Inter-Group Conflict: Literature Review Example

Published: 2023-12-25
Inter-Group Conflict: Literature Review Example
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Psychology Conflict management
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1676 words
14 min read


From a psychological perspective, inter-group conflict broadly relates to the perceived incompatibility of values or goals between two or more people, which arises when individuals classify themselves mainly as members of different social groups (Böhm et al., 2018). The inter-group conflicts may occur due to incompatibility over economic wealth, power, natural resources, selfdetermination, territories, or fundamental values. The conflicting groups center on disagreements that usually focus on contradictory interests or goals in different domains; undoubtedly, these issues get addressed in conflict resolution.

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Conflicts range on a scale varying from tractable to intractable disputes. Tractable conflicts involve low-importance goals partially incompatible or compatible between the involved individuals or parties (‘mixed-motive situations); such conflicts are likely to be settled promptly and are relatively short-lived (Kugler & Coleman, 2020). On the contrary, intractable conflicts involve high-importance goals (such as resources necessary for the group’s survival) and are considered unsolvable (‘zero-sum’ situations). Intractable incompatibility usually has a more extended duration than tractable one, resulting in a history of hostility among the parties involved (Kugler & Coleman, 2020). According to Mifune et al. (2017), inter-group biases play significant roles in inducing, developing, or maintaining inter-group conflicts; these biases are rooted in individual psychological processes, such as egocentrism and categorization. Hence, this review aims to explore the role of biases in developing inter-group conflict. It discusses and suggests strategies that can be applied to reduce biases that build off these inter-group disputes, thus addressing and reducing inter-group conflicts. Moreover, the literature review extends the researcher’s knowledge and understanding of the research domain and equips them with essential expertise in performing psychological research.

The Role of Biases in Developing Inter-group Conflicts

Inter-group biases have resulted in wars and genocides that have led to more than 200 million losses in the 20th century (Chambers & Savelsberg, 2020). In 2014 alone, more than 180,000 people perished in intergroup violence; terrorist attacks have also killed more than 20,000 people in 69 countries worldwide (Chambers & Savelsberg, 2020). Genocide is the ultimate explanation of bias, hatred, and violence against a group of individuals. Biases result in situations where a group becomes the target of discrimination, persecution, prejudice, and power.

Inter-group bias generally relates to the systematic tendency to assess or evaluate one’s own membership group (the in-group) or its affiliates more favorably than a nonmembership group (the out-group) (Fisher, 2016). Bias encompasses cognition (stereotyping), attitude (prejudice), and behavior (discrimination). Bias involves an interpretative judgment that the response is unjustifiable, unfair, or illegitimate, in the sense that it goes beyond the objective evidence or requirements of the situation (Fisher, 2016). Inter-group conflict is thus induced and maintained by the perceptions (prejudice, stereotyping), emotions (hate, fear), and behaviors (aggression, discrimination) of the involved parties as explained by the following theories.

Personality Trait and Social Dominance Theories

In their study on inter-group conflict psychology, Böhm et al. (2018) examine some of the theories developing inter-group conflicts. First, they review the book The Authoritarian Personality (1950); in the book, sociologist Theodor W. Adorno and his partners argued that bias is rooted in a dysfunctional personality syndrome, a combination of basic personality traits. They assumed that the most significant feature was authoritarianism, characterized by the belief in absolute submission or obedience to authority, resulting in subordinates’ (acceptance of) oppression (Adorno, 2019). Böhm et al. (2018) also stated that empirical research using questionnaires revealed that individuals who score high on RWA are more favorable to control or punishment of norm deviators. Moreover, RWA correlates positively with bias against racial and ethnic minorities.

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is another individual difference variable that explains an individual’s proneness to be discriminatory or biased toward out-groups. Social dominance theory presents a psychological breakdown of support for group-based social hierarchies. Group-based hierarchies can be gender-based, age-based, or based on more subjective characteristics such as sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, or race; these hierarchies assign higher status and more power to individuals at the top. The theory proposes that culturally shared beliefs legitimize bias in such hierarchies; such ideologies enhance the hierarchy and eventually inter-group inequality (high SDO; e.g., racism as was in the case of Nazi Germany) or attenuate the hierarchy, thus increasing inter-group equality (low SDO; e.g., diversity).

The Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis, is a good example where personality traits (authoritarianism) and social dominance orientation played a significant role; it resulted in many deaths, as many as six million Jews died. The Holocaust is one of the instances of adverse outcomes of violence that evolve out of bias based on fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding of minority groups and other groups different from ourselves. Holocaust evolved from biases such as stereotypes, discrimination, and other forms of prejudice. A stereotype is a generalization about individuals or groups of persons, while discrimination involves judging other people based on stereotypes and prejudices.

