Adonis Diaries

Archive for June 13th, 2022

The failed Robbers Cave State Park (Oklahoma) experiment done in 1954

The titular caves in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma were favored by American outlaws following the Civil War. The area’s most famous fugitive in residence was the legendary bandit Jesse James.

Note: Extracted from Quartz Weekly Obsession and edited for fluent narrative.


It’s the summer of 1954. Two school buses arrive at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Eleven and 12-year-old boys spill out of each.

They are all white, middle-class, and emotionally stable. (How they evaluated these boys are emotionally stable?)

They believe they’re embarking on a camping adventure. Their parents think the Rockefeller-funded camp has something to do with developing leaders.

Standard accounts of the Robbers Cave experiment tend not to reveal how much the boys were prodded into developing vitriol for their rivals.

That doesn’t mean, obviously, that tribalism doesn’t exist.

Several theories about the sources of inter-group conflicts, including Harvard-trained Muzafer Sherif social psychologist, are now supported by years of research that replicate the human tendency to favor people who belong to our in-groups.

And, importantly, as Sherif had proposed, a group’s relevance changes according to context

Research shows that we pick and choose which group matters most based on the situation. (Natural biases in human experiments)

But historian Rutger Bregman, who recently published Humankind: A Hopeful History, points out that the boys’ lack of fighting at Sherif Middle Grove camp supports increasingly popular theories by social psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionary scientists, and others that say humans are defined by our inclination to be friendly and helpful.

Perhaps it’s our ability to cooperate—and not the urge to dominate or kill—that has allowed us to create marvels of technology and medicine.

“The very dark truth that makers of reality TV found out in he beginning was that when you put people on a deserted island and you let them do whatever they want, nothing happens. They drink tea together and play games. It’s horrible for ratings.”

— Rutger Bregman, historian and author

But what neither the children nor their parents realize is that the 3-week camp is actually an experiment in social psychology by one of the field’s giants, the Harvard-trained Muzafer Sherif. The Rockefeller money is grant money, and the camp counselors are actually graduate students in psychology.

Sherif was obsessively focused on one topic: human tribalism.

He wanted to find the source of prejudiced behavior and brutality between groups.

In what became the famous Robbers Cave experiment, his researchers intentionally turned strangers into two tight-knit groups at war with each other.

But the fake camp leaders also led the two factions back to peaceful co-existence by giving them a task to complete together.

Sherif’s landmark study gave the world realistic group conflict theory, which holds that group conflicts arise when resources are scarce, demonstrating they are a product of circumstances, not warped personalities or innate human evilness.

But the extent to which Sherif and his confederates pulled the strings at Robbers Cave would be uncovered years later in The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave, by Australian psychologist and writer Gina Perry.

Using archived notes and audio tapes, Perry would also piece together what happened at Sherif first “failed” camp experiment one year earlier.

In that case, the group dynamics played out very differently, pointing to some hidden lessons in Sherif’s work.

So what does it all mean? Let’s link arms and follow this trail.

The experiments

Robbers Cave: The experiment was structured so that the boys would first bond with each other in separate clubs, adopting names and inventing their own subculture.

Sherif purposely recruited boys who were similar to each other so that when the conflicts began, it would be clear that the boys were fighting as two randomly created groups, and not because of racial, religious, or other differences.

Next the counselors introduced the Rattlers to the Eagles (Rattlers against Eagles), eventually pitting them against each other in a multi-day, multi-event competition for a set of bowie knives.

The boys squared off in tug of war, baseball, and other games, even competing to have the tidiest living quarters.

When necessary, the counselors introduced “frustration exercises.” For example, suggesting to the Eagles that they ​​dump​ buckets of​ mud inside the ​Rattlers’ cabin. Eventually the kids grew hateful, violent, and verbally abusive with each other.

In the experiment’s final stage, the boys were united through a series of projects.

In one, the researchers blocked the valve to the camp’s water tank. Everyone would have to work together to move piles of heavy rocks to re-establish access to the water supply. Reluctantly, they did, and soon all the boys were mixing and cooperating. There were no Rattlers or Eagles fighting over the prized knives, only a bunch of happy campers.

Middle Grove: For his 1953 “failed” camp study in upstate New York, Sherif had selected a similar cohort of boys, but he allowed them to get to know each other in the first week of camp.

Then the counselors divided the boys into two teams, separating any pairs that had bonded in that first week, often despite tearful protests.

The tournament and frustration exercises began, but the plan backfired.

The group—the Pythons and the Panthers, in this case—could see that the adults were trying to drive the boys to fight.

Soon, they trusted each other instead of the counselors and decided that the camp leaders had ransacked one team’s tents and lied about it.

“Maybe you just wanted to see what our reactions would be,” one camper said. Eventually, the boys confronted the adults, and the experiment ended.

Like many early social psychology studies, the experiments would likely be considered unethical today.

In The Lost Boys, Perry presents Sherif as a brilliant scholar, volatile drinker, and, ironically, autocratic leader whose early experiences drove his interests.

As political winds changed in the Turkey of his childhood, Sherif would have watched Greek and Armenian neighbors be demonized and deported.

He witnessed the murder of Turks, almost for sport, when Smyrna (now Izmir), where he went to boarding school, was occupied by Greece. (The Greeks occupied most of the seashore cities and dominated the economy before the WWI and after The Ottoman empire lost the war)

Decades later, he would find other psychologists equally eager to investigate intergroup dynamics following the horrors of World War II.

(In WWI, the Germans, de facto controlling Turkey, excited and planned for the Christian and Armenian sects genocide. Within 2 years, over a million were killed and transferred to other nations. The purpose was to transfer all the people who supported or might support Russia in this war close to the borders.



This short film about the Robbers Cave experiment features real audio and images from the study.

Note 1: Muzafer Sherif was born into a wealthy Muslim family in Izmir Province, Turkey, in 1906. A gifted student, he eventually attended Harvard and Columbia universities, finishing his PhD in psychology at the latter.

He married Carolyn Wood, a respected psychologist who co-authored his book about Robbers Cave.

Sherif dies in 1988 of a heart attack in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he lived. His obituary notes that the Robbers Cave experiment influenced psychologists’ understanding of conflict during the civil rights movement in the US.

Note 2: In 2020, a Pew Research survey finds that the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic led the residents of most wealthy nations (except the US) to feel more united.




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