The Robbers Cave Experiment


Back in the day, bizarre experiments were par for course, particularly in the field of psychology. One of these bizarre experiments was masterminded by Muzafar Sherif. Sherif was trying to prove the principles of realistic conflict theory. The theory is that separate groups that have opposing goals or have to compete for limited resources will inevitably become hostile with each other. To prove this point, Sherif pitted 22 boys, ages 11 and 12 and split into 2 groups, against each other. In other words, he fixed it so the two groups would get overly competitive.

The experiment consisted of a three-week camping scenario. Boys were given no contact with their parents throughout the experiment. For the first week, the boys were placed with their respective group and given activities that built camaraderie among them. Neither group had any idea the other existed. At the end of that week, the group saw each other from a distance.

Week two was perhaps the worst of the weeks. The groups were put into intense competition with each other. Whichever team one would get a group of coveted prizes, while the losers got nothing. This put the boys into hostile mode. There was only one set of prizes and each group was determined to get it. Sherif noted a lot of name-calling and hostility at this point. One team even burned the flag of the other team.

The last week of the experiment, the researchers put all of the boys together and had them work as one team toward a common goal. This seemed to restore their natural social behavior and some of them even made friends with members of the opposing team. So, as long as you make them work together at the end, it is cool to purposely make 22 adolescent boys go at it Lord of the Flies style.