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The boys who were moulded to malevolence at a summer camp


IN 1951, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif (1906-1988)wrote: ‘In spite of the impressive achievements of the natural sciences and the technological developments which bring the means of living, communication, and transportation within the reach of human comfort and convenience, human relations today are fraught with confusion, uneasiness, and anxiety.  

‘As a consequence of this confusing state in human relations, more and more people today are turning for solutions and even prescriptions, to social psychology, whose main concern is the study of reciprocal relations between men and groups.’ 

Sherif believed that group pressure (as in the Solomon Asch conformity experiment) was a major factor in governing how people behave. Like all primates, Man is a tribal animal. The mores and rules of an individual’s ‘tribe’ exert a powerful influence on behaviour, sidelining any considerations of independent free will.  

Pursuing these ideas, Sherif developed ‘Realistic Conflict Theory’ as an explanation of uneasiness and anxiety between groups and in 1954 he set out to illustrate his theory.  

He organised a field experiment in which 22 boys aged 11 to 12 were invited to attend a three-week summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in the Sans Bois Mountains in Oklahoma. The boys were carefully screened to eliminate any with mental or behavioural problems. Sherif chose pre-teen boys because in his estimation immature boys would be pure, untarnished subjects. 

The boys were divided into two groups of 11. Each group was closely matched for attributes such as intelligence and sporting ability. For the first week, the groups were kept totally apart and were unaware of the existence of the other group.

In this time the boys took part in the usual summer camp activities – hiking, swimming, and forging friendships and esprit de corps. Voluntarily, each group adopted its own title – the Eagles and the Rattlers. 

The names spontaneously chosen are suggestive. The eagle is a bird of prey. The rattlesnake is a venomous viper. The choice of hypercarnivores may simply be down to the nature of the environment in which the experiment was being conducted – the wild outdoors. However, why not the Woodpeckers and the Chipmunks? 

After the first week, the two groups were brought together and pitted against each other in a series of contests specifically designed to produce winners and losers. Sherif’s theory predicted that when available resources (the prizes) were limited in zero-sum, winner-take-all competition, inter-group conflict would result.  

Sure enough, in defiance of ethical considerations, and not without a degree of deliberate goading by the experimenters, inter-group resentment was fomented and quickly escalated. The Eagles burned the Rattlers’ flag and the Rattlers retaliated by ransacking the Eagles’ cabin.  

Once hostility between the two groups had been established, it became difficult to eradicate. Fist fights between the boys erupted. Teamwork aimed at a mutually beneficial goal needed to be imposed before enmity dwindled. The experiment did have a happy ending, but it had to be engineered.  

The Robbers Cave experiment was not the first time Sherif had attempted to investigate inter-group conflict. As documented by Gina Perry in her book The Lost Boys, Sherif had run an earlier experiment with 24 boys at a summer camp outside Saratoga Springs in New York State.  

For the first two days in this experiment, the boys had not been separated. When Sherif divided them into two groups, he found it very difficult to generate conflict. In fact the two groups developed animosity towards the experimenters!  

At Robbers Cave, by keeping the groups apart for the first week, incipient fellow feeling was forestalled. Once this ingredient had been removed from the mix, it proved easy to get innocent, naïve schoolboys to turn on each other. 

Did Sherif beg the question? The fact that hostility resulted from an experiment specifically designed to foster competition, envy and resentment is hardly unexpected or revealing. Sherif was simply looking for trouble and he found it. He then finagled co-operation between the boys, and hostility disappeared.  

Could Sherif’s theory be summarised as ‘if you want harmony, let people get to know each other and encourage trust and co-operation; if you want discord, alienate people from one another and encourage suspicion and rivalry’? Would anybody have guessed it? 

These ‘theories’, if we can even call them that, are on a par with psychologist B F Skinner’s ‘laws’ about behaviour formulated in the 1930s. They are not totally invalid. They demonstrably do explain some behaviour, particularly in animals, but that does not mean that the theories should be fashioned into tools, like a spanner, that can be used to make people twist this way or that.  

They are at best insights to be shared. Give these insights to the people whom we wish to assist in leading more satisfying, productive lives, and let people become aware of the forces acting on them. Then, should people so desire, they can make their own choices off their own bat, and not be subject to clandestine manipulation. 

You can watch a short film about the Robbers Cave experiment here.

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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