Not quite Alibaba: Robber’s Cave Experiment

Muzafer Sherif, an American psychologist of Turkish heritage, made a contribution to psychology via his Realistic Conflict Theory. This theory states that group conflicts, stereotypes and prejudices are the result of competition for resources.

So it’s sort of caveman group 1 meets caveman group 2, all fighting for the same food and other resources, and deciding that the other group is the enemy and need to be hated on.

Sherif performed the famous Robber’s Cave experiment to support his theory.

Unfortunately, Robber’s Cave was not a pirate cove, or Alibaba’s hangout, but it was a state park in Oklahoma. The experiment itself involved two groups of 12-year-old boys, totaling 22 boys.

The boys were all from white middle-class backgrounds, from two-parent Protestant homes, and had no relation or connection to each other. In other words, they were all strangers to each other. The boys were randomly assigned to one of two groups, and each group was unaware of the other group’s existence.

Then, as separate groups, a bus picked them up in the summer of ’54 and took them to a fake summer camp at a 200-acre Boy Scouts camp in Robbers Cave State Park. Even at this state park, the groups were kept separate from each other, but were encouraged to get to know each other as two individual groups via common goals that required discussion, planning and execution.

During the first phase, the two groups did not know of the other group’s existence. Therefore, the boys developed an attachment to the group they belonged to during the first week of camp. They established their own cultural norms via activities such as hiking and swimming. They even chose names for their groups (The Eagles and The Rattlers), and had t-shirts and flags with their group name.

Then came the Competition stage. Over the course of 4-6 days, friction between the two groups was to occur. Basically, there was a turf war.

In this Competition stage, the two groups were brought into competition with each other, such as via baseball, tug-of-war, etc. with prizes like trophies. Individual prizes were also given out to the winning group.

Now, the Rattlers, confident boys that they were, were absolutely confident that they would be the victors. They spend a day discussing the contests, and improving their skills on the ball field, where they were bold enough to put up a “Keep Off” sign. In other words, they set up their own territory. The Rattlers even went so far as to make threatening remarks about what would happen if The Eagles bothered them.

Sherif built in situations that frustrated one group over the other, such as having one group get delayed going to a picnic so that by the time they arrived, the other group had eaten all the food.

Now of course, the prejudice began verbally, with name-calling and taunting. As the Competition phase continued, the verbal abuse became more physical, with The Eagles burning the flag of The Rattlers. The day after, The Rattlers retaliated by ransacking The Eagles’ cabin, stealing private property and overturning the beds. The researchers had to separate the boys because they became so violent with each other.

There was then a 2-day cooling off period, where the boys were instructed to characterize the two groups. Unsurprisingly, each boy described his own group in more favorable terms than the other group.

The results of this experiment indicated that Sherif’s Realistic Conflict Theory was correct; inter-group conflict can produce prejudice and negative behavior.

Now, a major ethical concern with the experiment was deception: the boys were not told of the nature of the experiment, nor were they protected from harm, either psychological or physical, to the best of the researchers’ abilities. The sample was also biased: middle-class, white, and young, the sample is hardly powerful enough to generalize to larger groups, such as nations.