Psychologists Examine Factors that Contribute to Cultural Clashes

Social psychologists have long examined the influences that lead groups to eliminate one another. “Competition over a valued, scarce resource has been at the root of many struggles between ethnic groups, religious groups, nations, and other groups in close proximity to each other,” said Sterling McPherson of the Department of Psychology at Washington State University, and lead author of a recent study examining this dynamic. “Issues related to war and mass elimination are arguably some of the biggest problems facing the world today, and are open to investigation by social psychologists.” Understanding what factors contribute to the decision to eliminate competitive groups of people could provide the foundation for interventions to prevent these types of actions that often end in violence. McPherson said, “The ultimate goal is for social psychologists to be able to work together with other social scientists and develop a comprehensive picture of the forces at work during intergroup competition resulting in violence.”

To examine this phenomenon on a much smaller scale, McPherson and his colleagues examined participants’ reactions after they successfully won or lost a trivia test, both individually and while in groups. During the experiment, the participants were informed of their progress, and were given the opportunity to eliminate their competition if they chose to. The results revealed that group members were more likely to engage in retaliatory behavior than individuals. “Groups tended to eliminate their opposition earlier in the game than did individuals, and those who were winning the game tended to eliminate their opposition earlier than those who were losing the game,” said McPherson. “The interaction was such that winning groups tended to eliminate their opposition faster than losing groups or individuals.” McPherson emphasizes that this study is not meant to provide evidence or psychological justification for the violent cultural clashes throughout the world. “Rather, our goal was to show that advantaged individuals will move to eliminate competing groups when even trivial incentives are at stake.” He added, “We hope our data will begin moving us toward a better understanding of the complex situational influences and decisions to inflict the ultimate punishment on an outgroup.”

McPherson, Sterling, and Craig D. Parks. “Intergroup and Interindividual Resource Competition Escalating into Conflict: The Elimination Option.” Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice 15.4 (2011): 285-96. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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  • Isaiah


    December 22nd, 2011 at 6:48 PM

    If it were only this easy to resolve international conflict then we would all be so happy and content this Christmas season.
    We have to remember that so many of these clashes go back hundreds, even thousands of years. Some of them date so far back that no one even remembers anymore the reasons why they began in the first place.
    Yes it would be so ideal if things were overcome with just a little understanding but we have to also remember that we are on the outside looking in. We have a hopefully objective point of view whereas those in the midst of the conflict have had years and years to ponder the issue and stew in it so that it is so much bigger than what we can realize as outsiders.
    The best thing to do is to remember that we cannot referee everyone. We can certainly offer up some suggestions as to how to help, but go into it knowing that they may not necessarily take us up on the offer. And we have to be ok with that.

  • carla


    December 23rd, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    Do you really think that this is going to happen? I mean, there are always going to be people at war, That is something that I personally find unavoidable. As long as we continue to only look out for “us” then there is no way that this will change.

  • Ontheroadagain


    December 25th, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    too many people who don’t know what is going on trying to stick their noses where they don’t belong

  • Ashley


    December 26th, 2011 at 2:53 PM

    Ways to end conflict between people?Yes it is possible.But ways to end wars and conflict between nations and other groups?Very tough.Because what works for an individual often fails in a group because the leaders could be unreasonable or if the group mentality becomes hard lined.

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