The Deep End

Spheres of Violence 2: Realistic Conflict Theory

Conflict is a topic that demands our attention, yet few of us know much about it's roots. We discuss why we're not as far from 'Lord of the Flies' as you think.

December 30, 2019


The backdrop which gave life to the Robber's Cave Experiment: Robber's Cove State Park, in Oklahoma.

It was 1954, at Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma.

22 eleven year old boys, prescreened for psychological fitness, intelligence, emotional adjustment, and self control had been split into two factions. The boys were strangers to one another, and the groups ignorant of one other. Muzafer Sherif, Carolyn Wood Sherif, and their team observed the boys from a distance... they and their staff blending into the background as camp counselors, janitors, and groundskeepers, observing as the boys began forming into groups, setting roles and finding their places.

They knew what they were looking for: the elements that give rise to conflicts between groups, and how to tweak it to cause tension.

What they didn't expect was weaponized groups, night raids, and fighting intense enough that the experiment would require intervention.

Sherif's experiment was controversial, even by the lax standards of the 1950's. A war-weary world was left overlooking the destruction caused by the second World War, wondering "Why? What is it in ourselves that leads to such madness?"

Today, such experiments would be nearly impossible, but what we learned from the Robber's Cave Experiment has shaped our view of our factioning, inter-group fighting, resource scarcity, and how desperation carves predictable paths that lead to conflict.

In short, we believe that we can use Sherif's findings to explain everything from ethnic discrimination to world wars. Using it to look forward... well, if you've read "The Great Reset", this knowledge shapes our expectations of what troubles may yet come, and how we can mitigate it.

No matter what scale, all conflict comes from group identities (othering) and resource competition, whether that resource is breeding rights or finite resources, such as food, oil, or money.

When we finish here, we hope you'll understand the root of conflict well enough to predict conflict, understand how and why it occurs, and how to stay ahead of it so you can meet it on your own terms, from a position of strength.

The Hypothesis

Before going any further, it's important to know exactly what was being tested. Sherif, like many at that time, was reeling from the ravages of World War II, wondering how such dehumanization could occur. Specifically, Sherif hypothesized that:

A definite group structure consisting of differentiated status positions and reciprocal roles will be produced when a number of individuals (without previously established interpersonal relations) interact with one another under conditions (a) which situationally embody goals with common appeal value to the individuals, and (b) which require interdependent activities for their attainment.

Inter-group Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment p. 84

Brought together, Sherif's argument boils down a little further, so let's say it in a little more plain English:

When people form groups with common goals, they form hierarchies on their own, due to differences in contribution and capability.


Intergroup conflict arises when groups are in competition for limited resources.
Factioning, check. Access to resources (police and EMS instrastruture) compromised? Common goals within competing groups? Check.
Conflict: Inevitable.

This might sound familiar, and it should.

One of our primary building blocks of "Understanding Emergencies" is both access to, and competition for, critical resources and we have discussed at length how even the perception of scarcity can lead to 'resource hysteria'. We owe a great deal of this to Sherif's study of Realistic Conflict Theory.

Alone, the outcome of the Robber's Cave experiment is an astounding verification of human nature. It stands in contrast with Contact Hypothesis, but doesn't negate it. Taken with other studies, such as the Milgram Experiment, or Stanford Prison Experiment, we  get a more complete picture of how factioning favors bold, aggressive leadership, and how that authority is ripe for abuse when othering occurs.

When we discuss conflict at ISG, regardless of which Sphere of Violence, it's impossible to do so without acknowledging these studies as formative in our understanding of what motivates people to violence, both on a social and institutional level.

Take the time to understand them and connect the dots between what motivates street level crime (othering, dehumanizing, factoring, inter-group competition over resources) and how that same template applies to war, global politics, resource acquisition, etc.

We, as thinking people, must understand the nature of power, violence, and the group dynamics that lead to its escalation.

When we train to stop such violence, we do so with a complete understanding.

The Eagles stole the Rattlers’ flag and burned it. Rattlers raided the Eagles’ cabin and stole the blue jeans of the group leader, which they painted orange and carried as a flag the next day, inscribed with the legend “The Last of the Eagles.” The Eagles launched a retaliatory raid on the Rattlers, turning over beds, scattering dirt. Then they returned to their cabin where they entrenched and prepared weapons (socks filled with rocks) in case of a return raid. After the Eagles won the last contest planned for Stage 2, the Rattlers raided their cabin and stole the prizes. This developed into a fistfight that the staff had to shut down for fear of injury. The Eagles, retelling the tale among themselves, turned the whole affair into a magnificent victory—they’d chased the Rattlers “over halfway back to their cabin” (they hadn’t).


