In the summer of 1954, two groups of 8- to 11-year-old boys were taken to a summer camp in Oklahoma and pitted against each other in competitions for prizes. What started out as typical games of baseball and tug-of-war turned into violent night raids and fistfights, proving that humans in groups form tribal identities that create conflict.
This is the basic outline of a research study many are still familiar with today: the Robbers Cave experiment. But it’s only one part of the story.
My guest dug into the archival notes of this famous and controversial social experiment to find unknown and unreported details behind what really happened and why. Her name is Gina Perry and her book is The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment. We begin our conversation by discussing what the Robbers Cave experiment purported to show and the influence the experiment has had on social psychology since. We then discuss the similarities between head researcher Muzafer Sherif’s ideas about the behavior of boys in groups with those of William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, and how both men’s ideas were influenced by their personal experiences in war. We also dig into the general connection between children’s summer camps and psychological studies in the 19th century. Then turning to the Robbers Cave experiment itself, Gina shares how that experiment wasn’t Sherif’s first attempt at this kind of field study, and how it had been preceded by another experiment in which the boys turned on the researchers. She describes how Sherif and his assistants attempted to get different results at Robbers Cave by goading the boys into greater conflict and how they got the boys to reconcile after whipping them up into a competitive frenzy. At the end of our conversation, Gina talks about finding the boys who were in the experiment and what these now grown men thought of the experience, and we discuss whether or not there’s anything to be learned from Robbers Cave on the nature of group conflict.
- What was the Robbers Cave experiment and what was it trying to prove?
- What was the experiment’s ultimate influence on psychology?
- William Golding, The Lord of the Flies, and what boys in groups can teach us about human nature
- The war experiences of these famous experimenters
- The proliferation of summer camps and how they fostered experimental research
- Muzafer Sherif’s failed first experiment
- How did Sherif convince parents to let their boys partake of such experiments?
- How the Robbers Cave experiment unfolded
- The ways the boys leaned into cooperation versus competition
- Harnessing the power of a common cause
- How was Sherif’s initial report on the experiment received?
- The boys today — did they know they were part of an experiment?
- What can we ultimately learn from this study? Anything?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- the Milgram experiment
- William Golding and Lord of the Flies
- Muzafer Sherif
- Brat Camp
- The Science of Competition
- When to Compete and When to Cooperate
- Why Every Young Man Should Play a Team Sport
- The Robbers Cave Experiment by Muzafer Sherif
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In the summer of 1954, two groups of 8- to 11-year-old boys were taken to a summer camp in Oklahoma and pitied against each other in competitions for prizes. What started out as typical games of baseball and tug-of-war turned into violent night raids and fist fights, proving that humans in groups form tribal identities that create conflict. This is the basic outline of a research study many are still familiar with today, The Robbers Cave Experiment. It’s only part of the story. My guest dug in the archival notes of this famous and controversial social experiment to find unknown and unreported details behind what really happened and why. Her name is Gina Perry, and her book is The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment.
We begin our conversation by discussing what the Robbers Cave Experiment purported to show, and the influence the experiment has had on social psychology since. We then discuss the similarities between head researcher, Muzafer Sherif’s ideas about the behavior of boys in groups and those of William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, and how both men’s ideas were influenced by their personal experiences in war. We also dig into the general connection between children summer camps and psychological studies in the 19th century.
Then, turning to the Robbers Cave Experiment itself, Gina shares how the experiment wasn’t Sherif’s first attempt at this kind of field study and how it had been proceeded by another experiment in which the boys turned on the researchers. She described how Sherif and his assistants attempted to get different results at Robbers Cave by goading the boys to greater conflict, and how they got the boys to reconcile after whipping them up into a competitive frenzy. At the end of our conversation, Gina talks about finding the boys who were in the experiment, and what these now grown men thought of the experience. We discuss whether or not there’s anything to be learned from Robbers Cave on the nature of group conflict.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/robberscave.
All right, Gina Perry, welcome to the show.
Gina Perry: Oh, thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: You wrote a history of the Robbers Cave Experiment, an influential landmark social psychology experiment. It’s called The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment. For those who aren’t familiar with the Robbers Cave Experiment, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of what it was and what it purported to show?
