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 Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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