Creative Alternatives To A Deadly Showdown

Muzafer Sherif


For some years, the world has lived in the ominous shadow of a deadly showdown. The consequences of such a tragic climax have been vividly described by the creators of weapons themselves. These grim consequences have led many to search for measures to avoid a showdown and to reduce the conflicts which are at its roots.

Among the various measures advocated are the following:

There is at least one condition necessary if any of these measures are to be effective-the provision of a broad motivational basis for contacts. communication. and negotiation. If such a broad motivational basis is created any one of these measures, except the first, permits creative alternatives to a deadly showdown. I will touch on these measures and their variants in context. First, however. I should make it clear why I do not regard the first—namely. deterrence—as a creative solution.

As C. N. Barclay, British military author, stated in the New York Times Magazine of May 5, 1963: "The deterrent is the modern version of the balance of power, employed in the past-not very successfully-to keep the peace in Europe. The difference lies in the fact that failure to keep the peace in the days of conventional weapons . . . was not universally fatal. Failure with nuclear weapons, on the other hand, would be catastrophic for all mankind" (p. 170. Let us not be misled by new trappings or the use of high speed computers. A rose by any other name smells as sweet, and deterrence smells like a preliminary to war. In contrast, the aim of the other measures is to reduce conflict, not maintain it.

The Research Background

Whatever a social psychologist such as myself can contribute to the search for alternatives to a headlong plunge into mass destruction must rest on the research and theory in his specialty. I will, therefore, mention briefly the factual basis for my conclusions.

Fifteen years ago. we began a program of research on conflict between human groups and its resolution. Hunches. or hypotheses if you like, were based on existing research and on cases of conflict between groups of all sizes and description. Our hunches concerned conditions sufficient for the development of conflict between groups, along with the hostile acts and attitudes that accompany it, and conditions necessary for the subsequent reduction of the conflict and change of the participants' attitudes. Three experiments were conducted, each continuing 24 hours a day for nearly a month.

Here, I will not go into details of the experiments. which will be of interest mainly to fellow social psychologists and which are readily available in print. A brief summary, however, may be in order as point of departure for the focus of this paper.

The experiments started with two bunches of unacquainted and very similar individuals, brought to a summer camp. By presenting then with situa-

( 4) -tions where pulling together with one's fellows led to desired ends. we soon had two genuine groups—each with its own recognized leader, name, and local customs. Once the groups formed, a series of events was introduced in which the victory of one group inevitably meant defeat for the other. Over a period of time, as predicted, the two groups became hostile toward each other: they called each other names: they disliked each other intensely. and they began to fight. This unfortunate outcome was a necessary preliminary to the study of various measures in reducing conflict between groups.

There are some similarities between these experiments and real life. First. the entire experience was very natural for the individuals studied. and the problems they faced were very real to them. They cared a great deal about their groups and their vicissitudes. Second, like many groups in real life, behavior toward the other group was not regulated by rules enforced by some superior authority. The groups formulated their own ways of relating to each other.

Being experiments. however. these studies were necessarily in miniature. The groups were small, as they had to be to have experimental control of their habitat. The members were young boys; since then. however. similar results have been obtained by other investigators working with adults. Still, there is a genuine problem of whether or not one is justified in drawing analogies between what happened to these small groups and what happens to large and powerful nations. I leave this to your judgment and. ultimately. to the outcome of future research conducted on a larger scale.

Superordinate Goals

I shall now venture to state some things we learned from these experiments about intergroup conflict and its reduction. A variety of measures were proposed for the reduction of conflict and were tried out in the experiments. One of these turned out to be a necessary condition for the avoidance of violent alternatives.

This necessary condition is the existence of "superordinate goals." Superordinate goals are those ends greatly desired by all those caught in dispute or conflict. which cannot be attained by the resources and energies of each of the parties separately. but which require the concerted efforts of all parties involved. Even in our miniature experiments, we found that a series of superordinate goals was required if concerted effort was to become general. and if hostility was to turn to friendly interchange between groups. Even at this level. the reduction of intergroup conflict is not a one-shot affair. A series of superordinate goals has a cumulative effect. which provides a broad motivational base on which person-to-person contacts, information, and conferences between leaders or representatives can become effective.

