Realistic conflict theory is an intergroup conflict model developed by social scientist Donald T. Campbell. According to its definition, when two or more groups are interested in the same scarce resources, this will inevitably lead to conflicts, as well as certain biases and negative stereotypes between members of different groups.


Groups may conflict over both tangible and intangible resources, such as territory, minerals, food, job position, social status, authority, etc. The basic principle in the theory of realist conflict is that the competition for these resources should be based on the antagonistic principle, according to which either victory or loss is possible. There is no opportunity for compromise or cooperation, the winner gets everything, and the loser gets nothing.

This deliberately antagonistic state generates prejudices, negative beliefs, discrimination between members of different groups who perceive each other as opponents. At the same time, conflict and related preconceptions are reduced when groups are targeted at superordinate goals. These are mutually desirable goals that can only be achieved through intergroup cooperation and collaboration.

In psychology, the fundamental empirical basis for the realistic conflict theory is the Robbers Cave Experiment, conducted by social psychologist Muzafer Sherif in 1954. The experiment involved 22 boys aged eleven to twelve from full middle-class families. They were divided into two groups at the boy scout camp: “The Rattlers” and “The Eagles.” During the first week, they were unaware of the existence of the other group, participated in group consolidation activities, and established intra-group interaction.

In the second week, two groups entered the competition stage, where they participated in various competitive events such as baseball and tug-of-war. Thus, a conflict situation was created between the groups, as only one of them was rewarded for winning, and there were no consolation prizes for the defeated group.

Eventually, relations between members of different groups began to deteriorate. Boys began to tease each other and demonstrate aggression, and sometimes, it even came to physical clashes. In the third stage of the experiment, the tension between the groups was reduced due to the superordinate targets, which required intergroup interaction.