Conflict Between Groups: The Robber’s Cave Experiment

02.10.2020 |

Episode #7 of the course Psychology of evil by Psychology Insights Online


Welcome back! If you’ll recall, in the first lecture, we discussed different viewpoints on how we can examine the causes of evil behavior. Up till this point, we have focused on the dispositional perspective, that is, personality traits that a person possesses, which makes them more likely to harm others. Over the next several lectures, we will examine the situational perspective. In other words, what situations can lead ordinary people to do mean or horrible things?

Social psychologists have studied how groups influence the behavior of individuals and vice versa. Human beings are a highly social species, and we have an innate need to form groups. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our need for socialization evolved as a basic survival mechanism. For our ancestors, being part of a group dramatically increased their chances of survival and passing on their genes. In contrast, being a “lone wolf” was a perilous prospect. Unfortunately, our need to form groups also leads us to categorize others in simplistic ways.

Ingroups are a collection of people who we identify with and often share similar features to us. In contrast, outgroups are a collection of people who we don’t identify with and who are different than us in some way. We are all susceptible to the Outgroup Homogeneity Effect, which describes a tendency to assume that members of our ingroups are especially similar to us and that people in outgroups are fundamentally different. Worse still, there are many examples throughout history of dehumanizing outgroups; that is, seeing and treating others as less than human. This “us” versus “them” mentality is known to contribute to serious societal problems such as stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination.

According to the Realistic Group Conflict Theory, hatred and discrimination toward outgroups often result from competition over a scarce resource. The animosity people feel towards outsiders becomes amplified if it is believed that they are taking something valuable away from you. The classic study on this type of intergroup conflict is the Robbers Cave Experiment conducted by psychologist Muzafer Sherif and colleagues in the 1950s.

In 1954, twenty-two 11-year-old Caucasian boys attended a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. The boys were all strangers to one another, and they also didn’t know they were part of an experiment. When the boys arrived, they were each randomly assigned to one of two groups. The groups were separated from one another and lived in different parts of the camp; they didn’t realize that the other group existed. During the first week of the experiment, the boys bonded through activities such as hiking and sports. Sherif allowed the boys to choose the name of their group. One group chose the “Rattlers” and the other the “Eagles”. They were then provided with shirts and flags representing their group.

Next, the two groups were brought together for a series of competitions such as tug-of-war, baseball, touch football, and a treasure hunt. The winning group would receive medals and prizes, whereas the losing group would come away empty-handed. The goal was to create competition over a scarce resource. Even before they competed, the Rattlers displayed a sense of superiority by proclaiming that they were going to win. They even went so far as to plant their flag on the baseball field and to warn the Eagles not to touch it.

Through competition, Sherif was able to engineer animosity between the groups. For instance, the boys eventually burned each other’s flags, ransacked the other group’s cabin, and rioted in the dining hall after a food fight. Remember, these groups were randomly created, yet the hatred they began to display toward the “other” was swift and severe.

In the final phase, Sherif attempted to reverse the group animosity through cooperation. He realized that simply bringing the groups together on friendly terms wasn’t enough; they instead had to give the boys a superordinate goal. A superordinate goal is a shared goal that requires cooperation to achieve. In this case, Sherif created fake crises such as needing to fix a water tank and pulling a broken down truck up a hill. After completing the tasks, the boys became friends and even chose to ride on the same bus home together.

It should be noted that the study likely had flaws. A 2018 book by psychologist Gina Perry indicates that the boys may have been persuaded by the researchers to be more aggressive. That said, subsequent studies of intergroup conflict have also found support for the role of competition in hatred toward outgroups.

In the next lesson, we are going to examine certain situations that can lead to evil behavior. See you then!


Recommended book

The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment by Gina Perry


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