In the summer of 1954, 22 young boys recruited from the Oklahoma City area under the guise of “research on leadership” spent three weeks at then-Camp Tom Hale at Robbers Cave State Park near Wilburton. They were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonize each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic and most controversial studies: The Robber’s Cave Experiment.
In her 2017 book, “The Lost Boys” Gina Perry writes, “Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, disguised as the camp caretaker, scribbled excitedly in his notebook, hardly able to tear his eyes away from the boys rolling and punching and kicking. Here was the proof for the theory that he’d been working on for years, that normally upstanding and fair-minded eleven-year-olds could turn to into brutal savages. An observer coming across the scene, he later wrote proudly, would never have known that these disturbed, vicious…wicked youngsters were actually boys who were the ‘cream of the crop’ in their communities.”
Born in Turkey, Muzafer Sherif built a productive career as an experimental social psychologist. Upon receiving his master’s degree at Istanbul University, he continued his studies in the United States, earning a master’s degree at Harvard in 1932 and a PhD at Columbia in 1935. After spending the World War II years (1939-1945) in Turkey, Sherif returned to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton and Yale. He then became a research professor of psychology at the University of Oklahoma and later a distinguished professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University
The goal of the study was multifold: to see how quickly group identity could become established among strangers, how fixed or flexible that identity was, how it would play out in competitive settings with other groups, and how the group conflict dynamic could be mitigated after the fact. The experiment itself was carried out in three parts. First, the two groups were allowed to bond, in isolation from one another. They were assigned activities that held a common appeal for group members and that depended on the collective effort of the group as a whole. Stage two was the moment of more direct competition and frustration.
Then came the first actual meeting, when the Rattlers and Eagles were brought face to face on the baseball diamond for the first time. It didn’t take long for the initial antipathy to devolve into nasty name-calling. As it happens, that name-calling was the least of what was to take place.
The relations between the Rattlers and the Eagles degenerated rapidly. The Eagles burned the flag that the Rattlers had so proudly erected on the baseball diamond. The Rattlers retaliated by burning the Eagles’ own flag. The Eagles, in turn, tore up the Rattlers’ second flag. This time, the Rattlers hit back with a nocturnal raid on the Eagles’ cabin, in “commando style.” They turned over beds, ripped mosquito netting, stole one boy’s jeans and a stack of comic books. The Eagles were none too pleased. When the Rattlers were eating dinner, they returned the raid—but this time, they upped the ante, bringing with them sticks and bats to wreak maximum havoc.
They then filled their socks with stones to use as weapons, on the chance that the Rattlers would soon plan a counter-raid of their own. At the end, the Eagles won the tournament. But during their triumphant celebration, the Rattlers struck back, at raid and defeat both: they again invaded the Eagles’ cabin—and proceeded to not only wreck the place, but steal the prize knives and medals.
The two sides then met for a fight. But before it could get as rough as the boys had been planning, the staff once again stepped in, pulling the offenders back and forcing both sides to withdraw. It was a psychology experiment, after all, not a gang. Stage two had concluded successfully. Now, it was time for the final part: could the experimenters succeed in reducing the friction that had risen to such great—and violent—heights?
First, they tried out the “mere contact” theory: that simply letting the two groups interact on an equal footing would, over time, repair the breach. No such luck. Though outings were planned, movies watched, meals served at the same time, the Rattlers and the Eagles refused to associate. The closest they came to interacting was throwing food and papers—in equal proportion to flying epithets—at one another in the dining hall.
Sherif concludes on an optimistic note: perhaps the same tools used to bring the boys back together can help in intergroup conflict on a broader scale. He writes, Tools and techniques can be put to the service of harmony and integration as well as of deadly competition and conflict. Tools, in themselves, are not opposed to cooperation among individuals using them. It is the individuals as group members who put the tool to use in their opposition to other groups.
Groups form easier than they fall apart—and they have many an impetus to form on their own, without so much as a hint at experimental manipulation. Over and over, the effects of the process play out in things as weighty as those Sherif mentions, like international conflict, and as comparatively minor as how we approach literature.
In 1987, The Robbers Cave Experiment was re-released in a book format with credit given to Sherif and all of his University of Oklahoma research assistants. In 1967 at a talk at the University of North Dakota, he described the Robbers Cave study as “the crowning one, done where the best things are done in Oklahoma by Indians.” All of his research assistants on this project were of Native American descent most prominently OJ Harvey who was Choctaw.
In 2017, Gina Perry’s book, “The Lost Boys” was released which explores the “back-story” of the Experiment and reads more like a detective novel than a psychological history book.
Quite coincidental “Lord of the Flies,” the book focusing on a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island and their disastrous attempt to govern themselves by Nobel Prize winning British author William Golding, was also released in 1954 — the same year as the Robbers Cave Experiment.