Cooperation and Conflict

Coordination in Groups: Cooperation or Conflict?

APA defines Cooperation as a process whereby two or more individuals work together toward the attainment of a mutual goal or complementary goals and conflict as the occurrence of mutually antagonistic or opposing forces, including events, behaviors, desires, attitudes, and emotions.

Cooperation– helping that is mutual, where both sides benefit. It is common in groups working together to attain shared goals. By cooperating, people can attain goals they could never hope to reach by themselves. Surprisingly, though, cooperation does not always develop in groups.

Sometimes, group members may perceive their personal interests as incompatible. And instead of coordinating their efforts, may work against each other, often producing negative results for all. This is conflict. It refers to as a process in which individuals or groups perceive that others have taken, or will soon take, actions incompatible with their own interests.

Cooperation and Conflict is indeed a process, for, as you probably know from your own experience. It has a nasty way of escalating from simple mistrust, through a spiral of anger, to actions designed to harm the other side.

Cooperation: Working with Others to Achieve Shared Goals

Cooperation is often highly beneficial to the people involved. So why don’t group members always cooperate? One answer is straightforward: because some goals that people seek simply impossible to share.

Several people seeking the same job or romantic partner can’t combine forces to attain these goals. The rewards can go to only one. Social psychologists refer to this situation as one of negative interdependence where if one person obtains a desired outcome, others cannot.

Cooperation could develop but does not. Social psychologists study these kinds of situations with the aim of identifying the factors that tip the balance either toward or away from cooperation. Often the people involved in such conflicts don’t realize that a compromise is possible.

Social Dilemmas: Where Cooperation could Occur, But Often Doesn’t.

Social dilemmas are situations in which each person can increase his or her individual gains by acting in a purely selfish manner, but if all (or most) people do the same thing, the outcomes experienced by all are reduced.

A classic illustration of this kind of situation is known as the prisoner’s dilemma, a situation faced by two suspects who have been caught by the police. Here, either or both people can choose to cooperate (e.g., stay silent and not confess). Or they might compete (e.g., “rat the other person out”). If both cooperate with each other, then they both experience large gains. If both compete, each person loses substantially.

It might be reasonable to suppose that decreasing the attractiveness of competition should increase cooperation. One way to do this would be to increase the sanctions given in a social dilemma for noncooperative choices. But doing so might change how people perceive such situations. From one involving trust in others to one based on economic self-interest. When seen as based in trust, cooperation should be higher than when the dilemma as a situation in which people act on their own self-interests.

Responding to and Resolving Conflicts: Some Useful Techniques.

Most definitions of conflict emphasize the existence of incompatible interests. But conflict can sometimes occur when the two sides don’t really have opposing interests they simply believe that these exist. (DeDreu & Van Lang, 1995). Indeed, errors concerning the causes of others’ behavior faulty attribution can play a critical role in conflict.

How do you feel when someone misunderstands your actions? Do you attempt to make him or her “see the light” or do you “simply withdraw,” assuming there is nothing you can do to change his or her mind no matter how hard you try? “Feeling misunderstood” by others leads to different responses in members of various ethnic groups. Conflicts within groups are often likely to develop under conditions of scarce resources where group members must compete with each other to obtain them.

Because conflicts are often very costly, people are often motivate to resolve them as quickly as possible. What ? Two steps are most useful for reaching this goal and seem especially useful: bargaining and superordinate goals.

Bargaining: The Universal Process.

By far the most common strategy for resolving conflicts is bargaining or negotiation (Pruitt & Carnevale, 1993). In this process, opposing sides exchange offers, counteroffers, and concessions, either directly or through representatives. If the process is successful, a solution acceptable to both sides is attained, and the conflict is resolved. If, instead, bargaining is unsuccessful, costly deadlock may result and the conflict is likely to intensify.

Factors that determine which of these outcomes occurs:
  • First, and perhaps most obviously, the outcome of bargaining, determined, in part, by the specific tactics adopted by the bargainers. Many of these are designed to accomplish a key goal: reduce the opponent’s aspirations (i.e., hopes or goals), so that this person or group becomes convinced that it cannot get what it wants and should, instead, settle for something less favorable to their side. Tactics for accomplishing this goal include:
    1. beginning with an extreme initial offer—one that is very favorable to the side proposing it;
    2. the “big-lie” technique—convincing the other side that one’s break-even point is much higher than it is so that they offer more than would otherwise be the case; for example, used-car salespeople may claim that they will lose money on the deal if the price is lower when in fact this is false; and
    3. convincing the other side that you can go elsewhere and get even better terms.
  • A second, and very important, determinant of the outcome of bargaining involves the overall orientation of the bargainers to the process. People taking part in negotiations can approach such discussions from either of two distinct perspectives. In one, they can view the negotiations as “win-lose” situations in which gains by one side are necessarily linked with losses for the other. In the other, they can approach negotiations as potential “win-win” situations, in which the interests of the two sides are not necessarily incompatible and in which the potential gains of both sides can be maximized. Often negotiators believe that displaying anger at the other party will
    further their interests (i.e., lead the other party to make larger concessions).

Superordinate Goals: We’re All in this Together.

Members of groups in conflict often divide the world into two opposing camps-“us” and “them”. They perceive members of their own group (us) as quite different from, and usually better than, people belonging to other groups (them). These tendencies to magnify differences between one’s own group and others and to disparage outsiders are very powerful. It often play a role in the occurrence and persistence of conflict than cooperation.

They can be countered through the induction of superordinate goals. The goals that both sides seek, and that tie their interests together rather than driving them apart. When opposing sides made to see that they share overarching goals. Conflict is often sharply reduced and may, in fact, be replaced by overt cooperation.


  • Baron, R. A. and Byrne, D. (1997). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon


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