Realistic conflict theory (initialized RCT), also known as realistic group conflict theory (initialized RGCT), is a social psychological model of intergroup conflict. The theory explains how intergroup hostility can arise as a result of conflicting goals and competition over limited resources, and it also offers an explanation for the feelings ofprejudice and discrimination toward the outgroup that accompany the intergroup hostility. Groups may be in competition for a real or perceived scarcity of resources such as money, political power, military protection, or social status. Feelings of resentment can arise in the situation that the groups see the competition over resources as having azero-sums fate, 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 length and severity of the conflict is based upon the perceived value and shortage of the given resource. According to RCT, positive relations can only be restored if superordinate goals are in place.
The Robbers Cave Experiment by Muzafer Sherif represents one of the most widely known demonstrations of RCT. Sherif’s study was conducted over three weeks in a 200-acre summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma, focusing on intergroup behavior. In this study, researchers posed as camp personnel, observing 22 eleven- and twelve-year-old boys who had never previously met and had comparable backgrounds.
The experiment was divided into three stages. The first stage being “ingroup formation”, in which upon arrival the boys were split into two approximately equal groups based on similarities. Each group was unaware of the other group’s presence. The second stage was the “friction phase”, wherein the groups were entered in competition with one another in various camp games. Valued prizes were awarded to the winners. This caused both groups to develop negative attitudes and behaviors towards the outgroup. The third and final stage was the “integration stage”. During this stage, tensions between the groups were reduced through teamwork-driven tasks that required intergroup cooperation.
Sherif made several conclusions based on the three-stage Robbers Cave Experiment. From the study, he determined that because the groups were created to be approximately equal, individual differences are not necessary or responsible for intergroup conflict to occur. As seen in the study when the boys were competing in camp games for valued prizes, Sherif noted that hostile and aggressive attitudes toward an outgroup arise when groups compete for resources that only one group can attain. Sherif also establishes that contact with an outgroup is insufficient, by itself, to reduce negative attitudes. Finally, he concludes that friction between groups can be reduced along with positive intergroup relations maintained, only in the presence of superordinate goals that promote united, cooperative action.