Intergroup Conflict and Prejudice

Intergroup conflict is a pervasive part of the 21st century life. Conflict between different racial groups, religious groups, linguistic groups, genders etc. fill headlines in newspapers across the globe. While this conflict is often expressed in more visible forms like riots or intergroup violence, it often takes a more subtle form too. Language often reflects and perpetuates prejudices.

A prejudice is essentially a strong, unfavourable attitude held by one group towards another group as a whole. It involves a high degree of hostility and hatred towards the target group. Prejudices have three components – a cognitive component, a behavioural component and an affective component. The cognitive component includes the beliefs and the negative stereotypes held about the target group. The behavioural component includes discrimination or negative behaviours that stem from prejudice. And finally, the affective component which is the strongest includes the feelings of hatred and hostility.

Social psychologists have studied prejudice focussing on how they are acquired, the different components of it, theories of the origin of prejudice, reactions to prejudice, subtle forms of discrimination etc. However, one of the most important areas of study with regards to prejudice is methods of reducing prejudice.

In a psychological study by Muzafer Sherif, 22 twelve year old boys in a summer camp were organised into two groups. These two groups bonded individually and even gave themselves names – The Rattlers and The Eagles. In the second stage of the study there were competitive games between the two groups for prizes. In this stage it was seen that intergroup conflict was at its peak. There was name calling, avoidance, raiding of each other’s cabins and even burning of the other group’s flags. Finally at the third stage, the integration stage, several reconciliatory activities were planned which provided the members of the groups to get to know the members of the other group. The researchers found that these activities were not very effective. What was more effective was scenarios which called for the working of the two groups for certain superordinate goals like arranging for a movie screening for the both the groups or arranging for drinking water for the camp.

According to the Contact Hypothesis, increasing contact between the two groups would serve to reduce prejudice. However, the contact between the two groups have to meet certain criteria:

  • They should lead to positive outcomes, be tension free and voluntary.
  • The contacts should have mutually acceptable goals.
  • The contacts should emphasize similarity between the two groups.

The contact hypothesis is an important result of the studies of Sherif and other psychologists. Implementing this in schools, colleges and other settings along with other steps like educating prejudiced groups is important in our fight towards a prejudice free society.

Pritha Sengupta

Pritha Sengupta


IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute


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