I watch with despair at what’s going on in America right now: the riots, the police shootings, which instigate more riots and more shootings, and so it goes in a terrible spiral. And the shooting of Jake Baker hit closer to home, as he is a good friend of the son of a dear friend of mine.
How to break this stalemate and yet move the situation forward? Perhaps we can take a suggestion from the work of Gordon Allport. A towering figure in psychology — one of the founders of personality psychology, Allport believed that managed contact between members of different groups is the best means of reducing prejudice. His theories influenced the Supreme Court in its landmark decision ending school desegregation (Brown vs the Board of Education).
Allport specified four specific conditions for ensuring that contact between different groups works: equal group status in the situation; intergroup cooperation; the support of authority figures; and finally, and most important, a common, overarching goal.
Psychologists call this a superordinate goal – a goal only achieved by large cooperative teamwork of two or more people. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — we are all in this together. And if we are all in this together, we are no longer competing for scarce resources.
Although criticized in some quarters as resting on the underlying assumption that all people are fundamentally similar, the contact hypothesis has been tested in a variety of settings, and found to be a powerful tool to lessen discrimination against many groups, from Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland to homosexuals at universities.
Sports teams, management teams, schools with new members, and even prisons make use of this idea of working toward superordinate goals to alleviate rivalry and encourage a team spirit.
In 2006, a review of 525 studies of the contact hypothesis in action confirmed that contact between different groups of any variety successfully reduces intergroup prejudice and increases cooperation, particularly when Allport’s four conditions are met.
Don Beck used the lessons of Robbers Cave to create superordinate goals as a means of ending political conflict. It was Beck who first came up with the idea of using South Africa’s entry into the World Cup rugby play-offs in 1995, depicted in the film Invictus, as a means of creating nation-building euphoria, in order to unify a country emerging from apartheid.
Beck had a special fascination with the psychology of premier-league games, and through his experiences working with the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints, he had developed a belief in the power of sports as a peacemaker.
This was a bold idea, given that the Springboks, the South African rugby team, were the very symbol of apartheid. Rugby was considered a white man’s sport.
Virtually all players were Afrikaners, the white pro-apartheid minority; rugby coaches even shouted out plays in Afrikaans. English-speaking or black players seldom made the team, and consequently, the black population in South Africa actively boycotted the sport.
In 1995, Beck presented Kitch Christie, the Springboks coach, with a paper entitled Six Games to Glory, which detailed a series of psychological strategies that would help transform the team from underdog to world-class contender in the games leading up to the World Cup.
Besides the strategies for winning the game, Beck’s paper included ways that the Springboks could stand as a focal point of pride for the fledgling country and connect the township blacks with the Afrikaners.
Beck’s document offers many strategies that can be used to create superordinate goals in other areas. He suggested that the Springboks adopt a collaborative or common identity — the green and gold colors of the team shirts, and a sports crowd song, with a Zulu drum to lead the team and arouse the crowd.
He advised Christie to have the team sit together and watch films such as Hoosier and Chariots of Fire to help establish the sense of a “mystical brotherhood” – the sense that the team stands together as one family, with a blood bond greater than their loyalty to themselves, and a cause to fight for.
Beck arranged for the team to visit Mandela’s tiny prison cell at Robben Island, in order to emphasize their larger role in their country’s destiny. Above all, his exercises were to help develop a sense that each member of the team faced a life-defining moment requiring that they pull together as one.
As the games progressed, Beck’s superordinate goal began to infect the country; young blacks from the township tore down anti-rugby signs and hung photos of their Springbok heroes.
During the World Cup, which the Springboks went on to win, Mandela was persuaded to appear in a Springbok green and gold shirt — the colors that had always symbolized his oppressors — as a tangible sign of unity and forgiveness.
To Beck, creating a superordinate goal is one of the best ways to achieve peace in areas of political conflict. In his work, Beck often meets with both sides in an area of conflict and shows them a positive vision of future possibility, but one that requires that both sides work together and use their common geography and resources to create a solution for all who live there.
Beck likes to talk in sports metaphors. “You focus on relentless pragmatism,” he says in a heavy Texas drawl, “the progress that can be made to move the game forward.”
It’s time for us to move this game forward. America desperately needs its own superordinate goal to end what is its own shameful apartheid.