Between 1949 and 1954 two social
psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif collaborated with
graduate students to hold a series of experiments to test one of Dr. Sherif’s
ideas, known as realistic conflict theory. This having to do with inner group
conflict, stereotypes and prejudices. The most famous and significant of his
experiments took place in 1954 at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma.
Sherif’s main idea was that conflict arises between groups when they’re
competing for limited resources. this hypothesis had important
implications as the Second World War had recently ended. The experiments involved
22 children between the ages of 11 and 12 none of them knew each other
previously and all came from similar backgrounds: middle class, white and
Protestant. The experiment had three stages. The first being a bonding stage.
Before the two groups were made aware of each other they were encouraged to bond
and create social norms by engaging in activities such as swimming and hiking
Here the group’s took names, the Eagles and the Rattlers, and developed their own
cultures and cultural norms. The next stage was the competition stage, lasting
four to six days in this stage there was to be friction between the groups and as
such a series of competitions were arranged. These competitions included
baseball, tug-of-war and touch football among others. The winners would receive a
trophy, medals and pocket knives there was no alternative prize for the losers.
The Rattlers who had developed a norm of toughness and aggression became
emphatically confident in their success. They put rattlers flags on the baseball
field and made threats about bothering them. The researchers then manipulated
situations where one group would gain at the cost of the other.
What started as verbal aggression between the groups soon escalated
further. After one of the baseball games the Eagles burned the Rattlers flag
next day the Rattlers raided the Eagles cabin, flipping beds and stealing
personal items. Soon fistfights would break out and the researchers had to
physically separate the children. After the end of the conflict period, where it
was announced that the Eagles were the winners,
there was a reducing friction period. The groups were asked to characterize the
other group and it was found that there were profoundly negative
characterizations, while holding their own group in high esteem. During this time the two groups were
brought together to engage in non-competitive activities. Sherif
believed that simple contact between the groups would not reduce friction. Instead
there would need to be common superordinate goals to accomplish. In one
event the boys were to watch a movie together, but had to chip in money of
their own. They worked together to decide the splitting of the money. They also had
to work to fix an issue with a water tank and the water supply at camp, which
the researchers had arranged. Likewise, one of the trucks delivering
food became stuck and had to be pulled out by the children working together. At this point the kids had come together,
no longer as enemies but as allies with a common goal.
Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Sherif had successfully demonstrated realistic
conflict theory. Normal boys became their own cultures and showed that conflict
for limited resources can lead to prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory
behaviors. While simple coexistence did not eliminate these prejudices, working
together toward something better for both groups did.