Gina Perry: Sure. The exploration of the experiment is about a three week experiment at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma, obviously. What Sherif was trying to show was that if you bring two groups together and put them together, and in a competitive situation, that there will inevitably be conflict between them. There’ll be belittling of one group by the other. There’ll be negative stereotyping. This will lead, inevitably in his view, to some kind of violent altercation.
Particularly, what he was trying to show was that you can make this competition happen by putting groups in a situation where they’re competing for limited resources. And so what he did was he set these two groups up. The conflict unfolded during the time of the study. And then at the end of the camp, he brought the groups together and kind of forced them to cooperate. By forcing them to cooperate, he brought about harmony.
So what he was trying to show really was that if you can get people thinking about problems that are bigger than themselves, where they’re forced to work with people they would normally regard negatively or even as their enemies, you can establish peace and harmony. So it was really an experiment that was of its time. It was very much taking place in the context of the Cold War. That’s the kind of thing that you would read about in textbooks.
Brett McKay: What’s the influence that the experiment had on social psychology? Is it something that still gets cited today?
Gina Perry: Well, yes and no. I mean it’s a strange thing but it depends where you studied psychology and what particular text and experiments your teachers favored. This wasn’t something that occurred to me until I was well into writing this book, that often you’re taught curriculum at a university. For example, a psychology curriculum that’s being developed and has the influence of your teachers on it. And so I studied psychology here in Melbourne, Australia. Robbers Cave was never included in my studies. My daughter, however, it was in all her social psychology textbooks.
It’s not like something like Milgram’s Obedience Experiment, which is in every textbook. It’s very much about whether or not the textbooks you use include that particular study. But it is famous within the field.
Brett McKay: So the Robbers Cave Experiment, you talk about in the book, has some predecessors. There’s other … not even experiments but experiences where people saw that boys in groups acted in a certain way, particularly when there was conflict there. You talk about William Golding who was the author of Lord of the Flies. He actually had an experience with a group of boys that inspired the book. Tell us about that, and why did writers like Golding and social psychologists like Sherif think that boys, young children, could tell us about human nature on a board, general level.
Gina Perry: Well, Golding was a school teacher in England. He was a writer at that time. So, at the same time that he was teaching, he was also writing fiction. He took a large group of his students to this remote part of England, not far from the school where he taught. On Salisbury Plain, there’s this place called Figsbury Ring, which is like a flat-topped hill in the middle of Salisbury Plain. He took the boys up there and he dived them into two groups. He told them to … one group to defend the remains of an old fort up there, and the other group to attack.
I think the purpose of this was for him to observe and see what happens so that he could write about this in his own fiction. But he said that once he gave the instruction, he couldn’t believe the amount of violence that erupted between the boys, and how seriously they took this kind of make believe exercise.
For Golding, I think that really illustrated his view that human nature is ultimately flawed. In Lord of the Flies, he uses a quote … not even Lord of the Flies. But it was a quote from his fiction that I think really summarized his world view, which is that, “Man produces evil like a bee produces honey.”
So on that mound when the two groups of boys were fighting, I think Golding really saw a demonstration of that belief. Golding and Sherif were investigating these ideas around the same time. Golding, obviously, was through writing novels then through art. Sherif through science, if you like. They were interested in the idea of children as representative of human nature because I think they thought that children uncorrupted in the sense of they’re not as socialized as the rest of us. They haven’t learnt the rules and the norms. And they some how reflect human nature in its rawest form.
For them, they were able to and willing to draw a comparison between the behavior of young boys and people at large. Both of them were inspired, if that’s the right word, but both of them were very deeply influenced by their experiences, their personal experiences, of war. Golding had actually fought during World War II and been horrified by the experience. Sherif had experienced war. I discovered in looking into his background that he really had experienced war almost from the moment he was born until the time that he left his homeland, which was Turkey, as a young man. So both of them had experienced and seen firsthand incredible cruelty and violence. I think that was a major preoccupation for both of them. How does this come about?
