Realistic Group Conflict Theory

Realistic Group Conflict Theory Definition

Between the borders of Pakistan and India lies a fertile valley known as Kashmir. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over this valuable territory. Unfortunately, the wars have contributed to hostilities and prejudice experienced by people on both sides. These tensions can be described by the realistic group conflict theory (RGCT). RGCT is a well-established theory with robust research support from both laboratory and field studies. It is used to understand many of the local and global intergroup conflicts that besiege the world. That a solution to end conflict is incorporated within this theory makes it one of the most applicable and compelling social psychological theories existing today.

This theory emerged in the 1960s to describe how perceived competition for limited resources can lead to hostility between groups. Unlike theories that use psychological factors such as personality or value differences to explain conflict and prejudice, RGCT focuses on situational forces outside the self. When valuable resources are perceived to be abundant, then groups cooperate and exist in harmony. However, if valuable resources are perceived as scarce (regardless of whether they truly are), then these groups enter into competition and antagonism ensues between them. The resources in question can be physical (such as land, food, or water) or psychological (such as status, prestige, or power).

Realistic Group Conflict TheoryOne group need only believe that competition exists for hostile feelings and discriminatory behavior to follow. For example, if ethnic group A believes that members of ethnic group B pose a threat to them by “stealing jobs,” then regardless of whether this is true, ethnic group A will feel resentment and hostility. The extent to which ethnic group A holds any power to follow through on its hostile feelings determines if unfair or discriminatory behavior toward ethnic group B will occur. At the very least, negative stereotypes about the other group will be created and mistrust and avoidance will result. How long and how severe the conflict becomes is determined by the perceived value and scarcity of the resource in question.

RGCT is unique because it does not discuss any personal features of the individuals engaged in the conflict. Other psychological theories use personality factors (such as authoritarianism) or ideologies (such as social dominance orientation) to explain why these hostilities exist. In RGCT, if individuals in a group believe that the two groups share a zero-sums fate, meaning that the other group’s success feels like a failure or loss for one’s own group, then no matter what outside group members say or do, feelings of resentment and discriminatory behavior will result. As the conflict unfolds, the members of each group will close ranks with their fellow members and will come to believe that their fate is connected with each other.

Realistic Group Conflict Theory Classic Study

Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave experiment is a demonstration of this theory. Sherif is credited as one of the most important social psychologists of his time. With his colleagues, he set up a 2-week experiment involving White, middle-class, 12-year-old boys at a summer camp. At first, the boys interacted only with their own group members because Sherif wanted them to develop a sense of group identity. The boys did develop a group identity and called themselves the Eagles or the Rattlers. In the second phase of the study, the boys were introduced to the other group and were required to engage in a series of competitive activities. Rewards and prizes were handed out to the winning team. Sherif and his colleagues purposely set up these games and rewards so that the boys would have reason to compete intensely. During these fierce competitions, both groups became suspicious of and hostile toward one another. As tensions increased, the boys demonstrated allegiance to their group by discouraging one another from establishing friendships across group lines. No one wanted to be seen as a traitor, so the boys stuck to their own groups. Hostility increased to the point that physical fights and acts of vandalism broke out. Despite direct interventions by adults, the two groups could not seem to reconcile.

Unity was restored only when Sherif and colleagues created situations requiring both groups of boys to depend on each other to achieve important goals equally valued by both groups. In other words, harmony was restored when both groups were equally invested in achieving a goal that required everyone’s help and cooperation. For example, Sherif set up a situation in which a truck carrying their food supply broke down and the help of all the boys was needed to bring the food to camp. After completing a series of such tasks requiring interaction and everyone’s involvement, positive behavior toward the other group members increased. The boys began to behave more like individuals rather than group members and formed friendships across group lines. Psychologically, they began as two distinct groups, but when the perception of threat was replaced by cooperation and interdependence, the groups reestablished themselves as one large group. Therefore, the group distinctions made between Eagles and Rattlers disappeared and everyone felt as if they belonged to the same group.

Research Support for Realistic Group Conflict Theory

RGCT has received support from both psychological and sociological studies. For example, RGCT has been used to explain Whites’ opposition to civil rights policies for Blacks. This research indicates that for some Whites, losing certain privileges is at the root of their resistance to racial policies rather than a dislike for Blacks. There has also been cross-cultural research using RGCT to analyze conflict between different ethnic and religious groups of people. These studies show that violence between different groups will escalate in societies experiencing shortages in vital resources. Research has shown that competition can lead to hostile behaviors in children, adolescents, and adults alike.


  • Jackson, J. (1993). Realistic group conflict theory: A review and evaluation of the theoretical and empirical literature. Psychological Record, 43, 395-413.