A Plea for a Friendly Focus on Superordinate Goals

Sherif's classic studies on conflict resolution are keenly relevant for today

Posted Sep 11, 2017

Even my jaded self, exhausted by the unrelenting political mayhem, felt buoyed by Senator McCain’s recent Op-ed urging Congress to cooperate in solving our country’s problem.

Will it matter?

Not when, as McCain laments, Congress is in perpetual campaign mode and identity politics is in the driver’s seat.

The “us” vs. “them” mentality leads to civic paralysis, as we watch many of our elected officials act like children. 

As a social psychologist, I think of the classic demonstration of this sort of thing in the study directed by Muzafer Sherif in the 1950’s at a boy’s camp in Oklahoma. It's a well-known study but worth contemplating anew. Sherif and his fellow researchers randomly assigned twenty-two boys into two groups.  Competitive juices jack-rabbited into high gear when it was arranged for the groups to meet directly in competitions where trophies and prizes were at stake. To paraphrase Billy Crystal, it was “boys, start your collective egos.” Name-calling and threats were the rule. The boys objected to eating together in the same cafeteria. They raided each others' cabins. Even a set of “get-to-know-you” events designed to reduce the friction, failed to do so. Food fights resulted.

I realize that our political identities connect to an important sense of who we are and what we value – but how different is the behavior of these boys from much of our Congressional politics?

We do seem to live in altered political times, however. I am registered to vote in Lexington, Kentucky, in a district fairly split in its politics, having both a Democrat and Republican representative over the last four election cycles. Until this last presidential election, I have felt a strong sense of community, no more keenly felt that when we suffered the Comair Airline crash at our local airport in 2006.  Victims on that flight were from every segment of Lexington life, from faculty and students at the University of Kentucky to folks in our celebrated thoroughbred horse industry. I remember national reporters who came to Lexington to cover the tragedy commenting first on this sense of community, before moving on to report the crash itself.  Donald Trump’s election, to me, has shaken and weakened our cooperative bonds. I find myself wondering who voted for whom as my wife and I take our evening walk and pass our neighbors. Sometimes, I have to suppress ugly feelings as I make my inferences.

But I have a fantasy stirred by another feature of Sherif’s study and by the terror and destruction of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Sherif, disappointed by the “get-to-know-you” approach for reducing friction among the groups, tried something different during the last week of the camp. He and his team of researchers introduced activities in which both groups could only benefit by working together toward “superordinate goals.” The first activity involved getting access to drinking water at the camp, which for a period time, was scarce because of the main water line had been vandalized. A particular faucet turned out to be blocked, and members of both groups, as others watched, found a way to unblock it. This created common rejoicing. Whoever was most thirsty, regardless of group, got to drink first.  Another superordinate goal involved deciding on favorite feature film for general viewing, everyone chipping in to help pay for the high rental fee. Yet another involved both groups using a rope to pull a food truck out of rut.

Tensions had largely subsided by the camp’s end. Boys ate together without obvious concern over group membership. They cheered when realizing they would be returning to Oklahoma City in the same bus. One boy, who had won money in an early contest between the groups, used this money to buy malted milks for everyone during a refreshment stop.

I hope that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma can point us toward important superordinate goals upon which we as Americans can broadly agree on. Let’s all honestly examine the scientific evidence for human contribution to climate change and roll up our sleeves to confront the challenge head-on. 

The waters are rising, and we are all in the same boat.

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