Brett McKay: Well, and I think a difference between them that you pointed out earlier … Well, Golding said that humans by nature are evil. Sherif would say, “No, humans are actually good.” It’s just that he put them in a certain situation that will cause them to do terrible things.
Gina Perry: Yes. What was interesting to me was that even though this was downplayed in his own publications, Sherif was very definitely a Marxist. He really believed in the power of cooperation over competition. So he really believed that if you set the right conditions for a society, people will flourish and people will live in harmony. So he very much saw it as about the social conditions under which we live.
Brett McKay: More background to the Robbers Cave Experiment. I didn’t know this about summer camps in general, but summer camp from almost the beginning when the idea of summer camp came into being in America, like psychologists were there trying to figure out how can we design summer camp to help young people become well adjusted.
Gina Perry: That’s right. I found their whole history fascinating. The summer camp movement really began in the late 19th century. It was in response to a particular school teacher, again an educator. A man who felt that young men were spending too much indolent time over the summer holidays under the influence of their mothers. There was kind of an implication, I guess, that young men were at risk of becoming effeminate and useless because they were idle over the summer just doing nothing, nothing constructive in this school teacher’s eyes. So he set up the first summer camp. The notion was that he would get young boys out into nature, doing activities, learning chores. It was very much, I think, mirroring the idea that this is how the people lived in the days of the frontier. It was a character building exercise.
That theme of building spiritual strength and moral character has really always influenced I think. It’s a thing that runs through summer camps from the very beginning right up to programs like Brat Camp now where you have young people taken away to the wild and kind of tested to find their real moral strength. It seems to something that’s still persists. It’s a sort of romantic ideal of what happens when you put people … take them away from the urban environment and give them things to do that are hearty and good for them.
Psychologists got involved around the 1930s and ’40s because summer camps became really like a natural laboratory. You could study what activities were most effective in helping, for example, boys who were shy or not able to join in. How you could get children to develop the social skills they needed that they could then take back from summer camp to live a better life. So in the wake of World War II, the agenda for summer camp became how do we use summer camp to build the values of democracy? How do we use summer camp to build skills about teamwork and leadership and those kinds of things that make for a successful democratic nation?
And so that was the way in which Sherif first got involved was that someone that he knew invited him along to watch how psychologists were studying boys at a summer camp. But Sherif decided that he didn’t want to be an observer at someone else’s camp. What he’d do would be run one completely of his own. And that way he would have complete control of that environment.
Brett McKay: So that’s what he starts doing. That’s some good background, some back drop of what leading up to the Robbers Cave Experiment. The Robbers Cave Experiment, the one that got reported on, happened in 1954. But in the book, just the history of that, you kind of dig into the archives and the field notes and find that Sherif actually tried this experiment before, earlier in the ’40s, and it didn’t go as he planned and no one ever really … No one really knows about it. He didn’t write about it.
Let’s talk about that first experiment. Where was it at? How did it happen? What was the result of it?
Gina Perry: Well, he actually conducted three experiments. The Robbers Cave was the last one, but the Robbers Cave in a way was never planned. It was a last minute decision. So he conducted a first experiment in 1949 in Upstate New York. It was a very basic experiment. He was really just working out ideas. This first experiment was like a rough draft. It was just two groups of boys and brought them together in competition to see what would happen. What happened was that the two groups did develop very negative attitudes towards one another. And so that experiment ended really at that point. So he was kind of working things through.
The next experiment was supposed to be the final one. This was the big one. And yet as you say, there was no published reference to it hardly at all in Sherif’s writing, but lots of material about it in the archives. This was conduct in 1953. Again, in Upstate New York. In this experiment, he recruited a group of boys, 24 boys, and he took them to a summer camp just outside Saratoga Springs. He divided the two groups after the second day.
On the first day, he watched the boys, and he and a group, a team of his researchers, watched the groups of boys to see who was making friends and to see who was buddying up because these children didn’t know one another before they were taken to the camp. So, when he divided the boys up into two groups, he made sure that he separated the friends. This was important at this camp. Not as important as he realized, but this was a critical point.