Some people consider their own race is superior to other races; thus, they are the most likely to engage in biases like discrimination, persecution, and inter-group violence against those they believe to be members of inferior races, as explained in the personality, social dominance, and social identity theories. In the 19th century, Nazi Germany classified European Jews as an inferior race with distinct personalities and physical characteristics (Dovidio et al., 2010). Some believed that these traits would cease if Jews received social and political emancipation and could be assimilated into the broader society. But from the social identity theory perspective, others assumed that these traits were genetically passed on or naturally occurred and could not be changed. A growing emphasis on nationalism also portrayed the Jews as a “foreign element,” which could contaminate the culture or native stock and potentially dominate the native population politically and economically. This long-standing history of inter-group biases provided a seedbed for the Nazi ideology and program of genocide (Dovidio et al., 2010).

Realistic Group Conflict and Social Identity Theories

Realistic group conflict theory is another concept that explains the role of biases in developing inter-group conflicts; it states that bias usually results from competition over limited resources between groups (money, social status, or power). In a study on social psychology and gerontology, Marques et al. (2017) argued that such a negative relationship in the groups’ (incompatible) goals may result in a zero-sum representation of inter-group interactions. Realistic group conflict theory is based on Robber’s Cave experiments; these field experiments involved 20 twelve-year-old boys unknown to each other but with similar family backgrounds. They were randomly assigned to two separate groups and brought to the study; out-group hostility developed, starting from name-calling, and ended up in stealing opponents’ private property and burning their flag. As Goldman et al. 2019 explain, these findings reinforce an ecologically valid proof that competition over limited resources among groups can result in a severe perceived inter-group conflict.

Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory thus suggested bias will be more apparent at times of economic decline, due to competition for limited resources; this was undoubtedly the case in Rwanda. The violence followed an abysmal summer that adversely affected coffee production, the nation’s major export.

In another study, Hogg (2016) stated that social identity theory proposes that bias occurs naturally when one categorizes the other as a member of an out-group. According to this theory, competition over limited resources does not necessarily induce inter-group conflict. Moreover, (Böhm et al., 2018) argued that even Sherif’s own studies at Robber’s Cave revealed that the boys preferred engaging in inter-group competition once they realized the other group’s existence; this was even before the actual inter-group conflict games started. Thus, negative interdependencies among groups appear sufficient but not necessary for biased preferences to be revealed.

Social identity theory predictions, particularly the social competition strategy, have been tested in multiple experiments. Hogg (2016) asserted that Tajfel and colleagues’ experiments are noteworthy using the so-called ‘minimal group paradigm. In their experimental setup, participants were divided into two separate groups based on trivial criteria. They realized that although fairness in resource allocations between out-group and in-group members plays a significant role, participants tended to maximize the in-group member’s absolute gain at the cost to the out-group member.

In the period leading up to Rwanda's 1994 genocide, for instance, the Hutu Power propaganda persistently portrayed the Tutsi as intense, cockroaches. Not only were the Tutsi a group distinct from the Hutu, despite their identity commitments, the Hutu increasingly construed them as a group different from humanity, not competent of meaningful individual identities. Thus, Tutsi's killing was no more a breach of individual rights than killing cockroaches or, in another metaphor, also spread by Hutu Power, the pulling of weeds.

Integrated Threat Theory

Integrated threat theory reflects structural sources (such as limited resources) and psychological sources (for instance, social categorization) of inter-group conflict. It primarily focuses on the conditions that lead to individual perceptions of threats that influence behaviors and attitudes; moreover, it distinguishes between intergroup and personal threats (Croucher, 2016). Threat appraisals to the group are considered to elicit anger, while personal threats are assumed to elicit fear. Realistic threat creates a sense of frustration and insecurity, while symbolic threat evokes emotions that devaluate the out-group, contempt, or disgust (Croucher, 2016). Again, reactions may also depend on the strength or power of the threatened group. Aberson and Ferguson (2019) asserted that high-power groups might perceive themselves as vulnerable and respond with more forceful measures. Low-power groups may react more carefully to avoid the risk of retaliation; instead, they take indirect countermeasures disobedience sabotage, or non-violent protest. In the Rwandan genocide case, the Tutsi responded with more forceful measures that led to war thus the death of many people.

Just like school bullies can assert their power over weaker students by pure physical intimidation, the Jewish minority groups were victimized by a more powerful majority, which had different needs and aspirations. Therefore, biases can make minority groups subjected to dehumanization experiences or made to feel powerless by being subjected to humiliation or degrading experiences.

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