After supper, the Rattlers were allowed to wander within hearing distance of the Eagles who were playing on the ball diamond. The immediate reaction was to "run them off" and "challenge them."
Lord of the Flies, William Goulding's classic tale of human nature, occurred coincident, but without the knowledge of Muzafer Sherif. Art immitates life, as it turns out.

Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robber's Cave Experiment, p 78

In the first phase, the boys of the Robbers Cave Experiments settled into their groups quickly, adopting the names "the Rattlers" and "the Eagles". The emergence of the second phase began as the boys became aware of a competing group within the park.

After allowing the boys time to bond with their group, the researchers now pitted them against one another in a series of competitions... competitions which would have rewards for the winners. The rewards were all useful, vital, and scarce... items like knives and canteens, which the experiment's proctors kept intentionally rare.

Almost immediately, the researchers began to notice a change in the boys' disposition, and they began articulating things like 'those guys better not come near our camp', or 'our baseball diamond', and reacted to the announcement that there would be competition by the Rattlers marking their perceived territory with a sign that read "Keep off", and threatening trespassers.

After this, the boys were brought together in the mess hall where they instantly took to insulting and instigating trouble.

This episode led to a sort of open conflict - the boys captured and burned the other team's flag, threw food, raided their adversaries cabins, stealing the prizes received after the competitions.

This was, for Sherif, totally predictable... Just another validating part of the experiment. He knew human nature well enough to hypothesize that rival groups would resort to conflict over scarce resources. But between the cursing, taunting, dust-ups, theft, and raids that accelerated into a juvenile arms race, there are some extremely relevant, and hauntingly familiar points to tease out.

First and foremost is that nearly all conflict begins in this way. A group identity is formed, and the 'others' become enemies or belligerents. A necessary first step for most people to attack other people is to form the opinion that they are less than you and a threat to what's rightfully yours. At this point, Sherif's experiment is no longer about a group of 11 year old boys in Rural Oklahoma.

It's about all of us, and how we respond to external threats, real or perceived.

Think about people you've armed yourself against to protect your home and family... Do you view them as equal?
People you've fought in war... Do you speak of them as equals?
People you arrest... Are they your peers and citizens on equal footing, or are they subordinates who must be kept in line by force?

Here's the truth: they are. They are from a different tribe, but to them, *you* are the 'bad guy' - The one who hoards all the wealth and flaunts it while they struggle to find food; who are fighting for their country's honor, dignity, or resources. The ones who pay your wages with the expectation that law and its enforcement is fair, just, and equal.

Don't take this for a value judgment on our part - we're not taking sides. This is just what it is, and once we acknowledge that, things begin to look a little different.

Lessons Learned - Intratribal

The Realistic Conflict Theory derives most of its power from the results of intertribal conflict - but at it's heart, it's about intra-tribal cohesion. How well does a group strengthen itself from within?

We can learn a few quick lessons from RCT, and again, while we will discuss this in context of the Experiment, you should consider situations in which you've seen these things play out, whether that was sports in school, military or police training, gang affiliation, or any other setting in which people bond over common interest. Initial Bonding begins immediately over common elements; hometown, interests, etc. People have a natural propensity to bond over similarities. While these don't tend to be predictive of lasting alliances, they certainly form the beginning stages of peer sorting - the process of finding people to associate with.