He divided the one group into two competing groups. He kept them very separate. They were at different sides of the campsite, in separate tents, and the men kept them apart. Then he brought them together in a series of competitions like tug-of-war, baseball. And then they had things like cabin inspections, all sorts of games and competitions. He kept a scorecard in the mess hall so that the two groups could see which of the two teams was winning.
Then when he announced there was a wonderful prize for this winning team, and it was a series of very elaborate knives, one of each boy in the winning team, and a trophy. When he announced the winners of the team, that was when he expected the conflict to really come to a head because the losing team would be so outraged that they’d lost that there would be violence and his theory would play out in the wild.
What actually happened in that 1953 study, and you know I said it was a critical point that he separated groups of friends, was that the two groups did develop animosity towards one another during games, but, for example, whenever they finished a game of baseball, they would give three cheers for the losing team. Or, they would make sure that after a game they all went round and shook hands after the game was over. He found this kind of sportsmanship very … He found it disturbing because it was undermining his theory, but also he found it very difficult to get the groups to come to any kind of direct conflict.
And so, he and his team started doing things to the positions of one group, hoping that that group would blame the other. It was sort of a scapegoating exercise. For example, he would go into a tent and mess up all their things, and then hope that the other, that group would come back to their tent and be enraged and blame the others and a fight would erupt. Anyway, over a series of days the eruption never happened. It would always fizzle out. It was partly because those boys had made strong friends just in the first day, and they were feeling resentful that they’d been separated. It also meant that they wondered why they’d been separated, so they were very observant of the men. They’re always looking to the men to understand what was happening.
They were really looking for clues. Finally, the two groups were … on the night that the winners of the tournament were announced, one of Sherif’s team actually demolished one of the groups’ tents. Pulled out all their belongings, smashed things, trampled dirt through the tent, and this was meant to be the big moment. The other thing you have to remember is that Sherif only had a limited amount of time at this camp. He’d booked it for a certain amount of time. He had a certain amount of money. It was like the clock was ticking and they really had to get things happening. They had to fan the flames of this fight.
Anyway, the boys came rushing to the site of this demolished tent. But instead of blaming one another, they started talking. One group swore that they had nothing to do with the tent being demolished, and the other group believed them. So, they turned on the men. It was a kind of a mutiny. They refused to fight. They were steadfast in their cooperation with one another. Of course, Sherif was absolutely frustrated and enraged and canceled the experiment.
Brett McKay: Well, it sounds like his theory was kind of proven right. Right? There was a conflict. It was just the boys versus the counselors who were actually the researchers.
Gina Perry: That’s right. This is what’s so ironic for me. In all of these three studies that Sherif conducted was that he seemed unable to recognize that his own group of researchers, even though they pretended to be camp staff, they were adults. It was as if he was blind to their own influence as a powerful group in that camp. Yes, his own theory was proven.
In fact, what was ironic in that 1953 study was that the conflict erupted between the men running the camp, and they ended up having a head on confrontation on the night of the drama. So although the boys didn’t fight, the men certainly did.
Brett McKay: Well, something we need to talk about is the set up of the experiment. How did Sherif convince parents to send their boys to a camp where he would be trying to instigate conflict between boys? What did he tell them to sell them on this?
Gina Perry: Well, when I looked at the versions of the letters that he wrote between the first study in 1949 and then the final one in 1954, I noticed that he got better at being vague, and better at saying the sorts of things that would appeal to parents at that place and that time. It’s worth pointing out that he, in all three cases, he picked boys whose families would not normally be able to afford to send their children to camp. He targeted parents on lower income, and made the camp free. In particular, by the time the Robbers Cave study came around, the letter that he wrote to the parents talked about, really, and remember it was on notepaper that was headed Yale University, and in the instance of 1953. And then in 1954 it was the University of Oklahoma.
There was, obviously, an authority there about the association with the university that he was working for that worked in his favor. But he also played up the idea that this camp was about learning skills for leadership, which in a way, I guess, is not incorrect. But he certainly didn’t mention that it was an experiment. He talked about it being a study, but he didn’t talk about conflict or victimization or the separation of boys into, basically, tribes.
