Conflict and Cooperation


Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

Prof. Dietrich Fischer

Prof. Dietrich Fischer

During World War I, Muzafer Sherif from Turkey was in a group of civilians who were massacred by enemy soldiers. He was the only survivor, because he lay motionless under a pile of bodies and the soldiers thought he was dead. After that horrible experience, he decided to do everything he could to understand better the sources of hostility and ways to overcome them.

He went to the United States to study psychology. In 1954, together with his American wife, Carolyn Sherif, he conducted a famous experiment in social psychology, the Robbers Cave experiment on conflict and cooperation.

At a Boy Scout camp at Robbers Cave in Oklahoma, they took a busload of boys arriving for summer camp, let them draw a lot and randomly divided them into two groups. Each group chose its own name and lived in a separate cabin. They let the boys play competitive games with each other, like soccer and tug of war, and let them compete, for example to see who could build a bridge faster across a ravine. These boys came from the same town, and initially had no grudges against each other, but they began to identify strongly with their own group, and to look down on the other group.

They called each other bad names, and even fought mock battles, throwing apples at each other. The situation became very ugly. Then they tried various ways to get the two groups to cooperate again. They gave them lectures about the advantage of mutual cooperation, but that had no effect. They organized parties where the two groups could mingle, but this only reinforced their prejudice. They said about members of the other group, “Did you see how much this one ate, or how strange that one was dressed?” However, they finally found a method that worked.

After a long hike, when the boys returned hungry and tired to the camp, the researchers secretly arranged for the food delivery truck to be stuck in a mud puddle. First one group tried but was not strong enough to push the truck out of the mud. Then the other group tried, also without success. Finally, they reluctantly agreed to push together, and they got the truck moving again.

That incident broke the ice. From that day on, they began to talk with each other again, concluded friendships, and realized that there are things that they both want and need, but can reach only through cooperation. Sherif and Sherif coined the term “superordinate goal” for something that two groups both want, but cannot achieve alone, only through mutual cooperation.

Such superordinate goals also exist at the international level, and are among the most powerful means to overcome mutual hostility. For example, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced the common threat of Hitler Germany, they became allies. But it is not necessary to have a common enemy to cooperate.

Many global problems can be solved only through global cooperation, in the strong interest of all. They include saving the ozone layer that protects us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, preventing global warming, and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. If only one country makes nuclear weapons available to terrorists, all are in grave danger.


Dietrich Fischer (1941-2015) from Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 7 Dec 2015.

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