In 1954, a group of boys attended a remote summer camp where they were split into two groups, and encouraged to bully, harass, and demonise each other. The results would make history as one of social psychology’s classic — and most controversial — studies: the Robbers Cave experiment.
Conducted at the height of the Cold War, the experiment officially had a happy ending: the boys reconciled, and psychologist Muzafer Sherif demonstrated that while hatred and violence are powerful forces, so too are cooperation and harmony. Today it is proffered as proof that under the right conditions warring groups can make peace. Yet the true story of the experiments is far more complex, and more chilling.
In The Lost Boys, Gina Perry explores the experiment and its consequences, tracing the story of Sherif, a troubled outsider who struggled to craft an experiment that would vanquish his personal demons. Drawing on archival material and new interviews, Perry pieces together a story of drama, mutiny, and intrigue that has never been told before.
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’.”
The full article can be found (behind a pay-wall) here.
The Cummings Center for the History of Psychology has released the third episode of its 5 Minute History Lesson series. This latest episode explores the Robbers Cave experiment undertaken by Muzafer and Carolyn Wood Sherif. The full episode is embedded above and available on the Cummings Center’s YouTube channel, along with other episodes in the series.
This June, following a successful Cheiron meeting in Dallas, Texas two of AHP’s bloggers (Jacy Young and Jennifer Bazar, the latter also of FieldNotes) along with Kelli Vaughn-Johnson traveled to Robbers Cave State Park in Southeast Oklahoma. Our goal was to track down the Boy Scouts camp used as the site of the now infamous 1954 Robbers Cave experiment and see what remains nearly 60 years later.
In the summer of 1954 psychologist Muzafer Sherif, along with a group of research assistants posing as camp personnel, brought a group of twenty-two eleven and twelve year old boys to Camp Tom Hale in Robbers Cave State Park. The goal of this study, like the two conducted before it in Connecticut and New York State, was to induce and observe intergroup conflict and cooperation. To do so, Sherif and his colleagues instituted a three stage plan. In stage one, the boys were split into two groups (eventually known as the Eagles and the Rattlers) and encouraged to form strong in-groups. Stage two involved initiating competition between the groups through a tournament that saw the the Eagles and Rattlers compete in activities such as baseball and tug-o-war (not to mention various acts of sabotage by the researchers). Once the groups were sufficiently hostile toward each other (coming to refer to those in the other group as “stinkers,” “braggers,” and “sissies,”) the third and final stage was initiated. The aim of this stage was to reduce conflict between the groups. This was done by introducing superordinate goals, which could only be achieved if both groups worked together. These goals included restoring the water supply to the camp and moving the broken down camp truck.
Although conducted on a relatively small scale, Sherif intended the study to have far reaching consequences. It is was his hope that in experimentally inducing both intergroup conflict and cooperation a better understanding of the roots of prejudice and discrimination would be achieved and, more importantly, that insight into ameliorating both would result. Conducted in the post-war era, the Robbers Cave study was an attempt to put psychology to work in the service of world peace. You can read the full account of the study in Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment by Muzafer Sherif, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif.
On the day we visited Robbers Cave the temperature was – as our luck would have it – just shy of a thousand degrees. Despite the heat, we perserved in our goal of tracking down what remained of the 1954 camp, using Sherif’s map of the experiment site (below, numbers in red our addition) as our guide. To be fair, this undertaking it not completely original. In 2012 Gene Perry and Gina Perry (no relation), traveled to Robbers Cave for much the same purpose (you can read an account of that trip here). Unfortunately, according to our reconstruction of the site, the one cabin featured in their story was not in fact used as part of Sherif’s Robbers Cave study.
After hiking up and around Robbers Cave itself (1), and visiting the Stone Corral (2), we made our way past a parking lot and through a field to explore a series of buildings. Although the campsite was occupied, the family renting it out was nice enough to allow us to poke around a bit as we tried to reconstruct the layout of 1954 campsite. Below, numbered to correspond with Sherif’s map, are the buildings and locations we were able to identify. Where possible we’ve paired photographs from the original study with images of the camp today. By far our favourite pairing is the Rattler cabin past and present (4), where the stone facade from 1954 clearly matches that of the cabin as it stands today (although the windows appear to have been changed over the years). Altogether we were able to track down nine locations, including both the Eagle (7) and Rattler cabins, as well as the dock (8) and dam (9). Not wanting to travel too far off the beaten path, and more than a little warm by this point, we skipped venturing past Robbers Cave in search of the Water Tank, Pump House, and Reservoir. During our hunt we saw no sign of the Upper Camp or Athletic Field, but were admittedly overheated and slightly cranky by the end so did not put as much effort into this search as we might have otherwise. The lure of an air conditioned car was strong. On the plus side, we have a great excuse for planning a return trip one day – just preferably at a cooler time of year.
In 1954 at a small national park in rural Oklahoma, Turkish-American psychologist Muzafer Sherif brought two groups of 11-year-old boys to a summer camp. The boys, from Oklahoma city, arrived at the camp excited at the prospect of three weeks outdoors. What they didn’t know and what they were never told was that their behaviour over the next three weeks would be studied, analysed, discussed and used in theories about war, interracial conflict and prejudice for generations to come.
Almost 60 years since it was conducted, it’s still cited in psychology textbooks today. But what’s less well known is that the Robbers Cave was Sherif’s third attempt to generate peace between warring groups. The earlier studies were the 1949 ‘Happy Valley Camp’ study in Connecticut, and the second was his 1953 ‘Camp Talualac’ study.
‘Inside the Robbers Cave’ tells the story of two of the three studies. Producer Gina Perry’s research unearths a tale of drama, failure, mutiny and intrigue that has been overlooked in official accounts of Sherif’s research.
The program features original archival audio from recordings made during 1953 and 1954.
The program Inside Robbers Cave can be heard online here. Perry also discusses her research for the project on her blog here.
The Oklahoma focused This Land Press has published a online piece about the Robbers Cave experiment. “A Week with the Boys” details the work of social psychologists, and husband and wife, Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif who studied in-group formation and behavior in a group of boys in the 1950s. As the article describes,
With grant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sherifs had reserved an isolated Boy Scout campground….It was an ideal location for the Sherifs’ research. They could study small groups in situations that were carefully manipulated, yet more realistic than a psychology lab. The eleven and twelve-year-old boys picked for the camp were carefully selected to have similar race, religion, class, and family backgrounds, so there would be no major reasons for conflict besides those introduced by the experimenters. They brought only one boy from each school so that none would know any of the others beforehand. With a homogenous group of young boys in an isolated environment, they hoped to exclude the variables of race, class, and history to uncover a more pure example of human conflict. The psychologists went to great lengths to keep the boys from knowing they were in an experiment. (Research ethics were less strict at the time.) The Sherifs and their assistants posed as ordinary camp staff, and they took down notes only when the children were not present. Hidden tape recorders were scattered throughout the campgrounds, and when the kids first arrived, staff members acted like shutter bugs, conspicuously taking pictures of everything they saw, so this would not attract attention later. Muzafer himself played the role of the camp janitor.