What’s also interesting was that by the time he was recruiting in Oklahoma, his graduate student, OJ Harvey, did the recruitment in Oklahoma City. OJ said that Sherif played a much more minor role at that point because he had a very heavy Turkish accent. OJ Harvey felt that would arouse people’s suspicions, mainly because there was, I guess, a lot of suspicion of foreigners at that time, and that it would be better if someone from Oklahoma did the contact with the parents. So, OJ Harvey, unusually, they didn’t do this in the other studies, but OJ Harvey actually went to the boys’ homes in Oklahoma City and met the parents. I think that personal approach made a big difference too.
Basically, the parents did not know it was an experiment. They were not aware that there would be an encouragement of conflict or violence. They were pleased that their boys had been selected and had this, what they saw as a terrific opportunity. What parent would turn that down?
Brett McKay: So there was deception. This wouldn’t happen today. Ethics would not allow you to do that, what he did, correct?
Gina Perry: No. There are ethics review boards now in place that mean that people, when they’re planning experiments, have to get approval from the university. So, no ethics review boards would not condone it today.
I’m always a bit weary of that argument because I always think, “Well, what about the men themselves? Surely, we don’t need external review boards to tell us what feels right and what feels wrong.” I think they were well aware of the ethical issues with their studies, but they chose to ignore them in favor of doing this research.
Brett McKay: Well, you mention that in the second experiment they had sort of a guy on staff, a researcher who was there, supposed to be the experimental or the conscious. Right? Be like, “Hey, this is sort of stepping the lines,” but in the third experiment, the final experiment, the Robbers Cave Experiment, that guy was not there. Let’s talk about that final experiment. Sherif was just desperate. His funding was from the Rockefeller Foundation. They were sort of hammering him like, “Hey, what happened to all that money we gave you on these experiments about group conflict?” And so he put together the Robbers Cave Experiment like on a lark. It was just completely improvised. What did he do different with this experiment compared to the previous experiment that he considered a failure and he didn’t talk about ever again?
Gina Perry: Well, I think what’s so interesting is that after that second experiment failed, he met with his two favorite graduate students, OJ Harvey and Jack White, both of whom were Native American students. They met around the campfire after the experiment had been canceled. They agreed that they would give it one last go, but only on the condition that Sherif was not in charge because he was too temperamental. He had way too much invested, and he was emotionally quite volatile.
What was interesting was that Robbers Cave was actually managed and run by OJ Harvey, who is from Oklahoma himself. OJ was a very good organizer. The Robbers Cave Experiment they ran on the smell of an oily rag. They had so little money left. They had to really cut corners. In the 1953 study, I think they had around 12 staff. At Robbers Cave they had four. They did improvise in the sense that it was an unplanned experiment, but in other ways OJ and the rest of them really did as much as they could to make Robbers Cave a success in their eyes as they called.
For example, instead of allowing the boys to mix together at the beginning of the experiment and then separating them, they brought the boys to the campsite at Robbers Cave on two separate days in two separate buses and kept them absolutely far apart so that neither group was aware that the other group was there. And each group felt like they owned the park. There was no one else there at the time, so they were climbing the rocks, they were exploring, they were swimming in the creek. They were doing all sorts of things in a small group of 12 believing that they kind of owned the place. So they developed a much stronger group identity before they were brought into contact with the second group.
The other thing the men really made sure of this time around at Robbers Cave was that they headed off any attempts by the groups to hold out a hand or cooperate with the other group. This was a problem, as I said, in the middle study. For example, I found in the notes that one of the groups at Robbers Cave, very early on in the camp, it was one boy’s birthday. The caretaker and his wife, Ida Blocksom was the woman who did the cooking with her sister at the Robbers Cave State Park. They’d made a birthday cake for this boy. The boy asked the men … By this stage they knew there was a second group in the park. The boy whose birthday it was asked the men if they could invite the other group in for the birthday celebration. The mens blocked that attempt saying, “No, the other group were busy.”
