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Sources of Human Behaviour

in Conflicts

by Katharina Friedmann, student of Comprehensive School Kandel, Germany, March 2003


Why do different groups fight each other, although they all are just human beings?


Competition for a limited resource, whether it is money, land, prestige, or any other desirable commodity, is a major factor in many disputes. Competition is the basis for the conflict spiral view of war. In this view, each  side feels threatened by the actions of the other side. Each side believes its goals are incompatible with the other’s, and so each fears the other. Every success by one side draws renewed efforts from the other side to excel. This leads to a “spiral” in competition, and ultimately armed conflict results.


But competition is not always the main factor in war. According to the deterrence view of war, one side may be happy with the “status quo” and the other side becomes the “aggressor”. If  the aggressor power doubts the will or the ability of the status quo power to resist the aggressor’s actions, it may make expansionary demands. These demands grow until the status quo power finally resists and war results. World war II resulted when the status quo powers (the allies) finally resisted Hitler’s expansion after allowing him some earlier gains. In the deterrence view, war can only be prevented if the status quo power has the capacity and will to fight.


 Conflict spiral view :

 A view of international conflicts which sees them escalating into war as the result of competition and fear.


Deterrence view :

A view of international conflict which sees one side as a “status quo”  power whose role is to deter “aggressor” powers. If the status quo power is unwilling or unable to deter the aggressor, the aggressor expands until the  status quo power is forced into war.


Sherif and “robber’s Cave”


Muzafer Sherif was born in Smyrna, Turkey, 1906. During the First World War, when he was about 13, Greek soldiers invaded his village. After coming to the United states and taking his doctorate in psychology at Harvard, Sherif devoted his life to the study or conflict resolution.


During the late 1950’s, Sherif and his coleagues helped run a summer camp for eleven and twelve year old boys Robber’s Cave Park , Oklahoma. The boys were carefully selected to be happy , healthy individuals who had no difficulty getting along with others their age. None of the boys knew each other in advance of the experiment. A couple of boys living in one housing unit, were called the “Eagles”; the rest of the boys living in another housing unit, were called the “Rattlers”. Sherif gave both the Eagles and the Rattlers problems that could only be solved in their groups. The boys of each unit came to like each other more and more. After the Eagles and the Rattlers had shown considerable cohesion , Sherif introduced a series of contests designed to make the to groups hostile toward one another. As the groups competed for prizes, conflict developed, since one group could only win at the expense of the other. Very soon, the Eagles were making nasty comments about the Rattlers. Most of this hostility consisted of one group’s attributing selfish or hostile motives to the other group. Name-calling, fights, and raids on the cabins belonging to the other group became commonplace. Sherif had created an experimental context for his study of conflict resolution.


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