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Written by Neel Shah

Edited by Andrew Neff

October 2019

Intergroup Conflict

The dilemma of selfishness, altruism, and hostility


Editors note: Under what circumstances do we choose to be selfish, altruistic, or hostile? One experiment suggests that hostility isn’t valued on its own. When given the opportunity to be altruistic without harming 'out-group' members, people tend to make that choice, even over selfishness, thus explaining why the world we live in has become such a utopia...


Why do we fight? And more specifically, why do we fight for our tribe? In the case of conflict on a national scale, our risk to reward ratio is heavily skewed. As an individual, why expose ourselves to the risk of injury or death when we, as individuals, have a small impact on the outcome? Is it worth joining a cause even when most of the benefits are shared with the public at large?

A study by Halevy, Bornstein and Sagiv (2008) tried to model this situation in the lab by creating a modified version of the infamous prisoner’s dilemma.


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Their game involved a competition between two groups of three members. Each group member received ten tokens which could be used in one of three ways.


One option was to be selfish; for each token that people kept to themselves, they received a guaranteed two tokens in return. A second option was in-group altruism; maximizing in-group-tokens despite a personal cost. In this case, for each token contributed to a within-group pool, each in-group member, including the contributor, received one token in return. A final option was out-group-harm. In this case, contributions could be made to a pool that increased the payoff for each in-group member, including the contributor, by one token, but at the same time decreased the payoff for each out-group member by one token.


In other words, each person can help themselves, help their group despite a personal cost, or help their group while hurting the other group, despite a personal cost.


The researchers found that contributions were made almost exclusively to the cooperative, within-group pool. In other words, most people preferred to maximize their group’s absolute payoff rather than compete for relative payoffs, even though they could disadvantage the out-group at no additional cost.


One explanation for this behavior is that in-group members placed more weight on the gains their contribution produced for the in-group rather than any losses inflicted on the out-group. In other words, people simply prefer to help their group than to hurt others.


Another theory holds that in-group members made their contributions because they anticipated the out-group members to contribute, and wanted to defend themselves against the possibility of falling behind (Diehl, 1989). 


Perhaps Campbell's (1965) theory that ‘the altruistic willingness for self-sacrificial death in group causes may be more significant than the covetous tendency for hostility toward outgroup members’’.


Contrary to prevailing attitudes of previous research (Meier and Hinsz, 2004), this study suggests that groups are not competitive or aggressive by default, and that competition can be motivated by either absolute- or relative-gain considerations.


The study is an interesting starting point but the researchers themselves acknowledge that the sample is limited. Further replications that have found similar effects have been carried out such as Thomae et al (2013) in rural Cameroon, but there is still plenty of scope for cross-cultural research in this area. It presents an optimistic view of our innate nature to cooperate for a greater good, but the world at large rarely presents such opportunities. Scarcity for resources and territory has been at the core of conflict for generations. The research in a sense is just confirmation of what history has already told us.


  1. Halevy, N., Bornstein, G., Sagiv, L. (2008). “‘In‐Group Love’ and ‘Out‐Group Hate’ as motives for Individual Participation in Intergroup Conflict: A New Game Paradigm.” Psychological Science, 19(4): 405.

  2. Amiot, C.E., & Bourhis, R.Y. (2003). Discrimination and the positive-negative asymmetry effect: Ideological and normative processes.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 597–608.

  3. Diehl, M. (1989). Justice and discrimination between minimal groups: The limits of equity. British Journal of Social Psychology, 28,227–238.

  4. Thomae, M., Zeitlyn, D., Griffiths, S. S., & Van Vugt, M. (2013). Intergroup contact and rice allocation via a modified dictator game in rural Cameroon. Field Methods, 25(1), 74–90.

  5. Meier, B.P., & Hinsz, V.B. (2004). A comparison of human aggression committed by groups and individuals: An interindividual-inter-group discontinuity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,40, 551–559.


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