But the other group could hear this party happening. So you can imagine there’s a group of boys who were sitting out in the dark hearing the sounds of this lovely birthday party going on in the mess hall and they haven’t been invited. There was a natural sense of resentment because in a normal circumstances you would expect one group to include the other. So the men were much better at Robbers Cave at ensuring that the sorts of behaviors that had, they felt, derailed the middle experiment didn’t occur at Robbers Cave.
Brett McKay: So in this experiment they kept the two groups of boys separate at first before bringing them together for the competitions. And this time, the groups developed a more distinct group identity. Each team made their own shirts. They had their own flag. It seems like the antagonism and the competition between them was more intense too. Tell us what happened with that.
Gina Perry: You’ve been to Robbers Cave, and your listeners who’ve been Robbers Cave in summer know that it’s a extremely hot place.
Brett McKay: Yes.
Gina Perry: So this competition unfolded in very hot weather. It was a very intense few days because they were so many activities where they were competing with the boys. They kept the two groups neck and neck. And then on the night that the winners of the tournament were announced, one group, who were the losers, decided that they would conduct a night raid. It was after midnight.
The two groups were called the Rattlers and the Eagles. The Rattlers group decided that they were going to conduct a night raid on the Eagles. Now this is something that comes up a lot in summer camp. People conduct raids on one another. But this was a bit more serious in the sense that it was well and truly the middle of the night. The Eagles were asleep. The Rattlers descended on their cabin. They climbed through the windows. They were yelling and screaming. They were dressed with camouflage, dressed in camouflage. They terrorized the Eagles group. They messed up their cabin in a serious way and really left the Eagles group terrified and crying.
Interestingly, one of the reasons that the Eagles were so terrified was there was this incredibly bright light that went off just as the screaming began. That was because one of the men was with the Rattlers crew and he was taking photos of the raid. And so again, that was an indication to me of how the men somehow believed that they were invisible or I don’t know what they thought, but here they were accompanying the boys on a raid. That was the other striking thing to me about Robbers Cave was that their involvement in the conflict between the two groups actually gave the boys very strong messages about what they wanted the children to do.
On a normal summer camp where you would expect a camp counselor to say, “No, listen. A night raid is not on.” Or a camp counselor might say, “All right. Look, you can do a night raid but we’re going to give the other group a warning,” or whatever. This guy accompanied them, took photos, and basically stood by and watched as they vandalized one group and terrorized them. So the conflict really came to a head the next day. One group confronted the other. The boys, it just erupted into a huge fist fight, and the men had to pull them apart.
So in Sherif’s terms, at Robbers Cave, his theory had been proven. He described that experiment very much as if he’d watched natural behavior unfolding. But when I looked at the archival material and when I interviewed some of the boys and when I talked to OJ Harvey, I got a very different picture of that experiment. OJ Harvey himself said that Muzafer Sherif had a very distinct script in mind, and that it was his job to make sure that they delivered on that.
Brett McKay: Yes. I mean and the report, the final report, you get this idea that the boys just naturally, spontaneously started conflicting with each other and broke out in violence. But as you note and if you look at the research you notes, you can say, “Well, no. They’re kind of nudged in that direction by the researchers themselves.” I think even to the third experiment, they were sort of … while the researchers tried to prevent the boys from cooperating and extending good sportsmanship, they’d try to at the beginning. There’d be, like you mentioned the birthday party, but they’d always squash that and be like, “Well, that’s not going to happen. There’s a result we got to get and you got to give it to us.”
Gina Perry: Well, that’s right. And you know what was interesting was the boys would suggest things. So in the notes I found, for example, that the Eagles, after the night raid, they went to their counselor or their counselor, obviously, came to their cabin because he could probably guess that they were going to be wanting to talk to him about it because they’re all so upset. They said to him, “The other team should be penalized and disqualified from the competition for their behavior.” So they were actively suggesting ways to make sure that there were consequences for bad behavior. And for those boys, they were ignored. The men, obviously, did not take that on board.
Brett McKay: This is the second phase of the experiment. There’s this conflict. And then the third phase, the third part of Sherif’s theory was that if you give these conflicting groups a common cause you can actually bring them together again and unify them. How did he do that? He never got this far with the other experiments, so he was in uncharted territory.
