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Hopeless situation strengthens fighting mentality of powerless groups

30 March 2010

Confronting a much more powerful group is a high-risk strategy. Nevertheless, there are groups that regularly initiate such confrontations. Just think of the rebellions in Tibet, the riots in Paris and the man on Tiananmen Square. Elanor Kamans researched why powerless groups nevertheless seek confrontation. The way groups react in conflicts depends on what is functional. Sometimes it’s better to avoid conflict and sometimes it’s more functional to be aggressive. Kamans will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 8 April 2010.

According to Kamans, the type of conflict is what determines matters: ‘If a powerless group is physically threatened, it will quickly take to its heels. However, if important issues are at stake – think of oil or money – then the group will often engage in confrontation.’ What is remarkable here is that it is often not the group as a whole but individuals who strongly identify with the group.


A second important stimulus to enter into confrontation as a powerless group is the degree to which they have something to lose. Some groups have a lot to lose if they anger their powerful opponent, whereas others may have the feeling that things cannot get any worse anyway. Kamans: ‘As a situation becomes more hopeless, you start to look for more extreme solutions.’ Kamans examined the combination of power and prestige: ‘A group without power but with a lot of prestige will be less likely to confront a group that scores low in both categories.’


In order to investigate how groups that are still hopeful deal with conflict, Kamans designed an experiment where powerless groups were told that given their position they had virtually no chance of winning. Another group heard that although they were powerless, this certainly did not mean that this would result in a loss. This revealed that there is definitely a difference between the two groups.

Constructive attitude

‘If a situation is not hopeless, a group tends to act constructively. Much more than a group that has virtually no chance of success, they are prepared to enter into dialogue. When communicating with such weaker groups, it would thus be sensible to let them know that their situation is not hopeless. Taking these matters into consideration creates the basis for further discussion.’

Position of power

‘Paradoxically, a powerful group that feels threatened tends to behave in a less constructive way. This is particularly so if it is suddenly less obvious that they would win if it came to a confrontation. Their position of power is then threatened by a group that they actually look down on slightly. What then happens is that powerful groups begin to behave more aggressively.

Curriculum vitae

Elanor Kamans (Veendam, 1980) studied psychology in Groningen. She is a lecturer and researcher attached to the department of Social and Organizational Psychology at the University of Groningen. Her thesis is entitled When the weak hit back: studies on the role of power in intergroup conflict. Kamans’s supervisors in Behavioural and Social Sciences were Prof. S. Otten, Prof. E.H. Gordijn and Prof. D. Stapel.

Note for the press

Contact: Elanor Kamans, tel. 050-363 7305, e-mail: e.kamans


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.58 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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