by social acceptance and, thus, are less likely to want to belong.
    – the extent to which there are grounds for making comparisons with other groups (out-groups)
    – the relevance of the comparison group to the in-group
    With social comparison, there is a need to make the out-group look bad in comparison. Such a creates psychological distinctiveness. We desire our identity to be both distinct from and positively compared with other groups.

Copyright© 2017 Praveen Shrestha/Psychestudy,

Much research supports SIT. Jennifer Crocker & Riia Luhtanen (1990) demonstrated that people who think highly of the group they are in have a high collective self-esteem and show loyalty to the group – social identification. Richard Lalonde (1992) studied a hockey team  who were performing poorly. When questioned, several team members insisted they used ‘dirtier’ tactics than other teams.  Ie: they had found a way in which their group was better than others! However, when Lalonde watched the team play, he found they were no ‘dirtier’ than other teams. What the team members demonstrated was in-group bias driven by social comparison.

Kirsten Verkooijen, Nanne de Vries & Gert Nielsen (2007) looked at how individuals interact with the norms of a sub-culture. The researchers conducted a survey of  6,000 16-20-year-olds, asking about sub-cultural affiliations and use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. Those who saw themselves as involved in skater, hip-hop, techno and hippie groups were particularly likely to use drugs. Those who saw themselves as involved with nerdy, sporty or religious groups were least likely to use drugs. This study shows social identification bringing about lifestyle choices.

Edwin Poppe & Hub Linssen (1999) conducted a survey with 1,143  Eastern European teenagers, asking them to rate a range of European nationalities for their morality and efficiency. While some national stereotypes were upheld –  eg: the English were the most moral, the Italians the least efficient – generally the youth of each country saw their own country as both more moral and more efficient than their neighbours. Again, social identification.

Mark Levine et al (2005) found that people were more likely to help those in an in-group . In a secluded part of the university campus, football fans witnessed a stranger fall and apparently injure themselves. When the stranger was wearing the colours of their team, the fans were much more likely to help than if the stranger wore neutral colours or those of a rival football club – again demonstrating social identification.

SIT does offer good explanations for the tribal behaviours of football fans. Club fans often feel negatively about the fans of other specific clubs, especially if they are based in the same town or city. If two clubs in the same town, perhaps in the same league, are in direct competition for a prize, then the antipathy between the two sets of fans seems relatively understandable in terms of RCT – there is a something real to compete over. However, football fans are well known for antipathy and even violence towards the fans of other teams, even when they are not in direct competition.

Application of SIT proposes that, when your team is doing badly, your social identity suffers. If the other team is doing even worse, you might feel better because at least you are not one of them. Violence between rival fans might be explained  in terms of them simply seeking to improve their social identity by proving themselves to be better than another group of fans.

So RCT can apply when there is competition and SIT when there is not competition but categorisation and social identification to emphasise differences between groups – though those differences can very easily lead to competition.

Revisiting Sherif et al’s Robber’s Cave study is instructive here. Although SIT was developed as a theory some 10 years later, the researchers divided the participants into 2 groups (social categorisation) and then facilitated  each group developed its own social identity, with its own norms and values.  Once social identification had taken place and the 2 groups became aware of each other, othering took place and a degree of antipathy rapidly developed between the 2 groups. It was the participants themselves who demanded some form of competition (social comparison) which the researchers then severely exacerbated by offering prizes – something real to compete over.

As discussed above, there are clearly individual differences which will affect how deeply someone identifies with their group. Some individuals may be more prone to prejudice because they have an intense need for acceptance by others. For such individuals, personal and social identity may be much more interlinked than for those with a lesser need for social  acceptance. This need for a sense of  security and superiority can be met by  belonging to a favoured in-group and  showing  hostility towards out-groups.

Economic factors may also contribute to just how much inter-group hostility is acted out.

Carl Hovland & Robert Sears (1940) found a correlation between the number of lynched African-Americans in 14 southern states of the US and the fortunes of the key cotton industry between 1882 and 1930. When economic conditions were bad, the number of lynchings increased; when conditions were good, the lynchings decreased. The researchers hypothesised that frustrated farmers, who really wanted to aggress against the economic factors that were hurting their industry, took out their frustration on another out-group. Effectively this is a form of displacement.

Josepth Hepworth & Stephen West (1988) reanalysed Hovland & Sears’ data to confirm a link between racial violence and poor economic conditions. However, they meta-stated the results more in terms of competition for resources.

A number of sociologists and psychologists have demonstrated that conflict is not inevitable. In cultures which do not emphasise competition, as much as perhaps the West does, categorisation does not always seem to lead to discrimination.

In fact, in some cultures there can be an out-group bias. Margaret Wetherell (1982) compared the attitudes and behaviours of white and Polynesian children in New Zealand and found the Polynesian children positively discriminated in favour of the white children. While the whites tended to discriminate in favour of their own group, the Polynesians were co-operative towards the white children and showed little in-group favouritism.

Interestingly Brian Mullen, Rupert Brown & Colleen Smith (1992) actually found that members of poorly-regarded minority groups actually showed favouritism towards more highly-regarded out-groups.

Realistic Conflict Theory and Social Identity Theory
Based on RCT and SIT, Mark Rubin & Miles Hewstone (2004) have highlighted a distinction among 3 types of discrimination:-

  1. Realistic competition is driven by self-interest and is aimed at obtaining material resources – eg: food, territory, customers – for the in-group (eg: favouring an in-group in order to obtain more resources for its members, including self).
  2. Social competition is driven by the need for self-esteem and is aimed at achieving a positive social status for the in-group relative to comparable out-groups (eg: favouring an in-group in order to make it better than an out-group).
  3. Consensual discrimination is driven by the need for accuracy and reflects stable and legitimate intergroup status hierarchies (eg: favouring a high-status in-group because it is high status).


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