In the summer of 1954, a bus pulled into Robbers Cave State Park in the mountains of rural Oklahoma. The dozen 11-year-old boys on board, all of them strangers to each other, craned to catch a glimpse through the dusty windows of what for most of them was their first summer camp. For a week they explored the park, swam in a creek, and hiked in and around mountain caves. They didn’t know that a couple of days later, a second group arrived, also believing they had the park to themselves.
Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his team, disguised as camp counsellors, watched each group bond and form its own identity. The two groups named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles, each with flag, anthem, dress code, leaders and followers, as well as shared rules and standards. “They staked out their territory,” Sherif’s research assistant, O.J. Harvey, told me. “Everything was ‘our’ – ‘our hideout’, ‘our creek’.”
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