  1. Leadership and Fluidity - those who initially step up for leadership or who seem to take the lead early, are often replaced by those who exemplify traits respected by the group... such as:
  2. Toughness - those who demonstrate physical toughness and endure trials without complaint tend to gain social esteem. Those who do not quickly lose status.
  3. Work Capacity - Those who do more than their share of work are respected, similar to those who demonstrate toughness.
  4. Skill - Demonstrating extraordinary skill or, as importantly, improvement in a skill create respect amongst ones' peers. The struggle for self improvement illustrates the desire to strengthen the whole, and is viewed as selfless and honorable, while skilled individuals are seen as valuable in the struggle for resources.
  5. Organization - Those who can assess and prioritize tasks efficiently are valuable within the upper echelon of the team or group.
  6. Aggressiveness - Boys who were aggressive and prone to action, or who had the qualities above were consistently ranked higher than their peers by the study's proctors. They were more respected and their words carried more weight.
  7. Weakness draws Fire - Especially in leaders (such as Craig) who were soft in the face of competition and cost the team a victory when competing for limited resources, weakness in performance or character cause immediate and irreversible losses of respect. When under physical threat, leaders who aren't aggressive and assertive lose the trust of their group. Craig, the initial leader of the Eagles, began losing status when he failed to perform during a Baseball game. His failure drew cries that his team were "... not eagles, you're pigeons!", and his position as leader evaporated entirely when he pretended to be asleep for the Rattler's first raid, and hid during the second.
  8. Encouragement of Others - When effort is made, teams and groups often reserve any criticism for the benefit of those attempting to improve. This is remarkable, especially in groups with high degrees of self-selection, and benefits all involved. While many of the traits above express a willingness or capability to be confrontational, it's extremely important to note that within the group, the leaders who encouraged their members did better than those who threatened them.
  9. The Least involved Yell the Loudest - Endemic in 'the age of outrage', we can see marks of this on our own culture. While we'll discuss it more later, here are a few examples in which boys of low standing within the group who failed to participate, still took up roles of agitators.
  10. Adopted Strategy - The ability of the boys to recognize the opposing teams success and steal it was another worthwhile point. Expect that your successes will be emulated - if you win in a competition, whether battle or tug-o-war, expect the losing team to modify their approach to look more like your own. If the enemy starts making spears, you make spears, too.

Weak Links - Intratribal Selection

Another side effect of the RCE was that the participants often bent under pressure, expressing weakness. This weakness, a prevalent part of modern society in the West, followed a pattern:

  1. A boy would complain, or decline to participate in conflict.
  2. The other boys would seize upon this as weakness, and the complainer would loose status.
  3. The emotionally vulnerable were pushed to the sides, where they'd often take 'low hanging fruit', such as yelling insults or harassing the other without engaging in any activity that would put them at actual risk. Think about that in today's digital landscape. This applies to everything from cyber-bullying to news media; the skewed, aggressive postures taken by people whose voices are the loudest are generally those who take zero personal risks to advance their 'team'.

Sherif noted instances throughout the study, such as:

At the first baseball game on the occasion of first contact between the groups, Everett (R), who had been chosen as one non-player, was the loudest of the Rattlers in haranguing the Eagles, cursing them roundly and making up a song about Eagles which was supposed to be very insulting. Harrison, the other non-player (because of an injury), arrived after the exchange of insults between groups had already started. Although he had not witnessed the events leading to friction between the groups, and, in fact, before he had exchanged a single word with any camper, he started yelling insults at the Eagles.

Robber's Cave as a Template

By now, you're probably starting to see trends. The "infidel" t-shirt-wearing protesters, or 4th wave feminists at ANTIFA rallies are the loudest, least knowledgable voices, with the least to lose, and low status within their respective organizations.

They have no status because they demonstrate no competence, skill, work capacity, or leadership.

On a global level, most of our conflicts start with group identity and resource scarcity... these follow the results of the Robber's Cove Experiment eerily well:

  • - Western involvement in the Middle East, including Libya and Syria (and now Venezuela) are driven by securing precious reserves of oil for Western expansion and 'growth', and will scarcely let a bunch of backwards 'others' hold us from our ambitions
  • - Leading in to World War II, a debt laden Germany blamed pockets of financially successful 'outsiders' for the depression gripping 'their' home.
  • - Native Americans were an impediment to extraction of gold and other precious metals by European colonists, who felt that the inferior civilization was not deserving of those resources.
  • - Rome's thirst for slaves to drive the empire's economy ran aground as the supply of forced labor from Roman conquests dried up and societies tired of Roman intervention began to rebel against the legions.
"...As far back as I care to remember, 'people, killing people'."

Major Henry West, '28 Days Later'

Turning back to the lessons learned from the archetypes from the Robber's Cave Experiment, those who possess classically 'strong' qualities like assertiveness, discipline, toughness, work ethic, and composure gather respect during times of conflict and shortage. Being useful, being resourceful, being strong, ALL serve the best interest of the tribe. Similar to the pale, Rubenesque women of antiquity, or the frilly, pasty faced lords of the Feudal Europe, weakness is worn as a display of affluence. Those in society who have abandoned the traits of the classically strong do so because they see no possibility of being threatened.

