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The Robbers Cave Psychology Experiment

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Between 1949 and 1954, Muzafer Sherif and colleagues studied inter-group conflict and co-operation among pre-teen boys at summer camps. From their studies they learned a lot about group dynamics and what they called realistic conflict theory that explains how hostility can develop when goals are contradictory and resources limited.

Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

Sherif and his team chose the Robbers Cave State Park in southeastern Oklahoma for their study in 1954. Boys in the 11- to 12-year-old age groups were invited to attend a summer camp, but they were unaware that they were to be part of a study. Parents were told about the experiment and provided their informed consent that their children could take part.

The research team had gathered a lot of information about the boys from school reports and personality tests so as to eliminate those that might have mental health or behavioural problems. They all came from white, Protestant, middle-class families.

The boys were divided into two groups of 11 each but, at first, each group was unaware of the existence of the other. They spent time with members of their own group, building relationships, hierarchies, and giving names to their communal identities—Rattlers and Eagles. Note from the get-go they chose names that conjure up thoughts of aggression and killing; no buttercups and bunny rabbits for them.

As the boys settled into their routines of swimming, hiking, and campfire singalongs they were under the close but unobtrusive scrutiny of the researchers who occupied the roles of camp counsellors.

After about a week, it was time for the two groups to be introduced to one another.

Competitive Games Generate Hostility

For four days, the Rattlers and the Eagles engaged in such activities as tug-of-war matches and baseball games. The aim of the researchers was to create situations that heightened competitive instincts. Team points were awarded and accumulated towards the winning of a trophy. Individual medals and prizes were handed to winners of events, while runners-up got nothing.

The boys engage in tug-of-war.

The boys engage in tug-of-war.

A picnic was organized, but one group was deliberately delayed from getting to the site. When eventually, they got to the picnic they found the other group had eaten their food.

Hostility between the Eagles and Rattlers grew. It started out as name-calling and taunting but quickly escalated to threats and counter-threats. Then, there were cabin raids and each team found its flag destroyed. Physical aggression rose to the point where the researchers/counsellors had to separate the boys.

In questionnaires, the boys were asked to rate their own team and the other team for positive and negative traits. Not surprisingly, the Rattlers rated themselves highly and the Eagles as bad, while Eagles praised themselves and dumped on Rattlers. At the same time, each group became more cohesive internally.

Psychologist Dr. Saul McLeod commented: “This study clearly shows that conflict between groups can trigger prejudice attitudes and discriminatory behavior. This experiment confirmed Sherif's realistic conflict theory.

Dr. Muzafer Sherif.

Dr. Muzafer Sherif.

De-Escalating the Hostility

Having established that, given the right stimuli, antagonism, partisanship, and dislike of others can be fostered, Dr. Sherif decided it was time to get everyone to calm down. He didn't want to send home a bunch of angry boys, loaded for bear, as they entered their rebellious teen years.

The first attempts at reducing tensions were somewhat passive— watching a movie together or sharing a meal. That didn't work with the meals descending into food fights.

Then, the researchers tried what those in the human behaviour trade call superordinate goals, that is a task that benefits all members of different groups but is beyond the capacity of one group to tackle. The researchers cut off the camp water supply. This forced the Eagles and Rattlers to cooperate to find a solution. Another incident was staged in which the truck bringing food supplies got stuck and the boys had to join together to pull it out of a ditch.

Levels of hostility slowly declined and even cross-group friendships developed. All the boys were in a good frame of mind and shared pop on the bus ride home.

Conclusions of the Robbers Cave Study

Realistic Conflict Theory

The experiment led Sherif and his team to develop what is known as realistic conflict theory. This is summarized by psychologist Elizabeth Hopper: “Group conflict can result from competition over resources (whether those resources are tangible or intangible). In particular, hostilities are hypothesized to occur when the groups believe that the resource they’re competing for is in limited supply.”

Conflict is exacerbated during times of hardship, such as high unemployment.

Ingroups and Outgroups

Society can and does split into ingroups and outgroups; ingroups are those born in a country and they define the outgroup as immigrants who are accused of taking the jobs of the ingroup.

Group Identification

The Robbers Cave experiment ties in with the social identity theory that states that people identify with groups to which they consider themselves members. This often leads to hostile feelings and discrimination towards people they see as not part of their group; it becomes us versus them

We are given a rather distressing example of this as COVID-19 rampages through our communities. Those advocating for vaccination as a protection against the virus are often bombarded with vile social media attacks and death threats. Some pro-vaccine people have even been subjected to violence by the more militant anti-vaxxers. There is no room for "live and let live."

Bonus Factoids

  • The Robbers Cave State Park got its name because the area was used as a hideout by criminals such as Jesse James and Belle Starr.
  • When a group of teenage boys from Tonga became marooned on an uninhabited island they cooperated to ensure their survival. You can read their story here.
  • In 1967, California high school teacher Ron Jones ran an experiment to demonstrate to students how easy it was for Adolf Hitler and his colleagues to persuade the German people to accept Nazism and its violent nature. Through activities, the students were encouraged to develop a sense of superiority, but the experiment spiralled out of control with physical attacks on other students. Jones terminated the project to avoid further damage.

Sources

  • “Robbers Cave Experiment.” Dr. Saul McLeod, simplypsychology.org, 2020.
  • “What Was the Robbers Cave Experiment in Psychology?” Dr. Elizabeth Hopper, thoughtco.com, November 21, 2019.
  • “The View from the Boys.” Gina Perry, The Psychologist, November 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor