Conflict in swimming pools is ‘good for business’, study shows

Lane swimmers

The study, which looked at conflict over a scarce resource (space in the water), has implications for business leaders

Economists have gone to great lengths to show how conflict is not always driven by self-interest – by hiring actors to start disputes in swimming pools.

In a pioneering field experiment that could help business leaders improve their conflict management strategies, four actors were hired to visit swimming pools in Brisbane, Australia, where they approached unsuspecting swimmers individually with a cheeky request to change lanes.

The request triggered a dispute, and by manipulating the actors’ justifications and observing how much space there was in other swimming lanes, the researchers were able to document a range of responses from the swimmers and to judge their willingness to engage in conflict.

The researchers found that actors who in their arguments placed higher value on the lane space were on average more successful in getting swimmers to behave altruistically and change lanes.

But at the same time, swimmers were more resistant to the request and put more effort into the dispute when there was less lane space available elsewhere.

The findings challenge the notion that conflict is driven by self-interest by underscoring the nuanced relationship between scarcity, altruism and conflict dynamics, showing that individuals can be altruistic even in acute conflict situations.

The study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, sheds light on human behaviour when conflict arises over a scarce resource, and the researchers believe the findings could help business leaders and managers improve conflict management strategies, enhance team dynamics and promote a more cooperative and productive workplace culture.

Loukas Balafoutas, Professor in Economics at the University of Exeter Business School, said: “In studying an environment where altruistic motives and self-interest co-exist and interact, our research has valuable implications for business leaders and organisations. 

“Business leaders and managers should assess the availability of resources within their organisations and understand how employees perceive and value those resources. Organisations can mitigate conflicts and enhance cooperation among team members by aligning resource allocation with employees’ valuations of those resources.”

Co-author Dr Helena Fornwagner added: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study reveals that individuals can exhibit altruistic behaviour even in conflictual scenarios. This has implications for workplace dynamics and team management.

“Managers should foster a culture that encourages cooperation and empathy among employees, even when they are competing for limited resources or opportunities. By promoting pro-social behaviour, organisations can maintain a harmonious work environment and reduce the negative impacts of conflict.”

Conflict in the pool: A field experiment”, by Professor Loukas Balafoutas and Dr Helena Fornwagner from the University of Exeter Business School, Associate Professor Marco Faravelli from the University of Queensland and Associate Professor Roman Sheremeta from Weatherhead School of Management, is published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.