Students participating in the Thumb Wrestling: Competition Versus Cooperation activity at USIP.
Students participating in the Thumb Wrestling: Competition Versus Cooperation activity at USIP.

Rationale: This activity provides participants with an opportunity to explore concepts of cooperation versus competition as they relate to conflict management.

Materials: None

Time: 20 - 40 minutes


  1. Introduce the activity as one that is frequently used in conflict management trainings.
  2. Ask the group if they know how to thumb wrestle. If they do not, explain the process.
  3. Divide the group into pairs.
  4. Explain that the object of the exercise is for each person to score as many points as possible. Write the objective on the board. Tell the group: “You score points by pinning your partner’s thumb.”
  5. Give the group one minute to complete the activity.
  6. Once they have completed the exercise, lead a class discussion using the questions below.


  1. How many scored at least 1 point? More than 3? More than 5? Etc.
  2. How did individuals score a lot of points? If no one scored a lot of points, ask how the pairs might do the exercise differently, working together to each score as many points.
    • Note: The key to this activity is to cooperate, not compete. You can score the most points individually and collectively by working together to pin each other’s thumbs. By cooperating, you can gain many more points than by competing. Those who worked together in this exercise maximized their scores.
  3. What was the goal of the exercise? Was the goal to compete or cooperate?
  4. What does it mean to cooperate?
    • Note: Cooperation leads to a win-win situation, in which both sides get what they want. Competition leads to a win-lose situation, in which only one side gets what they want.
  5. What are examples in real life where cooperation is better than competition?
    • Note: Cooperation depends on trust, and building trust is an essential element of peacebuilding. Cooperation is easier when there is a common goal or shared interests. In seeking to manage a conflict, it is important to focus on each person’s (or group’s) interests and on how they can be met – how to end up with a win-win situation. Sometimes when people are in conflict, they forget about what they originally wanted – their interests – and instead focus on beating the other person. If your interest is scoring the most points, as in this exercise, then the best strategy is to work together.

Adapted from Exercise 5.2.1, Creating a Culture of Peace in the English Language Classroom by Alison Milofsky (United States Institute of Peace). 

Learn more about USIP’s resources for students and educators.