Communication must be opened between groups before prevailing hostilities can be reduced. But person-to-person contact and communication without goals which are urgent. compelling. and highly appealing to all groups involved frequently serve only as mediums for further accusations and recriminations. The discussion or the negotiation gets bogged down. directly or indirectly, in the fruitless question of "Who's to blame?" for the existing state of affairs.

The experiments revealed a dynamic sequence resulting in a vicious circle. with each side justifying its own actions and casting blame on the other side. For this to happen. it was sufficient to have two groups. each pitted against the other for a goal that can be won only if one group fails. It is also pertinent to note that individual members need not in any way be neurotic or sinful for the vicious circle to occur.

In the experiments, the groups were from the sane culture and the members were as similar in background and appearance as possible. Shall we then, attribute their behavior to universal human nature? Since we arranged the conditions which started this vicious circle and since we later successfully altered it, there is no justification for assuming that this is "just the way of human nature."

When the groups in our experiments were in conflict, considering each other as enemies. each adopted a policy of deterrence. In addition to security measures designed to conceal their possessions and locations. weapons were improvised from available resources and were hoarded "in case" they were needed. Banners were destroyed and raids on each other's property were conducted in stealth as a show of power. It may be, therefore. that deterrence is a way of conducting conflict rather than a preserver of the peace, as it is sometimes represented.

Group Conflicts and Stereotypes

In the course of encounters between the groups. each individual—whether leader or appointed representative or rank-and-file—acted as a loyal. responsible member of his group. Being loyal and

(5) responsible, in this case, meant that he directed his energies and efforts against the rival. The unfavorable qualities, the derogatory stereotypes attributed to the other group, as derogatory stereotypes were the products of this process, and were not an initial condition for it. One's own group was endowed with favorable qualities which were self-justifying and even self-glorifying. The rival group was assigned stereotyped traits which justified its treatment as an enemy. Since this is a product of intergroup conflict, and is not its initial cause, attempts to remove the stereotyped conceptions in and of themselves —through information, pleas for fair-mindedness or justice—are ordinarily rather futile and fruitless.

Once hostile attitudes and unfavorable stereotypes of another group are stabilized, they influence the manner in which individual members see and size up events. Each side sees the actions of the other through the colored glasses of hostility. which filter out the favorable colors in which we see ourselves and our friends. Undoubtedly, this filtering process affects the judgment of negotiators and representatives. For example, in one experiment, an individual holding a high position in his own group decided, with the best of motives, that the time had come to negotiate peaceful relations with the hostile group. He was received by them as an enemy who sought to mislead them with pretended expressions of reconciliation. His departure was accompanied by a hail of “ammunition” collected by the group "in case" they were attacked—in this case, green apples.

The Leader Rejected

Equally interesting was the fate of this individual. who had made reasonable attempts at reconciliation, when he returned to his own group. Far from being received as a hero, he was chastised for even making the attempt. This is but one of many examples of the fact that leadership. representation, and negotiation between groups are governed primarily by and operate within the bounds acceptable in each group. If he is to negotiate effectively, a leader or his delegate must remain a part of his own group. In order to do so, he must act in ways that his fellow members regard as acceptable and decent, in terms of their group's definitions. The realistic alternatives that a leader or negotiator can consider, therefore, are limited. Not all possible alternatives that are logically conceivable. or even rational, are realistically available. The realistic alternatives are those that are clearly acceptable to members of his own group at the time. In large groups. where negotiations may be conducted in secret. a leader has somewhat more latitude. But there is not one leader in the world today who could long remain in power after committing his group to a course clearly unacceptable to the members.