Gina Perry: Totally uncharted. When I spoke to OJ Harvey about this, he said, “Look, we were just making it up as we were going along.” By that he meant they were working it out, just not … day by day really, as you say. So what they did was they announced one morning, after breakfast, that the water supply seemed to not be working. There was a problem and they needed volunteers to help them work out what was happening. I think all of the boys actually volunteered. But anyway, there was a water tank up on the hill above the mess hall that had a line that ran down to the hall itself.
The boys had to climb this rocky hill behind the mess hall. Again, a reminder it’s very hot in Robbers Cave. They’ve got very little water in their canteens because the water supply, supposedly has failed. So they’re hot and they’re thirsty. They’re having to move rocks off the line to actually test it to see if there’s a leak or what it is that is the problem. So they’re slowly making their way up this hill, and they’re working in two separate groups. But eventually, they get to the top of the hill and they find that there’s been a rock fall, and that the line has been buried and presumably damaged by this fall of rocks. Of course, the rocks were put there by the men the night before.
So the boys, again, in their separate teams are removing the rocks one by one. They realize, eventually, that if they work as a single group they’ll get the job done more quickly, they’ll get out of the heat, and they’ll be able to get fresh, cool water. So gradually, they start working together as a single group. This was the beginning or the blurring of the boundaries between the two groups. The beginning of the breaking down of the identification of one group, you know, the Rattlers feeling so strongly that they were Rattlers and the Eagles feeling so strongly that they were Eagles. And they became, eventually, this was over a number of days, this was the first of a number of activities that the men instigated.
For example, the next day they pretended that the truck had broken down and they need the boys to push. Again, all activities that were meant to involve what Sherif called a super ordinate goal. That is a problem that two groups have that is too big for them to solve as individual groups, so they have to come together for a solution. So the Robbers Cave had, if you like, a happy ending. The two groups dissolved. They reformed as one big happy group. And Sherif’s theory, again, was demonstrated. I read that slightly differently though because I think the boys were actually very relieved to be allowed to be cooperative children again, working together and having fun instead of having to take part in this competition where they must’ve been aware of this under current of anxiety and tension, particularly amongst the men.
Brett McKay: So the experiment in Sherif’s mind was a success. They wrote the book, the report. How was it received immediately when it was published?
Gina Perry: Once the Robbers Cave Experiment was over, Sherif wrote the book very quickly. It was a report of the experiment. He sent it out to psychologists around the country. It was very well received in the sense that I think a lot of people felt like it was an absolutely groundbreaking experiment. When you think that it was a field experiment conducted over a period of three weeks, and the fact that it seemed to work out Sherif’s theory so powerfully, it did have a big impact.
Brett McKay: So you, part of your research of the book, you wanted to find out what happened to the boys in this experiment. How did you find the boys that took part in the experiment? By now they’re in their, I guess, their late 60s, maybe 70s. Did they even know they were part of experiment and what did they feel like when they found out that it was … that summer camp was an experiment?
Gina Perry: Well, I found them one by one. There were some, for example, OJ Harvey remembered the names of a couple. And then once I met another one who remembered the names of another couple, I was able to track down some that way. But obviously, I didn’t have … I wasn’t able to contact all of them. But the ones I did contact, I was surprised when I did contact them because I thought I’d be interviewing them about their memories of the experiment, that they would tell me what had happened. But when I first contacted them it became very clear that they’d never been told it was an experiment.
In fact, they had more questions for me than I had questions for them in a way. They wanted to know all about it. They wanted to know how their parents had agreed. They wanted to know who was behind it. They really wanted to know what they were being tested for. And they kind of wanted to know whether or not they’d passed that test. That really shaped my research because I felt that I was actually uncovering a story for them as well as for myself and my readers because I was putting together a narrative that was richer and deeper than the one that Sherif produced.
If you read Sherif’s book about the Robbers Cave Experiment, it’s definitely written for people in psychology. As an account of the experiment, it’s a scientific report. It doesn’t answer the sorts of questions that those now adult boys have.
