The Current

Exploring the dark side of a widely-celebrated psychological experiment

Author Gina Perry explores Muzafer Sherif's famous 1950s experiment in "realistic conflict theory," where unknowing young boys were driven to conflict, in an effort to see if peace could then be engineered. Perry argues the experiment has a dark side, and should be considered in its full context.

The Robbers Cave Experiment is lauded for demonstrating that conflict can be overcome by teamwork

At age 10, Doug Griset was an unwitting subject in a well-known psychological experiment. Gina Perry writes about the study in her book The Lost Boys. (Submitted by Doug Griset/Greystone Books)
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A judge who was part of a group of boys unknowingly subjected to an experiment in "realistic conflict theory" in 1953 remembers how they were goaded into competing with each other — with a knife offered as the grand prize to the winners.

"They had it up on the mantel in the little dining area where we all ate, and this was going to be the ultimate prize to each of the 12 members of the winning team," said Doug Griset, who was an unwitting participant in the experiment as an 10-year-old.

"I kind of remember the other kids feeling the same way, that this was gold. And that is so vivid that I think I can see it in my mind 60 years later."

The experiment

The study, known as the Robbers Cave Experiment, was the brainchild of Turkish-American social psychologist Muzafer Sherif. The study was framed as a three-week boys' summer camp, with one hosted in Middle Grove, New York in 1953 and a followup at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma in 1954.

Decades after the experiment, Doug Griset, pictured here with his wife June, became a judge. (Submitted by Doug Griset)

Sherif focused on how the dozens of boys — all between 10 and 12 years old — interacted with one another in a group setting during different manufactured scenarios. The researcher's goal was to demonstrate realistic conflict theory, which states that intergroup hostility is a result of competition, and that such conflict could be resolved if a group worked together to achieve a common goal.

"[The] theory says that conflict comes about between groups of people, not because it's part of our human nature, but because when you put groups of people together competing against one another, hostility and stereotyping is inevitable and — hostility and violence is a result of that," said Gina Perry, author of The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment.

The boys were split into teams and offered the ultimate prize — a knife that displayed in the centre of their dining hall — upon beating their opponents in various challenges.

The researchers, posing as camp staff, worked to sow discord among the boys.

Perry cited one example wherein one of Sherif's assistants tore down a tent that one of the teams was staying in, trampling the campers' belongings into the ground. When the boys returned to the campsite, they presumed the opposing team had destroyed their campsite.

Later on, the boys were encouraged to cooperate in order solve a problem as a team, which they did, thus appearing to prove Sherif's theory.

Re-thinking the ethics

Sherif is largely remembered for the apparent success of this study, and its findings that conflict can be overcome by teamwork and cooperation. In the context of a post-Second World War era, this message was embraced for its positive outlook.
Gina Perry is an Australian writer and psychologist. (Chris Beck)

 

"It was a very optimistic message for its time because it said peace could be engineered," said Perry.

Griset, however, doesn't remember the Robbers Cave Experiment in such a pleasant light.

"What they did, meaning the counsellors, was set up a plan to prove a point rather than letting circumstances play out and see what happened and what point was proven," he said.

"They had an idea that they wanted us to fight each other, and they did everything they could to create that situation … I would say smart adults manipulating 10 and 11-year-old children — way too easy."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Howard Goldenthal. 

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