What Are Superordinate Goals?

Mary McMahon

Superordinate goals are goals that people who normally work in opposition to each other may unite to accomplish because the cooperation is necessary for mutual survival. The idea that antagonists may become cooperative in some situations plays a key role in some organizational thinking and interventions to get groups to work with each other instead of against each other. The landmark research in this field occurred in the 1950s under the supervision of psychologist Muzafer Sherif, who conducted a series of studies involving young boys at a summer camp.


Sherif's paper on superordinate goals focused on the outcome of one of three studies where the researchers brought boys to a summer camp, split them into two groups, and created antipathy between the two groups. Then, the researchers changed the variables to put the boys in a position to work together on activities like restoring their water supply after “vandals” damaged it. Sherif concluded in this famous “Robber's Cave” study that it was possible for the boys to work together when the need to accomplish superordinate goals outweighed their adversarial relationship.

The truth behind Sherif's study is somewhat more complicated than originally reported, and this plays an important role in understanding how superordinate goals actually work. Sherif actually conducted three studies, but only one had a satisfactory outcome, where the boys worked together to resolve a problem. In one study, the subjects actually turned on the researchers to express their frustration, a not uncommon situation in social psychology experiments.

Sherif's studies showed that external pressures can influence the way groups address superordinate goals. The researchers themselves were a variable in the study and changed the outcome. The studies also illustrate the role that bias can play in a study. Researchers obviously want to achieve a specific goal and may unconsciously adjust the variables in a study to get there. This is one reason why many experiments use blinding and double blinding in their design, when possible, to limit the influence of the observers.

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Though Sherif's studies may have been flawed, the underlying ideas about superordinate goals appear to be sound. Research on intergroup conflict supports the idea that groups, as well as individual members influenced by group thinking, may unite in a common aim. The United States and Russia, for example, teamed up in the Second World War despite having delicate diplomatic relations. Both nations decided that their personal conflicts were less important than the goal of defeating the Axis powers.

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Discussion Comments


I think a Nazi-occupied Europe would have been far worse than the cold war.


@Terrificli -- perhaps the World War II example can serve as a cautionary tale for those who subscribe to the notion that cooperation through superordinate goals is a good idea. What could have eased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union and could those safeguards be used in such relationships?


What is perhaps more revealing is what happened to the United States and Soviet Union after the war was over. After the Axis was defeated, the someone cool relationship that existed between the nations became outright cold war after the war had ended. Both countries paid for around four years of cooperation with over four decades of cold war which cost billions of dollars and that expense arguably ruined the Soviet Union as the country struggled to keep up with the U.S. in the arms race.

The question, then, is whether cooperation in the short term is worth the potential long-term results. We have seen those results can be more than a bit unpleasant.

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