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date: 16 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Just as individuals must often work together, or against each other, to realize desired outcomes or avoid unpleasant outcomes, so too must groups sometimes collaborate or oppose each other. While individual-level interaction is typically characterized by some degree of cooperation—in fact, it is rare and notable when an individual is encountered who absolutely refuses to ever do anything in collaboration with anyone else—group-level interaction is often more combative, and it is not unusual for intergroup interaction to be hostile, sometimes in the extreme. Wars do not originate from one person disliking another person. At a more everyday level, subgroups typically need to combine efforts in the service of a larger, complex product, but often this combination occurs in a suboptimal manner. As well, merger processes are increasingly causing formerly competitive groups to be placed on the same side and required to work together. These mergers are often a challenge.

This tendency for group-level interaction to be less cooperative than individual-level interaction can be explained from evolutionary and social-interactive perspectives. The evolutionary approach argues that group-level hostility is a relic from a time when basic resources (food, shelter) were hard to acquire. Providing for kin on a daily basis was a challenge, and the fact that other groups were trying to access the same resources added to the difficulty. Thus, non-kin groups presented a continual threat to the well-being of one’s lineage, and there would be survival value in being quick to oppose, and perhaps eliminate, such groups. From a social interaction perspective, hostile group-level interaction is sometimes a function of learned expectations that groups are competitive with each other; sometimes driven by the anonymity afforded by the group setting, in a manner similar to diffusion of responsibility; sometimes the result of a type of egging-on process, in that the individual who harbors thoughts of lashing out against another person has no one to validate the plan, but a group member who proposes such action can get validation; and sometimes the result of a perceived threat to one’s social identity, in that the outgroup may induce questions about the propriety of one’s belief system and overall way of life. Matters get more complicated if the groups have a history of conflict, opposition, or dislike.

Resolving intergroup conflict is difficult, harder than resolving interindividual conflict, and the likelihood of resolution decreases as the severity of the conflict increases. Third parties can help, as can induction of a superordinate identity (“we are all in this together”) and changing how outgroup members are perceived, but how to successfully implement these strategies is not well understood. However, groups that are motivated to work together can and do form strong, durable alliances. (Ironically, good examples of such alliances sometimes come from groups that we would rather not cooperate with each other, like terrorist organizations.) Thus, while intergroup interaction does tend to be negative, this is not a permanent state of affairs, especially if the groups themselves see value in working together.

Keywords: competition, cooperation, intergroup, discontinuity, subgroups

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