Can Prejudice and Conflict among Groups Be Reduced?


By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

Prejudice and conflict among groups is created as soon as the groups form. Competition over limited resources and some other factors intensify biases and prejudice to the point that people willingly attack and kill others. However, it is still a human characteristic and must be controllable.

Reenactment of  a medieval battle.
Prejudice and conflict are inevitable when groups are formed, but there are some situations where they can be reduced. (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Being Disadvantaged

Prejudice and conflict intensify when people feel that their group is disadvantaged relative to other groups. Regardless of how well they are doing, objectively, simply perceiving a disadvantage will make the group members treat other groups more aggressively.

.Stressful students screaming having conflict during cooperation on work at laptop
If a group feels that they are disadvantaged compared to the others, regardless of the reason, they will be more prejudiced against the other groups. (Image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

This does not happen only when the successful group has done something against the disadvantaged group to hold them back. Only the feeling of being disadvantaged is enough for creating stronger prejudice and conflict with other groups. Thus, political and economic inequalities must be minimized to make social groups stop fighting with each other. However, fighting over limited resources is not the only reason for conflicts.

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Conflicting Values

Prejudice and conflict can develop when a group feels like another group does not have the same values, attitudes, and moral standards as them. The conflicting values do not need to be illegal or harmful; just being different is enough for members of a group to mistreat others. This is the kind of prejudice and discrimination that gays and lesbians, atheists, and people with many tattoos and body piercings experience in the USA.

Thus, merely differing from the mainstream can create prejudice and conflict, even if no harm is done to anybody. Humans are the only creatures that fight over beliefs and values, not just resources and territories. What is in it for people?

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Psychological Benefits of Prejudice

Social psychologists suggest that prejudice can provide desirable psychological outcomes for some people. Thus, some people feel ‘good’ when they are prejudiced against others. For example, people who are more insecure about their own abilities and qualifications tend to judge others more harshly. Likewise, whites of higher social classes can be less prejudiced toward minorities than middle-class whites.

Another important element in prejudice is feeling superior. If people have high self-esteem, they tend to be less prejudiced. All of these being said, how do groups get along without killing each other based on all the prejudice and conflict?

What Does not Help in Overcoming Prejudice

Side view of friends watching two college girls having a conflict in the park
Putting people from different groups together in one group to make them resolve conflicts and reduce prejudice does not help much. (Image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Simply putting members of opposing groups together in the hopes of making them know each other, trust, and get along is not going to work. In one study that involved a population of adolescent boys divided into two groups, the conflicts got so hostile that the researchers had to keep the groups separate to ensure their safety. They tried putting the groups together for some fun activities, but antagonism escalated instead of reducing.

However, in the 1950s, Gordon Allport explained the conditions in which prejudice and conflict among groups could be controlled and reduced.

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What Helps Overcome Prejudice and Conflict

There are three general situations where people overcome prejudice and conflict:

  1. The groups must have equal status and power in the situations that they interact with each other.
  2. The situation must provide an opportunity for the groups to cooperate to reach a common goal. In the study with adolescent boys, hostility and conflict reduced when the boys had to work together to find and fix the problem of water being cut off. The opportunities for members to see the opposing group as humans with similarities to them are also helpful.
  3. A higher authority can try to reduce the conflicts, whether it is a person or the law of a country. Efforts to reduce prejudice and conflict are more likely to work if they appear to have legitimacy.

People do not need real reasons to hold bias and prejudice against members of other groups, but they need a lot of effort and reasons to overcome those biases. However, if the same conflicting groups began sharing the same identity, conflicts would reduce. This would also need extremely strong motivation.

For example, if aliens attack the Earth, people of all races and countries would immediately bond together to defeat the enemy. They will no longer see themselves as identified by their nationality and will pick the ‘from Earth’ identity.

Common Questions about Prejudice and Conflict

Q: Why do groups get into conflicts?

People usually have prejudice, and conflict forms easily, when they have positive biases about themselves and their group, and negative ones about other people and other groups.

Q: Why do groups affect people’s views of one another?

When a person is a member of a group, they tend to view themselves and their fellow group members more positively than others outside the group, because their group has a shared goal with them. Prejudice and conflict are also common inter-group.

Q: Does equal status affect conflict between groups?

Yes. As Gordon Allport explained, prejudice and conflicts drop when the groups have equal status and power within the situation in which they will have contact and interaction with each other.

Q: Can a higher authority’s influence reduce group conflicts?

Yes. Another factor in controlling prejudice and conflict in groups is the supervision of a higher authority, be it a person or another group.

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