They see no possibility of conflict in a world so rife with resources.

Those who fail during these times are prone to excessive complaining, failure under pressure (especially if it draws criticism from opponents), physical weakness or frailty, and emotional fragility all of which costs respect. In short, these qualities come across as not making an effort to contribute to the group's success, and emphasize the suffering of the individual over the importance of the group, and those who are unfamiliar with hardship utterly lack the qualities that make good leaders.

While this may seem bordering on collectivist (that's not the message) we do believe that "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack."

So, as we move towards a future with *more* people, consuming *more* resources, and *more* competition for the energy that fuels it all, ask yourself:

Is scarcity likely to be a part of our future? If you answer "yes", you have arrived at our main point: "Conflict is inevitable."


If we accept that, with a few caveats, what's true of human nature in the Robber's Cave Experiment is still true in broader society, we have to look at a few points of major importance. We can't deny that resource competition has driven the West's military ambitions throughout the world, nor that those exploits have given both solidarity to those impacted as well as a more ominous second order effect... one that Sherif phrased as his Fourth hypothesis:

Low status members will tend to exert greater efforts which will be revealed in more intense forms of overt aggression and verbal expressions against the out-group as a means of improving their status within the in-group.

Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robber's Cave Experiment, p. 128

Our years of differing ideologies, of a broad, disparate society with a full spectrum of political beliefs have taken their toll on the established groups. While the end of the Cold War marked the end of America's last true 'competition', the tribes that make up the United States (and the broader West - this largely applies to the EU as well) have lost their unifying focus, which bonded them in the first place. With that threat gone, and the low-status talkers left to their own devices, we've fractured as nations. Our lack of unity, leadership, and purpose ultimately has historically predictable results:


This would be an easy thing to overcome - and indeed, is currently overcome by - an abundance of resources. But, as we express in "The Great Reset", it's unlikely that the resources that ensure our standard of living will continue on indefinitely. Already, California is buying water from the Colorado river to quench its droughts. Texas has had to buy water from Louisiana and Oklahoma. Some of the largest and fastest growing cities in the United States are those most vulnerable.

We often talk about oil and the immense power we get from it. Humans can exist without oil. Its negotiable. Our lives might end up much more difficult, but it's been done for hundreds of thousands of years. Water, on the other hand... Well, it's ironic, but Saudi Arabia is buying California's irrigated valleys in an economic circle of life that's bound for bust.

None of this is meant to be reactionary, alarming, or to set you into a depression - we have to face the future's challenges with sobriety. We know scarcity is coming. It's impossible to escape, given a population that grows and depletes resources exponentially, while those resources are produced arithmetically.

So how do we get ahead of it?


In many ways, this second addition to the "Spheres of Violence" series is a companion piece to our crucially important "The Strength of the Pack" in terms of understanding ISG's philosophy on violence, preparedness, world events, and so forth. The reason is that we want you to recognize that these sorts of crises are the way of the world - a true 'boom/bust' cycle that we can open a history book and date back nearly 10,000 years. We can't claim that some event is looming, because we just don't know. At ISG, we're doing our best to create a framework that prepares you mentally, physically, tactically, and technically, so that when emergencies do arise, you're equipped to meet them on your terms, rather than being a victim of circumstance. We organize our philosophy in such a way that everything we do adds to a web of competence, rather than just making an undirected effort and hoping for the best.

It's difficult to find validation that what we're doing as individuals is going to work, because we simply don't know. This world is unpredictable, and no matter how good you are, no one is immune to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Few of us have any real idea of how cruel and brutal this world can be, or the kind of violence that stems from lawless resource scarcity.

What we do know is this:

We know what works within groups. We know those successfully who pass through bottlenecks are those who see it coming, who cultivate meaningful skills and relationships, and who are willing to face the toughest conditions without complaint. As LeRoy Petry said, 'to look to the left and right of you, see who is suffering or weak, and to help them... knowing you may be that person one day.'

We know how to be responsible. We know what worked for our ancestors past, and we know what didn't work.

We know how to carry the fire.

We take this phrase from those who carried the fire in a horn ahead of their tribe, alone, in the darkness to ensure that a signal fire would light the way to their safe arrival. In the times to come, we, or our descendants may be called upon to do just that.

It's our responsibility to be ready when that time comes.




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