How can the blinding stereotypes and self-justifications of groups in conflict change. and how can the vicious circle stop. if the groups do not accept the regulation of some still larger body? Many methods are effective in the context of a series of superordinate goals. which are felt as urgent by all parties involved.

New Communication Possible

When contacts between persons involve superordinate goals. communication is utilized to reduce conflict in order to find means of attaining common goals. True and favorable information about the other group is seen in a new light, and then the probability of this information being effective is enormously enhanced.

When groups cooperate toward superordinate goals, their leaders are in a position to take bolder steps toward greater mutual understanding and trust. Lacking superordinate goals. however, genuine moves by a leader to reduce intergroup conflict may be seen by his own group as out-of-step and ill-advised. He may be subjected to severe criticism and even to a loss of faith. Where there are superordinate goals. however, these encourage a leader to make moves to advance cooperative efforts. He can more freely delegate authority. and negotiation can proceed more effectively. The decisions reached are more likely to receive support from other group members.

Various measures suggested for reducing intergroup conflict acquire new significance and effectiveness when they become part and parcel of joint efforts directed toward goals with real and compelling value for all groups concerned. The development of such superordinate goals provides the

( 6) necessary motive. It is needed to lift the heavy hand of the past. with its entrenched stereotypes and vicious circle of "Who's to blame?". and to work out procedures for cooperation.

Over a period of time, the procedures of groups working toward superordinate goals are generalized to new problems and situations. In time, the process should assume organizational forms. If the tasks of building such organizations seem formidable, they are certainly no more formidable than those which a modern war would impose. There can be no doubt that man's potentialities can be realized better in the course of such efforts than in the vicious circle of assigning blame for the present state of affairs, in pursuing old fears, old hostilities, old conflicts—with their awesome possibilities in this present world.

Beyond the Experiments

In considering the possibility of superordinate goals in international affairs. we must pass beyond our experiments. For in our experiments, superordinate goals emerged in problem situations that involved the deprivation of vital necessities or the achievement of a venture much-desired by all. They were not matters for interpretation, and they did not require experts with different opinions about the "facts"' to offer conjectures. The conditions giving rise to superordinate goals in our experimental groups were compelling and immediate—right in front of their eyes, a naked necessity for all to see and feel.

Debating Human Survival

In the thousand-fold complex problems engulfing the people of the world today, there seems to be a debate about one goal which should be overriding—human survival. There is debate among scientists as well as policy-makers about the range of weapons of destruction and their carriers; about the radius of destruction in population centers: about whether 100 million or 500 million people would perish or be mutilated; about which peoples and places would be involved; about how many and what kind of shelters are required for survival as human beings. if they survive: about the effects of radiation on the present and future generations of children. Such debates continue as though we were splitting hairs instead of talking about millions of human lives.

In the midst of these debates, the problem of human survival is obscured; instead of human survival emerging as an all-embracing superordinate goal, its urgency is muffled. Yet human survival is the most inclusive superordinate goal. It provides the needed motivational basis for:

But, for all of these, human survival has be felt as a necessity—like the air we breathe, the food we eat. the danger sign that we heed when near high explosives.

A Declaration for Human Survival

One effective first step toward the recognition of human survival as a superordinate goal may be a universal declaration for human survival and development, including in vivid word and picture, the horrors of nuclear war, its cost in life. its destruction of human civilization and culture, and the ever-present dangers of radiation to those who survive. Some experts on communication conclude that people do not listen to threats, pointing to studies showing that the threat of cancer is not sufficient to cause people to stop smoking. However, we know that when people of a country learn of a genuine threat to the lives and well-being of their country. even in the newspapers, they do have a strong desire for survival and removal of the threat; and all sectors of society pull together for this purpose. Human survival is a positive goal for all peoples, and the common threat to all today has not been presented with comparable urgency.

As we all know. declarations have been made by groups of scientists, by professional bodies, and even by heads of governments and military men of stature. What is intended here is not just another declaration at a single conference, or in a few newspapers, or in an occasional policy statement. What is intended here is an agreement—especially by policy makers of the major powers—that a universal declaration for human survival, which also conveys in understandable terms what nuclear warfare means. has their full support. Of course, even this is not sufficient.