Brett McKay: When you ask them what they remembered about the camp experience, were their memories positive? Was it negative? Was it both? What did they think about the camp?
Gina Perry: I think it’s fair to say … I did interview boys who did the 1953 experiment as well as those who were involved at Robbers Cave. I think most of them would say that there were times when it was an unpleasant experience. For most of them, as I said earlier, it was their first experience of summer camp, so they didn’t really have that much to compare it to. Although the ones who had older brothers or sisters who’d been on camp did … they’d heard about camp and what was expected. But most of them had ambivalent feelings I’d say.
Some of them I spoke to had very happy memories of Robbers Cave, but they were happy memories about parts of the camp. One person I interviewed talked quite vividly about the joint activities that they did at the end. Of course, that’s not the way he thought about it necessarily. But after the problem with the water tank, the boys went on a trip to Heaveana. It was in the stage when they’re all one big group. One person described that truck journey sitting in the back of the truck with the dust flying up in their faces, all of them sitting together as quite a happy memory. Then on the other hand, there was also vivid memories in the Rattlers group of a boy who was a real bully. And a couple of the men still remembered him very well.
I was very struck by the amount that most of them remembered. Particularly, the Robbers Cave people that I spoke to, their memories were very vivid. That really added to the story from my point of view. But as I say, there was a sense of disquiet too. I mean if you can imagine if you get a letter from someone out of the blue, not only out of the blue, from the other side of the world, and that person’s telling you that you were in an experiment when you were a child and that they want to interview you about it. I mean you would feel a lot of mixed emotions I imagine. You’d feel excited, curious, but also perhaps a bit nervous about what had been involved.
And so that was part of my job really. I felt, in the end, that it became a story that I wrote for the participants in the experiment because … and this was something that came up for me with my Milgram book as well where I interviewed subjects, people who took part in Milgram’s experiment, is that so often in psychological research people are referred to as subjects, as if they’re faceless, nameless individuals. But these are people who volunteered their time, or in the case of the boys, didn’t volunteer their time but were participants in an experiment that gains fame or notoriety.
They have no control over what’s written about them or how they’re depicted. In both Milgram’s case and in Sherif’s, the subjects were depicted in very unfair ways I felt. Very misleading.
Brett McKay: All right, so to sum things up, Sherif believed that when groups are competing over resources, they strengthen their separate group identity and become antagonistic against other groups. But, they can be reconciled if they work together to address a bigger common problem. And while that might be true, the Robbers Cave study didn’t do a good job of proving it because it seems like, the way you described it, is that Sherif just orchestrated the study to confirm his theory. And what really happened in the experiments is the boys naturally wanted to cooperate all along, and it was researchers who goaded them into having more conflict.
So can we ultimately learn anything from the Robbers Cave Experiment? Did it give us any insight about why groups fight with each other? And if not, have we gained more insight about how that happens since the study?
Gina Perry: Well, it’s interesting. I struggled with this a bit myself. What can you conclude from it? As you say, you can conclude that adults can manipulate children to do things that they wouldn’t normally do. But on another level, I think what’s important, really important, about the Robbers Cave Experiment and especially when you compare it with social psychological research subsequently is that Sherif was really attempting to grapple with big problems. There was something about that big vision that I think is really worth holding onto. We do want to do understand and we should try and understand how are these that people develop animosity and hostility towards other groups in their community, whether it’s on the basis of skin color or religion or gender, and looking at ways to break that down is really important.
I don’t want to throw that away. I think that’s really important. I think that I’m not so sure that that research has advanced necessarily though because we still have the same issues today. But I still think it’s worth, really, really worthwhile investigating. And in a way, despite my reservations about the participants in the research, I think that Sherif’s commitment to investigating that issue is really worth celebrating.
Brett McKay: Well, Gina, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Gina Perry: I’ve got a website. It’s www.gina-perry.com. There is a hyphen between the Gina and the Perry, or a dash.
Brett McKay: Well, fantastic. Gina Perry, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Gina Perry: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Gina Perry. She is the author of the book The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment. It’s available Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about Gina’s work at her website gina-perry.com. That’s Gina with a G. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/robberscave where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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