Realistic Conflict Theory: The Psychology of War and Peace

In the summer of 1954, a school bus with a group of 12-year old boys arrived at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys thought they were going camping. Their parents at home believed the sponsored trip had something to do with leadership. None of them knew that they were actually part of a controversial experiment on realistic conflict resolution.

the robbers cave experiment
Robbers cave experiment

A science experiment on groups of boys from competing camps, who have no idea they’re being manipulated into fighting each other — what was that all about?

In the summer of 1954, a school bus with a group of 11- and 12-year old boys arrived at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. What the kids didn’t know: there was another bus.

All the boys thought  they were going camping. Their parents at home believed the sponsored trip had something to do with leadership. None of them knew that the camp staff were actually researchers, and the boys’ part of a controversial experiment. One of its goals: let the boys fight each other.

in-group formation
In-group formation

The Robbers Cave Experiment was designed to unfold in three stages: in-group formation, friction, and conflict resolution. It started with “in-group formation”. In the first week each group did various activities without interacting with another. The boys had fun, went swimming and did hikes. Over time social norms developed. Leaders and followers emerged. The boys formed friendships and started inventing their own subculture.

Eventually they came up with names. One group called themselves the eagles and the others chose to be the rattlers. They stenciled their names onto shirts and flags. The in-groups were formed. The tribes had an identity. They were now ready to meet each other.

Friction Phase
Friction phase

During the “friction phase”, the two groups came into contact with each other. The researchers set up competitions with single prizes for the winners. In other words, they established a limited resource for the two to battle over. 

It didn’t take long before the in-groups developed negative attitudes towards the outgroup. Prejudice became apparent. To make matters worse, the staff suggested to one group, to dump buckets of mud inside the cabin of the others.

Eventually the kids grew hateful, violent, and verbally abusive. They burned each other’s flags and sometimes things escalated to the point that the camp staff had to step in.

Conflict resolution
Conflict resolution

Last was conflict resolution. The boys were meant to make peace. First the staff tried to reduce the prejudice between the groups, by increasing contact and communication. But that just made matters worse.

Then the researchers blocked the valve to the camp’s water tank. As there was no more drinking water, the boys became progressively thirstier. Then the camp staff suggested that they all needed to collaborate to fix the problem. Reluctantly, the groups started to get to work.

Before long the boys were mixing and cooperating. There were no Rattlers or Eagles any more, only a bunch of campers collaborating. When the water finally came through, there was common rejoicing.

The researchers learned four key things from the experiment.


First: Individual differences are not responsible for tribal conflicts. Age, race, culture or religion don’t seem to matter. Second, hostile attitudes arise when groups compete for resources that only one of them can get. Third, discussions don’t solve conflicts. Fourth, only a common goal or enemy that promotes cooperation reduces the friction. 

Two renowned psychologists, Muzafer Sherif and his wife Carolyn Wood Sherif were behind the controversial experiment and later established a theory.

realistic conflict theory
Realistic Conflict Theory

Realistic conflict theory explains how hostility arises as a result of competition for limited resources, such as money, power, military protection, or social status. Whether these resources are actually limited or just perceived to be so, doesn’t matter. 

Their work helps us understand the mechanisms of discrimination against outsiders, which escalates during shortages. For example, when in-groups think that good jobs are hard to find, they often try to remove sources of out-group competition, lobby for legal restrictions, or deny newcomers access.

what do you think?
Realistic conflict WDUT

What do you think? Do tribal conflicts only arise as a result of competition for scarce goods? And if so, are shared goals and common enemies really the only way to peace?

Or is the theory flawed and not applicable to adults? After all, children are easier to influence — not only to build a prejudice, but also to change their ideas again later. Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

This activity follows the Active Learning principle.

  • Start class with a discussion about recents conflicts between two countries or two groups within a community.
  • Pick one conflict to discuss for your class. 
  • Ask the students to vote (by show of hands or with clickers) if they think that they can in theory resolve it
  • Divide the class into groups of two and give each 10 minutes to find solutions on how to solve the conflict.
  • Then ask the groups to present one key solution they believe most in
  • Have the students vote on which of the solutions they think would work best
  • Play the Sprouts videos to resolve the question. 
  • Discuss the video and ask the class, whether the findings presented in line with the idea were the same as those proposed by the theory?

As additional work you may also ask the groups to come up with characteristics (physical, mental, moral, economical) that people use to distinguish groups as well as  strategies that groups use to keep resources for themselves and from others (economical, physical, legal, psychological, social). 


  • Script: Jonas Koblin 
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda
  • Fact-checking: Ludovico Saint Amour Di Chanaz
  • Production: Selina Bador

One Reply to “Realistic Conflict Theory: The Psychology of War and Peace”

  1. I couldn’t help but think of the Ukraine conflict as I watched this. Land. Is this a limited resource? Or is the unexamined assumption of nation-states to be blamed? Once one begins prying up such assumptions, there’s no telling what might happen. Or, is this tribalism part of the human creature and not eradicable? As a white Christian male, I’m too aware of my own limits and (quite probable) unexamined assumptions, as well as the assumptions I do try to examine yet am unable to fully unravel. Thank you for the video.

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