Such a universal declaration for human survival as a recognized superordinate goal needs the support of all religious bodies which ask for prayers for peace, so that the universal declaration for human survival will be part of their daily and weekly

( 7) exercises. All organizations, boards and regents directing policies at university, high school and grade school levels in every country, who profess to have at heart the well-being and development of the younger generation as civilized human beings, should make such a universal declaration an integral part of their educational programs. Owners and directors of the mass media of communication in all countries-who profess public responsibility in enlightening and informing-should feature prominently and repeatedly such a universal declaration for human survival as a cherished goal. At the cost of appearing naive, I also propose that political parties in all countries who profess their concern with peace on earth and the brotherhood of man should include this universal declaration as an integral part of their platforms—even if this be the only plank they share in common.

If through these means, human survival becomes a superordinate goal for the majority of peoples of the world, then nuclear war may be out-of-bounds in their eyes as an alternative in national or ideological policies. Being out-of-bounds in terms of cherished goals of the people for survival and development as human beings. the attempts of demagogues to fish in muddied waters, to dramatize issues and events out of all proportion, will fall on deaf ears. Leaders will be charged with staying within the bounds of the cherished goals of their peoples.

A New Framework for Cooperation

I do not suggest at all that a universal declaration could settle the problems underlying international conflicts. I do propose it as a first step toward eliminating nuclear war as an alternative that any leader could consider. The underlying conflicts. however, can be affected to the extent that the nations of the world and their citizens engage in common enterprises which each sees as being for the benefit of all. regardless of their differences.

The differences between nations may seem so great today that the possibility of common concerns seems slim. I am inclined, however, to find merit in the observation by Eugene Rabinowitch (Bulletin o f the Atomic Scientists, February, 1963) that there are such areas, and that "the cultural and scientific areas are the least controversial and most suitable for international cooperation" at present (p. 7). The implications of our own research also support his contention that such cooperation should be. not merely an exchange of persons. but "common enterprises" jointly initiated and carried out '(n a large scale.

In brief, the implication of our research is that when superordinate goals are concretely perceived and emotionally felt by members of groups in conflict, they do tend to cooperate. to pull together their resources and energies to attain them. A series of such efforts over a period of time is effective in reducing their hostilities, changing their unfavorable images of each other, and producing a climate in which creative alternatives to mutual extinction can be explored. The exploration of creative alternatives may be more effective than the prevailing policy of contending parties at present, in which strategists attempt to figure out probabilities of deterrence. This policy of deterrence contains the constant hazard of getting out of hand because of even a small miscalculation or misinformation at this or that particular point.

Inter-nation Universities

A final word on committing the knowledge, resources, and efforts of major parties in conflict to common. large-scale projects, as part of a process directed toward the superordinate goal of human survival on the level of the cultures attained through centuries. Such common and interdependent projects could include, for example, joint efforts by cosmonauts, technicians, and researchers of nations aimed at the conquest of space. Such projects could include inter-nation universities, in which the faculty consists of scholars and scientists who have outgrown the 19th century conception of national ways of life and ideological divisions as closed systems. These are only examples already proposed by various authors such as Charles E. Osgood and Eugene Rabinowitch. In joint meetings of scholars and scientists dedicated to human survival, and the survival of human cultures across national and ideological lines. a whole series of such common and interdependent ventures could be imaginatively worked out.

The involvement of talents, resources and effort. in joint and interdependent new projects is less liable to misinterpretations as trickery or propaganda moves. In the more direct political and military areas where parties already have entrenched stands, sometimes fixed as national norms or stereotypes, the likelihood of misinterpreting the motives and moves of the other side is greater. However, once a new series of joint and interdependent projects is underway, active involvement in it is likely to be conducive to an atmosphere of good faith, in which the negotiating parties will not be suspect at every turn and twist of occasion.



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